There are no words to describe my emotions in the wake of yesterday’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Because I am a Christian, my first reaction is to pray. Prayer isn’t an empty gesture. It’s how I respond to the world around me. Prayer isn’t all I do. My prayers prompt me to act.
Over the past week, I’ve reflected on the second of two prayers Jesus asked his disciples to pray. The first prayer, often called the Lord’s Prayer, is said each week in church services. It is a call to remember and be (in the present tense) grateful for our most basic needs while avoiding the temptation to commit evil. The prayer also contains a command to forgive those who we find it difficult or impossible to forgive. Why? Despite the implausibility of our redemption, God forgave us for trying to save ourselves. Forgiveness begins in prayer and is realized in action.
The second prayer is in John 17. These are the last words of the pre-resurrection Jesus. Jesus is about to be arrested and he shares this “high priestly” prayer with his disciples. This is an important prayer. Given the state of the church (and the world), maybe we ought to be praying this each week as well:
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,* so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
“That they may all be one,” says Jesus. It is a powerful prayer. Events such as yesterday’s massacre remind us of how little common ground remains in America’s civic, moral, and religious life. Despite the ongoing debates, people of faith are left to grapple with Jesus’ call to work for unity, be reflections of God’s love, and share any common ground love and unity they find with others.
How do we pray John 17? If we’re praying John 17 with the regularity and the frequency we’re praying the Lord’s Prayer, there should be a momentum of forgiveness, love, unity, and listening that makes Christian responses to such tragedies as yesterday different from others we see in society.
Maybe we start having courageous conversations with our neighbors. There are people in my church, the church I pastor and lead, who are avid hunters and NRA members. I don’t hunt. I have never killed anything for sport in my life. I know these guys hold different view on the second amendment from my own. I also know they don’t condone mass murder or killing innocent children. They love their kids. I know calling them names or denigrating groups they are involved with will cause them to shut down. What if we sat down and talked in a way that didn’t marginalize, caricature, or disempowered anyone so both sides in a debate; whether about gun control or mental illness felt heard? Could the church be that place, where people felt safe to speak? Could the church be a place where those who are conflicted are given space to share their conflicts? I’d rather have a hundred shouting matches than a single candle light vigil following another massacre if it leads to some greater understanding. But if we do it right, I don’t think we need to shout.
How can anyone find a path toward unity, the possibility of common space, or forgiveness if we’re living in echo chambers and don’t see our neighbors as people we are asked to love as we love ourselves?
Step out of the massacre echo chamber. Find someone you disagree with. Tell them you love them. Make that prayer a reality.
Richard Lowell Bryant