Sunday morning June 12, as we were headed into worship at 8:30 a.m., our assisting minister, a lay person who is also a terrific writer, said something about quickly penning a line of prayer for Florida. Since I usually only scan the paper headlines on Sunday morning, he and my colleague had to explain to me that the latest news was of yet another mass shooting, this one in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
We had few details, and no time to adjust much of anything, except to add an intercessory prayer which was light on details. We also had very little time between services that day, so I did not hear the depth of the horror until I was on my way home after the 10 a.m. service.
It only took a few hours for some of my pastoral colleagues to lament on Facebook that they had not “pivoted” faster in their worship plans that morning. That seems to be the new norm – every public tragedy must be acknowledged immediately by faith leaders, lest we seem callous or ill-informed. For those pastors who are so light on their feet that changing course feels energizing – the more power to you. But I also worry that we are placing an unnecessary burden on ourselves – a burden that the social media age has only recently made possible.
I’m comfortable with the fact that we as pastors did not end up becoming the bearer of partial news to our congregation this past Sunday; but there have been a number of times in recent years when I’ve wondered whether Friday or Saturday’s news from somewhere in the world shouldn’t make me go back to the drawing board. And it seems that many of my peers in ministry – at least those who frequent social media constantly – feel duty-bound to make these pivots all the time.
Which leaves me wondering – what is worship planning for? Why do we feel so obligated to acknowledge every public disaster, tragedy or act of hatred almost as it happens? Do we develop some sort of sick "death toll threshold" for when an event feels “big” enough for such a change? Why do we feel that any words of life carefully pondered and written on Thursday are irrelevant by Sunday morning? And does our speed to adjust everything to the latest headline really help our congregations know the fullness of God’s love?
Let’s leave aside for a moment the likelihood that the faster we pivot, the more chance there is that we will get some of the facts wrong. That’s a risk, but not the only risk.
The greater risk is that we forget why we gather together as a community. When we gather as the Christian assembly, we are not merely gathering as a random collection of citizens, people whose “hearts go out to the people of. . .” wherever another tragedy as happened. We gather as a small slice of the body of Christ, with very particular local concerns and joys, proclaiming Christ crucified and risen here among us, and giving thanks to God in every time and place.
I say this often as I dismiss people from the communion table: “you are the body of Christ.” That means that the people right there in front of me are not just onlookers to the reality of God’s work. We are part of it. Which means that we are never apart from the suffering of God. We are united with all the baptized by God’s spirit, so even when we are completely ignorant of the suffering of another – maybe even the person right next to me in the pew – God can still join our prayers together in Christ.
Public tragedies – especially one layered with as many “isms” as the Orlando shooting – can strike different communities in different ways, and individuals within those communities in different ways, but sometimes I worry that our leap to acknowledge every tragedy is a cover for our own privilege – if we ourselves feel pretty fortunate, the vicarious mourning of public tragedies makes us feel a little less guilty. Seeing suffering can leave us with a kind of survivor’s guilt, and Facebook mourning can be a pallid way to alleviate that feeling.
I also wonder whether I focus on what’s happening in the world hundreds of miles away because I’m embarrassed by how little I know about my actual neighbors. We pastors may know a lot about our congregations, but how often are we completely ignorant of the miscarriage, or job loss, or family violence that happened this week to someone sitting in front of us? But here’s the good news: if we are really entering into the life of Christ as we gather as the body of Christ, in prayer we are NOT ever separate from that suffering. It is God’s job to draw us into that common life – and our knowledge or lack of it won’t stop God from that work.
Being the body of Christ also means we are not stuck in our present moment. At every communion liturgy, we give thanks “in every time and place” for Christ’s redeeming work – in every time and place. And if that’s the case, then our prayers are never just about what is happening now – they draw together the weal and woe of the past and draw all of us into God’s future. If we place on ourselves an obligation to address every headline in our preaching and prayers and public postings, what are we tacitly saying about our prayers in other times and places?
It’s hard to believe that only fifteen years ago, when 9/11 happened, few people lunged to social media channels to pour out their grief or anger or bewilderment. Sure, there was 24/7 news coverage, but leaders and churches had time to talk to one another as they absorbed the news. There were no instant interpretations via meme, or social expectations that you change your profile picture to prove your solidarity.
Now in 2016, it seems that no one has the time to breathe before they are expected to publicly acknowledge the latest headline on social media. The implication is that because you can react quickly, you must. But I don’t think I’m any better equipped now emotionally to absorb horrific news than I was 15 years ago, when a slightly slower media age gave me time to let it all sink in. My public response then – an invitation to a mostly-silent vigil, a sermon pondered over several days -- was a snail’s pace compared to what we see today. But those prayers then were heard and taken up into the life of God just as effectively as anything we offer now, because they are prayers that are caught up into the life of Jesus, who took our hatred, our fear, our anger, our grief – all of it – into himself. He taught us to pray, and his words are still enough. He gave us his body and blood, and that is still food enough.
There is a fine line between leading from the present moment and calling everyone to dwell in my particular interpretation of the moment. I’m often pleasantly surprised by how easily people tell me they can layer in their own joys and sorrows into the more open-ended petitions offered up in worship. The liturgy – with its “Lord have mercies” bumped up against “hosanna in the highest” – offers a tremendous amount of emotional space and range, and if we claim these words as our own, they can contain whatever this day brings.
There’s one more reason I worry about the leap into the headlines: it skews our attention toward the fast, the large and the tragic. But so much of the daily miracle of life in community is slow and small and quietly beautiful. At the end of Augustine’s classic “Watch O Lord” prayer, after lifting up the suffering and the dying, and the weak, there’s a line that I still take to heart in my preaching and teaching: “shield your joyous ones.” Do we believe as a church that we can still do that? That we can let a family celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary, or let our children sing a silly camp song, without insisting that they be “well-informed” at every minute? Can we shield the joy of our feasts together, knowing that, while we will always be connected in Christ to the sufferings of the world, we also are duty bound to hold onto the joy that the promises of God give us, promises that are as true now as they were before I read the last headline?
So yes – in case you’re wondering – I will address Orlando in my sermon this week. There is plenty of good and evil and healing and deliverance and reconciliation in our Scriptures and liturgy to contain all of it. And there was plenty of the same last Sunday morning too, when I knew almost nothing, but God was already weeping.
In the liturgy, we are invited out of the prisons of our present into the light of God’s eternal day, a way opened up for us by Christ’s horrific suffering and dazzling resurrection. I want that light to intrude on our consciousness brighter than the latest notification shining up from my phone.