This weekend our congregation hosted a regional gathering of Presbyterian churches. We are one of twenty-some churches that make up the Yellowstone Presbytery. Four times a year pastors and elders from the presbytery gather for Bible Study, reflection, mission, and to tend to our shared work. As I sat in our sanctuary listening to church members reflect on where they saw God at work in their churches and in their own lives, as I listened to pastors share about new addiction recovery groups their congregation is offering, as I listened to others share about peacemaking conferences and community gardens, I was struck at how blessed we are to be connected. One of the beliefs we focus on as a denomination is our connectional nature, that God desires for us to work together and not be alone. That belief is applicable to the workings of the churches as we join together as a denomination, but it is just as applicable to God’s intention for us as human beings— we are created to be in community.
I left the gathering feeling inspired and confident that God was working in our midst here in Montana. I felt in awe of how others have continued to answer the call to join God in that work. I felt hopeful for how the word was going to be impacted for the good and how love was being freely given from these congregations. After the meeting ended I chatted a bit with our Executive Presbyter about how awe inspiring and humbling it is that God chooses to work through normal human beings to leave a mark on the world. Each of us has a unique purpose to live into and God is counting on us to do so. It was empowering and a great way to spend a Saturday.
Then I woke up on Sunday morning.
As I prepared to lead worship in our congregation, I saw social media references to a shooting in Florida. I paused and prayed, shook my head in disbelief, and made a mental note to find out more after church. It was only later in the day as the chaos of nap times and meal preparation were behind me that I read the details of what happened. My heart was broken.
Forty-nine people were killed in cold blood.
Forty-nine people- who started their evening desiring to spend time having fun with friends and winding down after a long week- never came home.
I cannot make sense of how this has happened. Even more disturbing is that this isn’t the first time something so awful has. We are just at the one year mark from when Bible Study attenders in North Carolina were murdered. The tragedy at Sandy Hook still haunts my memories. My heart is broken, my spirit is sad, and my mind is angry. This isn’t supposed to happen.
They deserved to wake up Sunday morning. They had every right to live full lives filled with stimulating careers, a loving family, and growing old. They were meant to be living.
Thinking back to my weekend, I couldn’t help but grieve a personal loss. We were connected. I was their’s and they were mine. God needed them as much as God needs me and God had unique purposes that they were created to fulfill. The whole world lost 49 irreplaceable brothers and sisters. That is beyond heart breaking. I also felt guilt. I am responsible for them. They were responsible for me. We commit to doing what we can to ensure that each other’s freedoms and safety are secure. The action that took their lives was taken by an individual who chose evil, I do not condone it, I did nothing to encourage it. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if I have done everything in my in the future to someone else’s son or daughter.
I don’t pretend to have any answers. There are awful people in this world who will do awful things. My cynical side knows that will probably never change. Yet, we need to try. We need to protect each other. We need to be outraged. We need to try something, even if there is a chance that it won’t work. We need be persistent until something does work. We need to stop making issues about “them” and the other side of the political isle and start making it about us- because we are all the victims— we need each other.
I know this is a bit different than my normal reflections on the simple moments of life. This is not a simple moment of life. This is a huge, tragic moment in our shared story. We lost 49 brothers and sisters on Sunday. The grief will be a part of us and I pray we do all we can to keep this sort of tragedy from happening again. Let us continue to lift up their loved ones in prayer, their loss is more than we can imagine. May God’s peace and mercy flow and may we be vessels of love and hope in the midst of tragedy.