On Tuesday, December 2, 2015, there was a mass shooting at a social services center in San Bernardino, Calif. that left 14 dead and 21 others injured. (As a reminder, a mass shooting is defined as an incident where four or more victims are shot.) This is the 355th mass shooting in the United States in 2015 in only 335 day. To put that into perspective, there are 256 regular season NFL games, 65 preseason games, and 11 post season games for a grand total of 332 professional football games each season; you can get to 333 if you include the Pro Bowl. So as infrequent as we might like to believe mass shootings are, we have had roughly 7% more mass shootings this year than NFL games in this season.
Now irrespective of what your view on the 2nd Amendment of United States Constitution might be, I believe all of us who consider ourselves to be Christians can agree having 355 mass shootings in 2015 in the United States is not what God desires.
On December 2, The New York Daily News ran a headline stating “God isn’t fixing this.” In this article, the author makes the point that the response by many public and political figures is to offer their prayers to those affected by the shootings, but they do little more in the way of concrete action.
Neither desiring nor being qualified to enter into a political debate regarding whose fault this may be or what steps should be taken, as a Christian minister I would like to speak to the role that prayer is intended to fill and what the response of those who consider themselves to be Christians should be.
My understanding is prayer is both important and vital to an active life of faith. I also know several instances in my own personal experiences where God has answered prayers in supernatural/miraculous ways that could not be explained through science or reason. However I can also testify that those instances have been extremely few and far between.
As I have struggled to comprehend these issues, I have been able to gain insight from an unexpected place. While there are several key issue on which I respectfully disagree with the Catholic Church, I have been struck and moved by several of the statements Pope Francis has recently made.
In a Mass Pope Francis led in St. Peter’s Square in July of 2013, he emphasized one of the noted quotes from the 5th Century Saint Benedict; “Ora et labora.” Translated from Latin into English, it means roughly “pray and work.” What I understand Pope Francis saying—and St. Benedict before him—is prayer is vital and necessary, but if our prayers do not prompt or motivate us to address those things we have prayed about in concrete actions, we have not lived out our Christian faith.
For example, as a minister in a local church, I have people contact me daily asking me to pray for them or those close to them. When these requests are made, I do my best to fulfill them. I can stop there, having kept my word, and move on to the next task I have to accomplish. On the other hand, I can pray for their loved one, and then follow that with a phone call or personal visit to the person who is being prayed for, spend some time with them so they know they are not alone in whatever they are facing and that they have not been forgotten by their church family, and also remind them God has not forgotten them either. At other times I can even be directly involved in helping them recover or address the needs they are experiencing.
I would love to say this is what I always do, but it is not. Too often, accomplishing tasks takes priority over spending the time and relational energy needed to directly be with those who are suffering. For this, I ask God’s forgiveness and God’s strength that I might be changed.
It is my understanding according to the story of Jesus’ Ascension and that of Pentecost, once Jesus was raised from the dead and returned to heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit to be God’s presences in the world, and especially to empower the followers of Jesus Christ to be engaged in bringing about the Kingdom of God, or where everything God wants done is done.
I believe the overwhelming problems we see today are caused or worsened when “Christians”, myself included, offer our prayers to whatever the most recent tragedy might be and leave it at that. That includes not taking any further action to help address whatever systemic problem, evil or sin might have led to the situation, or being physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually present with those affected.
Whatever the problem might be that we are facing in our society, from mass shootings to generational poverty to anything else you can think of, it is astronomically unlikely that God is going to fix it until the people of God decide we are willing to break our routines and step outside of the safe predictability of our lives and truly be vulnerably present in these situations with these individuals that things will begin to change.
God will fix what is wrong with our world when the people of God manifest God’s presence by being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the very midst of these places of brokenness and not before. Prayer is vital, prayer is important, but prayer alone is not what God desires from God’s people.
Rev. Kris Tate