We'd just wrapped a sermon series called "Kind" at Hope Church, RVA. It was a mission-focused series centered around God's lovingkindness, and the way He moves within us to let us be a part of what He's doing in the world. We were even, over several weeks, educated on ministries like International Justice Mission, Compassion International and others so we could, as the Spirit moved, partner in their good work.
My family attends the 8:30 a.m. service. If anyone on our pastoral staff had known about the tragedy in Orlando in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016 yet, they neither said nor showed it.
I myself found out in the lobby right after the sermon, as I absent-mindedly checked my phone. I saw a friend's post atop my FB feed saying, "WHAT IS IN THE ORLANDO WATER RIGHT NOW?' As of yet still unaware of the Christina Grimmie murder, I clicked over to CNN, realizing I was being rude to the couple from Small Group with whom my wife was conversing.
But there was nothing I could have contributed to the discussion in that moment anyway. I was too stunned, completely unprepared for what I was reading.
Really? As many mass shootings as we see these days, as often as some crazed person is pledging allegiance to the Islamic state, or as many times as you've heard of violence against homosexuals, you were still surprised?
This time, yes. Not always. Where some events have overloaded my system and caused me to move on with my life, Paris and Orlando caught me off guard, and I actually thanked God for that - that I could still feel a pain so blinding I had to squint my eyes. As I wandered aimlessly around Trader Joe's with my wife and daughter, debating how much to tell them until we got home, I knew only that I was momentarily silent. Can I admit that I prayed that everyone else would be, too? Too pained by the knowledge of so many lost to articulate any feelings, even if I wanted to, I tried not to do that thing I hate - that thing where we rush to blame or fail to feel or stump for our favorite cause. I'm as prone to these unkind reactions as you are.
I spent a lot of the rest of Sunday breathing. For one thing, we were celebrating my son's having become a teenager on Saturday. I had just written him a letter - posted publicly on this very blog - about facing the difficulties life throws our way. The letter suddenly felt inadequate in light of the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history. Had I told my young man anything to help in the face of such twisted, inexcusable, senseless loss?
On their own, the faces of my LGBT family, friends and acquaintaces drifted through my mind. My smile twisted sourly in one corner of my mouth. I knew I'd been a rock for my sister when she came out. I was pretty sure I'd expressed gratitude to some friends who had helped me at least understand their struggles. But had I ever truly been KIND? Those people left bloodied and broken on the barroom floor - had they died knowing compassion and the offer of Christ's love and salvation? Or, as I suspected, had their final moments included the terrifying notion that they were experiencing another level of the same sort of condemnation and despair that they've heard their whole lives?
I noticed that my fellow OBU alum Jen Hatmaker was recommending a "Don't Say Nothing" approach. At which point I knew that I would write today, I just didn't know about what. I was still wrestling with too many questions. In the end, that's what I decided to say -- that I am, have been, and will be struggling with these questions for a long time. Because we all know we haven't seen the last bit of terrorism, foreign or domestic. We haven't seen the last person or group targeted in hate; maybe a group I belong to will be next. The record number of dead isn't likely to stand for very long, and when the next one happens, will we forget the names and stories of those we mourn today? Already, Virginia Tech and 9/11 seem like ancient history... except, I'm sure, to those who lost loved ones there.
I fear my questions may go beyond the simpler ones some will want me to ask. But my mind is simply not occupied by "the issues" today. Rather, I wonder...
1. WHO is immune from violence, insanity, tragedy, unfairness, being loathed, persecution?
I can't think of a group right now. I know people who actually believe homosexuals had ascended to some kind of "privileged, protected group" status in American culture recently; I have to wonder if their minds have been changed today. We debate endlessly about what constitutes religious persecution, especially domestically, while being unable to ignore that in places like Columbine, the Oregon community college and elsewhere Christians are also targets. Who isn't? Show me a group that isn't disdained by another, or doesn't feel unwelcome in certain places. And yet... I get a very strange comfort from this knowledge. Because it means we're still all in this together. And it gives us an opportunity. If everyone is feeling the pain and dis-ease of suspicion and being unwanted, then each of us - as individuals and groups - has a chance to extend hands outside of our circle to form bonds of friendship, understanding and ministry.
