The human mind can’t process all this news. We feel dazed. A knot in the stomach. A kind of dark cloud has settled over the country. Orlando. Alton Sterling. Dallas. Philando Castile. Who’s next? and Where?
I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody has said about these horrors, “Our thoughts and prayers go out…” I’m a pastor; obviously I’m an advocate of praying. But I’ve tried to get inside God’s head and heart, and I wonder what God makes of our “thoughts and prayers.” God is grieving, to be sure. But I wonder if God wonders what we are looking for. Back in Bible times, the people were praying during national calamities. God’s response? “These people draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). The people gathered for special worship services and sang hymns — prompting God to say “I hate your festivals and take no delight in your assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:20). And why? If God didn’t want songs and prayers what did God want? The very next verse in Amos explains it all: “But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
I can’t know how God feels about our “thoughts and prayers.” But I am positive God would be far more pleased if we would open our eyes, lift up our heads, get up off our knees, and go and do something. How pointless is it to continue to shudder over the news, and then ask God for comfort, when we aren’t doing anything to alter the conditions under which these killings continue to happen?
Why do these things happen? It’s no one thing. It’s a lot of things. But we get derailed, because somebody somewhere always has some vested interest in one of the things, so each one gets shot down (literally) and nothing changes. It is the whole toxic mess of woes that bedevils us. No one I know is optimistic things will change. But somewhere inside each of us, and in our collective national psyche, aren’t we “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12)? And what is hope anyhow? Not a naïve assumption things will just perk up tomorrow, or the more naïve assumption that our prayers will cause God to do a little razzle-dazzle magic and fix things for us. St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see to it that they don’t remain the way they are.”
We prisoners of hope have to end our prayers, or find what the end of our prayers ought to be, which is deciding with great courage to do something. Something is profoundly wrong with regard to race in America. We can toss blame back and forth. But when will we engage in the long labor of listening, building trust, and insisting on equal treatment before the law? Something is terribly wrong about guns. Oh, the rights people leap forward and warn us society would crumble without even more guns! But what we’re doing now most clearly isn’t working.
Something is flat out crazy about the entertainment industry and our addiction to it. We are appalled by violence in the streets — but we clearly have a taste for it, since we flock in to movies and stare dumbly at TV shows where the shooting is constant.
Something is insanely wicked about government. Gridlock is too nice a term for what we’re saddled with. Laws and policies need changing, but one side is hell-bent on destroying any good idea the other side might happen to have. Something is embarrassingly woeful about our political process. We vote for the loudest, most shrill people who feed our fears and prejudices. Isn’t it conceivable that we might say Amen after our prayers and seek out leaders who are wise and good, who appeal to the best in us?
Something is out of kilter economically. Equal opportunity is a vain notion. White privilege is real, although whites can’t see it. Society is arranged for the benefit of white people. If you’re white and want to rise up and stomp on me for saying this, fine — but our denial of white privilege isn’t getting anybody anywhere. What if, for a change, we actually listened to people who aren’t white and gave them at least a little benefit of the doubt? And something is way out of sync with our education system. Educational equity is a pipe dream right now. We have settled for unequal education, and then we are surprised by the long-term results.
Something is killing us from the inside — and that is fear. Terrorists around the world try to induce fear. But we are clustering around fear ourselves quite well without their help. News media and pundits and politicians and just everybody fan the flames of fear. And there is a lot to be afraid of. But is it possible to stand up to our fears, to expose them and find ways to build a world that knows higher pursuits than security? Can we figure out that more and more force never resolves fear but only raises the stakes?
I could go on and on. Something is really wrong in America. Everything I have named is real. Each one is something that mortifies God. Pray if you wish — but God wants us to find the end to our praying and do something. With each one, something really can be done, and in a decade or two we really could have a safer society that would be more pleasing to the God we pray to for help. We can turn off any TV show where a gun is fired. We can resource our schools more equitably. We can elect different people. We could pass some gun law, any gun law, if only to make a statement. We could connect with people who are different instead of judging them. We could enthusiastically support our police and rebuild trust with them — but only if we also are willing to hold the small minority of them who exceed their authority accountable.
We can be different. We can be the people God uses to be the answer to our own prayers. That is, if we come to the end of our prayers, and do courageous things. The other night I heard Carrie Newcomer sing the most timely song I’ve ever heard: “If not now, tell me when?”
Originally published on MinistryMatters.com
Dr. James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served churches in the Charlotte area for 25 years. He is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and Duke Divinity School, and has a Ph.D. from Duke. He has published 15 books, the most recent being Why This Jubilee: Advent Reflections on Songs of the Season. He serves on numerous nonprofit boards in the community, speaks frequently in Charlotte and around the country, and is an adjunct professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School.