The image quality isn’t very good, I know; I thieved it from a PBS article and am working on an older computer that doesn’t do image capture all that well. But you get the idea—each red balloon is a mass shooting in the United States.
Reader, it’s not even March yet. I come to you on this Saturday in Lent because my Friday was thrown off, my whole week was thrown off by the fact that my town is now on this map. My town now has a little red balloon saying that some are dead, some are injured, all are now on statistics lists of this country’s numerous dead born out of an unnatural love of violence. My town now has made the national news, the international news, as another place holding vigils and wondering why; as another name that scrolls across the screen while talking heads say maybe this time, maybe this action will be the one that causes us to unfurl our fingers from our guns and step away from the fear that drives us to this mortal embrace. My town now is another in a chain that will not be that time.
And Reader, I am so, so angry.
The sacrament this week is that of reconciliation, formerly known as penance. Reconciliation has three aspects: conversion, confession, and celebration. Conversion is the recognition of being in the wrong, of turning back toward Christ and the life and choices He would have us lead and make. Confession is the telling of what went wrong to another—for Catholics, this is a priest; for many Protestants, this is God Herself; for some, this is a pastor or deeply trusted friend. (You can ask your pastor to do this; it’s not an official sacrament, but many clergy will hear confession as part of spiritual growth.) Celebration is the recognition that a new way is forged, that the wounded are healed, and that the freshly forgiven are charged to go out into our lives and forgive others in the courage and love of the Spirit.
I find this a somewhat perfect sacrament this week because it is so easy to demand that the shooter be brought to justice. It is so easy to demand that he be the one to confess, to be crushed by the full force of the law even as he senselessly crushed the lives of so many others. It is so easy to call for celebration that the wicked shall be judged by a righteous God Who cries with us at the rising death toll. It is, in fact, too easy.
Reader, I confess that I have harbored anger against a brother, a fellow creation of God. I confess that I have numbed myself to the suffering of others because I cannot stand the spineless promise of prayers from politicians anymore. I confess that I have not done as much as I could to petition those same politicians and everyone I can find to change this, to see the way our culture is killing itself one bullet at a time. I confess that I have walked away from important conversations because I felt too empty to argue any further. I confess that I have not returned to the spring of living water to fill that emptiness because I am filling it instead with wrathful frustration and scathing cynicism. I confess that I no longer try to bear the sorrow.
The shooter was wrong. He was wrong to take life that was not his, he was wrong to drive a community into shock and fear, he was wrong to be so careless about his fellow humans. I am not in the least advocating for any judicial lessening of this understanding. But Reader, we cannot continue to demand the reconciliation of the violent without acknowledging our own places of turning away from God. I cannot rage at the empty speeches of those far away and far removed without acknowledging that I don’t continually write their offices to tell them to fix this. I cannot despair at the American love of weaponry without acknowledging the many ways I glorify the rough-and-tumble violence that promotes it. And I cannot call this man evil without seeing that I am not perfectly good.
My heart aches with my anger at this, Reader. It aches with my sorrow and the pain and my ever-dimming hope that we might one day say we have had enough. But the only way to soothe that ache is is to turn from my part in creating it, however small; to confess that I have had that part in creating it, that I have left undone various aspects of the Kingdom building God asks of me; and to celebrate that I have been set on a new way that will never be easy and will require more and ever more reconciliation but that will continually bring me closer to my Lord.
Psalm 13 begins, “How long, o Lord? Will You forget me forever?…How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” How long shall we stand vigil for the lost and pray for the fallen? How long, o Lord, will You leave us to this violence? Yet verse five is the psalmist’s hope: “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.”
I do not have the answer to this violence, Reader. I do not have the shooter’s confession. I cannot say when we as a nation will turn away from this path. But I can seek reconciliation for myself; I can ask forgiveness of my God and His people that I might go out into this fallen world and forgive. And in that, I might celebrate the Spirit that breathes within me to allow forgiveness even of the enablers, even of the silent, even of the shooter. For God’s love manifests in unconditional forgiveness, drawing us ever and again to Himself that we might never be lost or left behind; in gratitude, may we strive to do the same.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:6)