“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)
On Saturday, August 12, I was on a long 500-mile drive and was unaware of what was going on in Charlottesville, Virginia, until someone reached out to me by text. That text led to a call and the call led me to pull into a rest stop so that I could pull up what information I could on my cell phone. Needless to say that even reading and watching for a few minutes on the small screen of a mobile device, I was horrified, angered, sad, and numb. I felt these emotions, and I still do.
Since I first became aware of the tragic events in Charlottesville, dozens of verses of scripture have danced around in my heart and mind. But the two verses above, for reasons that I cannot concretely say, have come to me again and again. I suspect it has everything to do with my confidence in a God and a Savior who is not far off but as near as our breath. It is likely also because the God made known in Jesus Christ our Lord both weeps for us, and with us, especially when we have gone astray from God’s dream for us. Finally, I suspect the text above is naming our apparent congenital blindness about the ways of peace. May God help us.
The ugliness that results from failing to know and love all our neighbors and to see how deeply we are connected as a human family has left three persons dead and nearly three dozen injured. Charlottesville and other communities are in turmoil specifically about the matter of race and inclusion. Competing visions of what is and who is America are leaving wreckage in every community. Physical deaths and injury - to speak nothing of the moral injury of hatred and divisiveness - is taking a toll on all of us. We must cry, weep, and grieve for the loss of life and of soul. The unwillingness and failure to do so will only put us in more moral and social peril. “Blessed are those who mourn…”
We are called to confess. I continue to be astounded at the vast resources that we have as the Church to shape our prayers, especially confession. We should turn to them frequently as they might well be a gift God intends for the Church to give to the world. Pray again with me this prayer intended for personal and private use:
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When this prayer is used in communal worship, it is most often followed by the invitation to pray silently. I have always understood and used this as my opportunity to get precise in naming before God my sins. It’s my chance to be specific. So, in the current context, a phrase like “we have not loved our neighbors” offers a wide berth to name racism and white supremacy. The unwillingness to name before God and our neighbors our personal and social sin keeps us in bondage and makes building beloved community near to impossible.
We are not called to confess our sins in order to wallow in guilt. We do so to open ourselves up to experience the gift of God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness that our neighbor might offer us. The former is already promised to us. The latter is a hoped-for, though not promised, gift. In either case, our open and specific acknowledgement of our sin is warranted. “Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience.”
If confession is about naming our personal and social sin, repentance, which is closely related, is about intentionally starting the turn in a different direction; to claim a different way of being and acting. We are forgiven and set free precisely so that we may act in new ways that are God-driven and neighbor-focused. “Repent and believe the Gospel.”
When Jesus calls us to repentance he also calls us to “produce fruit worthy of repentance.” Our words, however sincere, and aspirations, no matter how noble, cannot carry the freight alone. We must act in faith, with courage and with confidence in the reign of God. I thank you for what you have done and are doing to heal the festering wounds of racism, division, and violence in all the places where you serve. I encourage you to:
- Continue to pray. Prayer is not a meaningless salve to avoid the hard work of building beloved community. It is the sure reminder that what we undertake is nothing less than God’s work and that we are accompanied in the work by the triune God.
- Preach with boldness. If you preach, plan, and lead worship (lay and clergy), step into the heart of the matter with love, freedom, and confidence. The Book of Discipline charges me to “guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in scripture and tradition, and as led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret the faith evangelically and prophetically.” I charge you to do the same. The apostolic faith bears no resemblance to what happened in Charlottesville. Preaching, teaching, and worshiping in the power of the Holy Spirit and with a heart of love and peace are all about shaping us in the likeness of Jesus. The very same Jesus who weeps for us and with us.
- Focus locally. Every community is either a Charlottesville waiting to happen or a community that has claimed its woundedness and is in some stage of healing on the way to beloved community. Lest we forget, the alleged driver of the vehicle that bore into the crowd in Charlottesville was a resident of a community in the West Ohio Conference. So the question becomes, where is hate festering in your city, town, village, or hamlet? Are you prepared for your local church to be the catalyst for and host of a Circle of Grace where robust, truthful conversations can be an instrument of healing and reconciliation? If not, why not? What do you need for it to become a reality?
- Tell a story. If you are already doing something creative and exciting to heal your community of its divisions, or you intend to do so in the foreseeable future, share it as a witness and testimony. Your story in your church in your community may be just the inspiration another needs to wade into this Jordan and cross from bondage to freedom. Send your story as an offering to mychurchstory [at] wocumc.org.
In the title above, I raised in part the question the Apostle Paul raised in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Church at Rome: What then shall we say to these things? He offers a timeless and resounding response at the end of the chapter with these words:
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
With all my heart,
+Gregory V. Palmer