Praying in Response to Violence
On Sunday, 6/12, 49 people were shot to death, and many more were injured in an Orlando nightlcub. It was a horrifying tragedy on its own, but I think it was also the 133rd mass shooting (more than 3 shot) in the US in 2016. We have a major problem in this country with violence in general and gun violence in particular. Sadly, it is a problem that will not go away soon.
The church has always prayed in response to violence. Often that praying has taken place during public gatherings like worship services, vigils, bible studies, etc. More and more though, I have experienced church pastors and denominational leaders using email, social media, and e-newsletters as platforms for praying in response to violence. In the 48 hours after the Orlando shooting I counted 9 separate prayer emails in my inbox, not to count my facebook news feed, etc.
It got me thinking. Fewer of us are gathering in churches to pray. For those who do gather, many don’t gather as frequently as past generations did for worship on Sunday mornings. For more and more of us, when violence strikes we are praying, not communally, but alone, in front of one of our many screens, connected to others electronically but not physically. With mass shootings now common, and other forms of violence filling our headlines, there is need for pastors and other church leaders to develop the craft of praying into this context.
I do not claim to be an expert about how to pray through electronic media in response to violence. I have thought some about it and have, unfortunately, had more than a few opportunities to write prayers for such occasions. Here are some points for you to consider the next time you feel called to write such a prayer:
- Pray first. Writing a prayer in response to violence might feel like another item to check off your pastoral/church to do list. People are hurting though and their need to be ministered to is likely more important than many of the items items on your list. Take a deep breath, center yourself, pray for those who are hurting, pray for those who will be reading your prayer, and ask God for guidance.
- Don’t just edit a previous prayer but write something new. I have found that editing a prayer written for an earlier event leads to a stale/generic prayer that can feel like: another mass shooting, another prayer.
- You can’t say everything so don’t try. Just say what is on your heart knowing that more will need to be said and done. This will also keep your prayer short which busy people on mobile screens will appreciate.
- Think about the appropriateness of calling people to action. This is a tricky one. When violence strikes people may feel overwhelmed, frozen, and in need of time to process. On the other hand, prayer may feel hollow, like an insufficient response to the violence, and “so heavenly minded it is no earthly good.” Sometimes a call to action is inappropriate. Sometimes it is necessary. Discernment is needed by the prayer writer about how to handle this (see “pray yourself first” above).
- Acknowledge pain AND offer hope. Acknowledging pain without offering hope can leave people feeling overwhelmed. Offering hope without acknowledging pain can feel superficial and trite. Acknowledging pain AND offering hope can be powerful ministry…and it is also Christ-like.
- Remember the context. People will likely be reading your prayer while alone. Some will feel the need to connect with a real person. Consider including contacts for people to reach out to you or other pastoral caregivers in your congregation. You may also invite people to forward your prayer to others.
- Read and re-read before sending. Unlike a prayer spoken in communal worship, a written and posted prayer will linger in digital space. People may read it and re-read it. They may read it a year later. They may print it and post it. Take a break between writing and sending. Re-read a few times over an hour. Is what you actually wrote what you meant to say? Could it be said better? Consider asking a friend or two to proofread. They may have some good perspectives to share.
Below is the prayer I sent to my congregation in response to the shootings in Orlando. I offer it as one example among many of praying in response to violence.
With great sadness, and joined in mourning with our country, and with so many around the world, I write. Many of us now know that early this morning at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, 49 people were shot to death and 53 people more were injured. This is the 133rd mass shooting (more than 3 shot) of 2016 and the largest mass shooting in our nation’s history.
Confronted with this horror, we are likely to feel many emotions. We may feel overwhelmed, or angry, or jaded. We may cry out against God and against our laws and lawmakers. We may feel sad and depressed. There is no wrong way to feel.
However we feel today and in the coming days though, I encourage you to share your feelings with others. I encourage you to reach out to me as you have need. I encourage you also to reach out to those who might be feeling especially vulnerable: those with friends and family in Orlando, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, our Muslim brothers and sisters, those in law enforcement, medics, firefighters, etc. And I encourage you to pray:
God in Christ, the shootings in Orlando are not OK:
our brothers and sisters are dead and injured and mourning;
our first responders have seen horrors they cannot unsee;
our country is reeling once again.
And so God, we turn to you:
we turn to you without adequate words to say;
we turn to you with pain in us and around us;
we turn to you because we need you.
Be our strength. Walk with us through the valley of shadows. Give us hope enough for today and courage for tomorrow. A tomorrow where transformation is needed, and where transformation is possible in you, our saving Christ.
With you, Pastor Kevin
© Rev. Kevin Goldenbogen, 2016