Sunday night several hundred people gathered in my city to pray. We went to our prayer vigil place — the steps of the governmental plaza in Greensboro, N.C., where we’d gathered before. Some of the candles still held the wax drippings from the last time we prayed as a city.
My children are new to the concept of prayer vigils and still relatively insulated from the violence and horror that can prompt them. When they asked where I was going on Sunday night, I told them as generally as I could that something had happened that had hurt a lot of people — something so serious that our city was praying. After I left, my wife tells me my 3-year-old daughter’s questions persisted as she wondered why and how a city would pray. “Are they praying in all the cities?” she asked.
All the communities, congregations, public figures, pastors, civic and faith leaders seem to be praying. Since Sunday’s vigil, several more services have been scheduled in my city alone. We’ve heard calls to prayer from our religious and denominational leaders. Politicians have urged the same. “This is a time for prayer,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said, as he declined to speak to any of the converging political and legislative dimensions of the massacre. Such calls for prayer amidst such seeming incapacity for change are so familiar that they have prompted another contemporary reflex — the call not to pray. That is, the understandable counterpoint and frustration that prayers alone have not saved us.
Still we pray, even as people of tested faith. The question is not whether we will pray, but it might be how.
Most of the prayers I’ve offered and heard these days have taken up the language of lament and grief over the terrible loss of life, the violent end of joy and music, and the compromise of safety and sanctuary for LGBTQ persons. Lament has for generations been a powerful form of prayer as people of faith acknowledge that something has happened that seems beyond the resources of God’s people. If we don’t have the words ourselves, we can reach to the stores of lament in our sacred texts. “Lord, have mercy!” we can cry with Bartimeus in the Gospel of Luke, trying to believe that transformation is yet possible. “How long, O Lord?” we can ask with the Psalmist, in weariness over violence. But if our cries and questions stop there, we might find ourselves amidst the ash and sackcloth leaving it all up to God as though we have no resources at all.
Sometimes prayers of lament lead us to petition for others, asking for God to help them since we don’t know what to do. In the tradition of the Psalms, such prayers can even lead to a curse toward enemies. Once we can identify the evil, we can pray it away from us or keep it at a distance. The obsession to know “5 things about the shooter” might have ties to such a prayer. With every refresh of the web browser, I can tell you more about the searing, otherworldly evil of his motives and five more reasons he’s not like me.
But if I only ask “How long, O Lord?” I will never ask “How long, O People?” or “How long, O Church?”
If I only pray to God on behalf of those vulnerable and wounded, I might stall in the paralysis of not knowing what to do.
If I only look at the latest photos of the shooter — or at the people that I’ve decided are like him — then I don’t have to look at myself.
Prayer doesn’t stop there. Old Testament scholar Michael Coogan has pointed out that one standard model of prayer in the Psalms begins with lament, moving to petition, then a curse towards those opposed to the goodness of God’s people, but then the prayer moves to either an expression of innocence or a confession of the lack thereof.
If you’re innocent, then the prayer is nearly over. But for me this is also a time for prayers of confession. I confess that growing up near Orlando, I’ve learned in recent days that some of my high school friends who are gay knew Pulse over the years as a place of sanctuary where they could be freely themselves in ways they could not in the familiar spaces of our hometown. As I think of how relationships with them helped inform my own convictions about God’s welcome and affirmation of all people, I also confess all the times in those years and all the years since that I’ve failed to be an ally as boldly as I meant to be, whether for fear, misunderstanding, misplaced loyalty, or my own shortcoming. I confess, too, that I am still part of a wider Church universal that has not been as open as the God to whom we direct our prayers. And within that Christian tradition, I am committed to a denomination — the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — that speaks of diversity and love, while maintaining a hiring policy that makes such proclamations — from any of us — seem disingenuous. In other words, I confess that I am part of what turns clubs into sanctuaries and bars into “queer church,” because our sanctuaries and structures and houses of worship have not been safe in and of themselves.
Lord, hear my prayer. But before I say “Amen,” I recall that Michael Coogan points out that in the psalmist’s formulaic prayer, lament, petition, cursing and confession give way to a closing vow — moving past self-gratification and purification into commitment to the boldness and love of the one to whom we pray.
It is a time for prayer, but what kind of prayer will we pray? In prayer, we are refusing to accept things the way they are. We summon God, believing that without God nothing will happen. But so often our prayers betray the belief that without us, everything will still happen. These are the prayers that frustrate a hurting world and end up crossed out in hashtags and in so many people’s minds.
But what if the people clothed in sackcloth come out of the ash and candlewax of our lament and helplessness, or away from the bitterness of our cursing and othering, and into renewed self-awareness and prayerful action in the name of justice and righteousness alongside the most vulnerable and wounded? Well, those prayers might yet save us. In Orlando. In Greensboro. In all the cities.