Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
Grace and Peace from Jesus Christ.
Across the last week I have caught myself shaking my head, wringing my hands, fighting back tears and praying inarticulately. You may be asking why? Or you may know exactly the genesis of my consternation. But, to remove all doubt it is precisely feeling disquieted by the way our lives are misshaped by violence. Pointing to any one or two instances carries with it the risk of elevating the importance of one act of violence over all others. You of course know that is not my intent. I’ll just have to trust that truth and so will you.
At the time of this writing there have been 39 mass shootings. We are just finishing the first month of 2023. Lunar New Year celebrations have been met with gun violence and a continuing onslaught of hateful rhetoric directed at Asian Americans. The egregious assault on and subsequent death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis at the hands of five police officers came to light. The now released video footage continues to assault all of our sensibilities and values. As we speak, the list is being added to of all of the ways we humans confirm our addiction to violence and our refusal to submit to personal and social treatment for the same. “How long O Lord…?”
So once again, I call you to prayer. But not episodic prayer conditioned by the headlines. Rather, “mourners bench” prayer as a way of life as if life itself depends on it. In case you missed it, our lives and those of our neighbors do indeed depend upon our willingness to surrender to God and the best practices that make for flourishing community.
Understandably you might groan “Oh no, not the prayer thing again.” Get over yourself. The kind of praying I am talking about does not stand at a distance wailing “gee ain’t it awful”. No, the prayer of which I speak is more in the intonations of “Lord make me an instrument of your peace” (St. Francis of Assisi) or the song “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, the most important words of which are “and let it begin with me”. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Some of you eschew prayer at a time like this except for the wounded and grieving parties. Perhaps because we have wrongly drawn an artificial separation between prayer and action. That’s not how I have been shaped to roll. It is the result if the docility of far too many expressions of church that sanction the compartmentalization of that which cannot and should not be separated. Of course, we seek the God of our salvation in prayer. But our prayers are anemic if they do not push us to serve God and neighbor in the world where life is hard and messy. If we truly pray with St. Francis we are asking God to shape us for a particular kind of witness and service in the world. If we understand violence to fall way short of God’s dream for us much less God’s glory, then peace making is a mandatory way of life and pursuing rational public policy is not optional. You have shown us that we must do justice, love mercy and live humbly.
I know we all question at times what impact our prayers and actions can have for the healing of our brokenness. But I suspect at the end of the day throwing up our hands in frustration to be impact players (in our own minds) is a way of avoiding “being the change” we want to see. It is born of the hubris that we are in it alone. I am confident we are not. It is the spirit of God that woos us to prayer and work and who works in us and alongside us to heal the world that God loved so much that the Son came forth. God still says “fear not I am with thee, O be not dismayed, For I am thy God and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee and cause thee to stand, Upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand”.
Finally, a word that is United Methodist specific. I wonder whether we might actually make more of the difference we want to make in violence reduction, peace building and community flourishing if we were not distracted with the disconnecting from one another as a church. Such distraction diverts real spiritual, intellectual, relational and material energy and resources away from the core mission. God deserves better from us and the world needs more from us than our leftover energy when we get through quibbling about matters that are important but surely not ultimate. “The world is hungry for the living bread, lift the savior up for them to see”.
Your servant in Christ Jesus,
+ Bishop Gregory V. Palmer