2. What does it take to feel safe?
I am convinced we do not ask this question enough of ourselves, nor the question about what it is we actually fear. But I want to know, at least for myself, and from those I effort to understand, what it takes to bring a sense of peace or security into a life. It ought to be an easy answer for the Christ follower, you'd think. We purport to follow a Prince of Peace, and cite scriptures about counting "death as gain" that would seem to suggest a bravery on our parts; that there is no outcome that doesn't end in victory for us. We believe God wins in the end, no matter how bad things get. We say we believe He's in control, and that no kings have their powers except He allows it.
Does an automatic or semi-automatic weapon add much more to the equation? Would the Pulse clubgoers have been safer if they'd all had such weapons of their own that night? The mental image makes me laugh. And then it makes me cry... And without judgment I really do ask where the line is. Not the gun control line or the bill of rights line but the feeling-of-safety line, and what it takes for each of us to experience it, if ever we can at all.
3. Why would I want to waste time _______?
I've been filling that blank with all sorts of words the past 24 hours: hating... politicking... Facebooking... correcting... envying... clamoring... The time is short. For all of us. And while I do not know, I suspect that if I had been there in Orlando holding the hand of or looking into the eyes of any of the people who lost their lives, that NOTHING would have mattered in that moment except that one of us was leaving this earthly plane for good, and the other hadn't done as much as he could to let the departing soul know he was loved, to make sure his needs had been met, to tell him about Christ's offer of eternal life.
4. Who is my brother, my neighbor, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow?
So, to kind of come full-circle to that sermon series I mentioned, Sunday's message on kindness was looking at the lovingkindness Boaz, whose name means "strength," showed to Ruth - a foreigner - by offering her protection as she gleaned leftovers from his fields.
When he did this, Boaz was living out the following commandments from Deuteronomy:
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. (10:18)
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (24:19-22)
Three times the command is given, three times the groups are mentioned, and then the reason: REMEMBER. Remember where you came from. Remember your chains. Remember your deliverer. Remember that Christ died for you while you were yet in sin. Because it is when we forget these things that we lose our hope for empathy, ministry, kindness and love.
I wondered, as one who had been a Christian for 36 years, and read his Bible cover-to-cover, how had I never conceptualized those verses this way before? Suddenly so many examples from the Bible filled my mind:
Jesus with the woman at the well; Jesus saying, "Let the children come to me."
How he set women free during a time of oppression, and told the parable of the Samaritan.
How he came so that we, all of us fatherless and lonely, would be restored to a relationship with our Father. And his Church - his people - could have a bridegroom, widowed no more.
I thought of the "orphans and widows" of James 1, and Jesus touching the lepers, the unclean. So many examples of providing for the unprotected.
Without even knowing what had just unfolded so many miles to the south, I had already been asking myself who is the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the unclean in my own world? And almost immediately I was challenged with a terrifying situation that identified so many answers to that question all at once.
5. What the heck can I DO?
Well, here's a start: 3 Ways You Can Respond to the Orlando Massacre
And here are a few things NOT to do: What are 4 Common Mistakes We Make When Ministering to the LGBT Community?
But what I'm really wondering for myself is what I can do for those families, or the next time. I want to be prepared. If it means anything from running towards the terror on one extreme to just being broken-hearted enough to be sincerely moved to prayer, whether the victims are from one of my groups or not, I want to be prepared to share in the grief.
As Russell Moore put it:
Our national divisions increasingly make it difficult for us not just to work together, but even to pause and weep together. We become more concerned about protecting ourselves from one another’s political pronouncements than we do with mourning with those who mourn.
As we gather things up from the remnants of this tragedy, and from the good we go forward to in our lives, we must leave something behind for the foreigner, the widow and the orphan to glean.
I think I'll just leave this right here.
Publication date: June 13, 2016