Moments before I walked into our church’s Ash Wednesday service, I heard the particulars.
Another mass shooting in a school, this time in Parkland, Florida.
A 19-year-old shooter with an AR-15 and multiple magazines.
I am a pastor by vocation, yet I feel more outraged than pastoral at this point. Outraged at the brutality and expansiveness of the violence. Outraged at the tragically silenced potential of young lives. Outraged that a 19-year-old came to the conclusion that murder was the best way for him to voice his fury, his torment, his misanthropic angst. Outraged that public discourse on matters of gun availability has become so rancorously politicized that people quickly grab hold of their most familiar ideological tree without ever setting foot into the vast forest of sociological complexity that exists behind it. Outraged at my feelings of helplessness in the midst of an ethos of violence that exploits vulnerability and diminishes our collective hope.
Outraged at my outrage.
Then again, perhaps I am making a mistake in thinking that prophetic outrage and pastoral ministry are antithetical. When a high school becomes a setting for carnage, perhaps prophetic outrage is one of the most pastoral things that a clergyperson can offer. I hope this is true. Because, in the parlance of our time, outrage is all I got right now.
Last night, as I placed the ashes upon the foreheads of my congregants, I said something like this: “Remember that you are dust. But remember even more that God’s love for you is trustworthy and lifts you out of the ashes. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” I am heartbroken when I ponder what Ash Wednesday felt like to the people of Parkland, Florida, especially those who lost precious loved ones in yesterday’s violence. They wear the ashes of grief today in a manner I cannot fully understand, enveloped by both the frailty and the fallenness of a human journey that I suspect feels directionless to them right now.
So what do I do with this outrage? What do you do with yours? How do we channel it so that it becomes something more than amplified sentimentality?
Perhaps all that I can do right now is offer this muddled description of my raw pain conjoined with my deepest hopes. I am praying that you can find your own voice in what I share. Here goes.
I am wearily mystified and cripplingly horrified by the violence. I do not know what to say anymore. I do not know how to feel, how to act. Sometimes I do not even know how to pray. I simply get quiet in God’s presence with a numb kind of silence, trusting in the Holy Spirit to intercede on my behalf—trusting him to take the deepest groans of my soul and bring them to the heart of God as understandable petitions.
I desperately want our politics, laws, and policies, particularly those related to the stewardship we practice over firearms, to be wise and practical, persistent and visionary, perceptive and prophetic. I long for a way forward that gives peace, sensibility, and justice their best chance at finding dynamic expression. I am desperate for both a cultural and Congressional response to the gun violence epidemic that will take our collective discernment beyond the rhetoric of shortsighted lobbyists and agenda-driven demagogues.
I am envisioning heartfelt dialogue and strategic action overseen by truth-seeking and justice-loving souls—souls who are not so bitterly entrenched in their position that they cannot appreciate the limits of their own vision.
We are confronted by a violence that prayer may not extinguish, yet I desperately and frantically pray. I cry out to God with wordless screams, begging for a grace that saves, a love that heals, and a Spirit who whispers unimaginable life into places of incomprehensible death.
Beyond prayer, perhaps the most moral and personal response to the mass shooting in Parkland is a commitment to naming and addressing violence (physical, emotional, and spiritual) wherever it is found and an unwavering devotion to the kind of life in which an ethos of violence cannot find enough air to survive. Irrespective of the perpetrator—a bully in the school hallway, a spouse in the living room, an employer or colleague in the workplace, a leader in the church, or a loud voice in social media—violence in any form warrants the attention of those who recognize that the way of peace (with justice) demands a resounding “NO” to the politics of mistreatment. An ethos of violence, after all, is built with the bricks of the everyday mistreatment of those we feel justified in undervaluing. Yesterday’s bloodshed in Parkland inspires a commitment to a more rigorous stewardship over our words, our behavior, our anger, our relationships, and our engagement with the world around us.
I have never been more convinced that people must not lose heart in this struggle. Nothing good can come from allowing cynicism, sarcasm, hatred, or an unadulterated sense of one’s own rightness to harden one’s heart. Nothing has happened, and nothing WILL happen, that is outside the scope of what God sees, weeps over, and creatively redeems. I want to work for peace, even when it seems unattainable. I want to pursue justice, even when the answers are not clear. Most of all, I want to live into a risky and sacrificial love, thereby reminding the world that violence and hatred are not humankind’s defining narrative.
That is what I will do with my outrage.