As a pastor, even in the free-church, priesthood of believers, Baptist tradition, I feel a need to respond and minister in a profound way when tragedy strikes. If I’m being honest, part of that tug comes from my understanding of my call, of my desire to be the presence of Christ to those who are in pain. But in that same moment of honesty, I know that part of that tug comes from the desire to make amends for all the people and groups who call themselves followers of Christ while spewing a message of hate (let me be clear – I’m thinking of Westboro and all the religious pundits who seem all too gifted to name the sin that caused the tragedy in the first place). I want to do my best to try not to embarrass Jesus.
I want to be able to respond to hurting communities with the right balance of action and patience. I don’t want to help others to feel good about myself while my efforts are further overwhelming them. I don’t want to offer empty words and inaction or mindless action devoid of compassion. I want to walk that line that Jesus walked amongst the people.
On a practical note, I’ve learned from afar as those who are gifted at organizing have helped the larger Baptist culture combine their efforts to respond in appropriate ways to tragedy. I’ve read emails from friends in Connecticut that helped individuals and churches respond in a way that was actually helpful to a hurting town. I’ve watched my friends on social media connect communities together to offer a myriad of ways to help the hurting town of West, Texas. The intelligence and compassion with which an organized response from the Christian, Baptist community has been offered gives me hope for the future of the church and its impact on the world. I think it is critical to work together with intentionality so that we respond with practical “cup of cold water” care to communities in ways that are truly beneficial.
I’ve been geographically removed from the recent slew of American tragedies. The church where I serve isn’t near Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or Texas. My congregation is even further removed from the devastating tragedies that are striking the rest of humanity around the globe – collapsing Bangladeshi buildings, Syrian chemical warfare, and various terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
We pray. We send money. We help as we can.
As a pastor, particularly as one who’s primary giftedness is not organizational management, I do my best to help my people connect to hurting communities through those who are organizing faithful and compassionate response. I am thankful for the breadth of gifts in the Christian community.
And, when we are done helping, we let our minds and hearts ruminate on the seeming loss of our security. We might not talk about it, but we think about violence, security, measured responses, and ways in which we can protect ourselves. We creep into a mindset that sees very clearly the difference between “us” and “them”, whoever “they” may be. We crave that distinction between us who are righteous and those who want to hurt us. Some days I feel the same way.
Then I remember to do that most basic and most profound thing – pray. When my heart is so torn up and conflicted and I can’t make sense of the world at all, I find my small, black, knotted, prayer rope. It has 26 knots and one blue bead. I hold it and feel it and pray the only prayer that makes sense – “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
It takes a while, but after some time, I remember some things that help and call me out of my own insular spiral.
I remember the incarnation, and the fact that God thought enough of humanity to walk within us.
I remember a quote from Gregory of Nyssa: “To say that there are ‘many human beings’ is a common abuse of language. Granted there is a plurality of those who share in the same human nature…but in all of them, humanity is one.”
I remember a lesson my wife taught me when she worked with a girl who had been sexually abused and still felt compelled to seek out space to love the abuser.
I remember the words of Gandhi: “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for hte misdeeds of all the others. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul.”
Somewhere in my prayers, I remember that part of my calling is to follow a God who drew people together. I don’t have the calling to make the lines of distinction more clear, I want to see them go away. I want to help my congregation see the way we are all connected and how the love we profess sees no boundaries.
My inner cynic reminds me of how impractical this is. Distinctions are important, he says. People don’t want to be so vulnerable, he chides. What about sheep and goats, he asks.
Forget practical, I tell him. It’s never been the way of Christ.
On the radio there was a story about doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The report was commenting on the fact that they were trying to save the life of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombing suspects, while they were still treating victims of that horrendous act who were in critical condition. The reporter was amazed at the predicament in which the doctors found themselves, having to care equally for the victims and reported perpetrator without distinction of worth.
I know, deep down, that’s the kind of predicament I should be in all the time.
As the concept of peace seems farther removed from reality, I know that part of my calling as a pastor is to remind people (starting with myself) that reality as it is typically defined is not all its cracked up to be. We worship a different Reality and have heard tell of a deeper magic.
We must do our part to help, joining the practical efforts to bring peace and comfort. But we must also not lose our hope that peace is a real and possible thing. We must not forget that ultimately we are called as Christians to eschew the divisions that are all too easy to draw. As a pastor, I must refuse (again starting with myself) to see the world as a false dichotomy.
Or, as Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
May we find our remembering strengthened in sorrow.