The trouble with being a pastor is that you are supposed to know what to say and do in any situation. People get sick, have babies, engage in relational acrobatics, embarrass themselves on the internet, fail in school, become estranged, crash their cars, win the lottery, get engaged, die, fight with their neighbours, play in the orchestra, get promoted—and in every case a pastor is expected to have the right words, the right gesture of support. It is like a never-ending, three-dimensional pop-quiz.
Beyond the personal questions there are those dropped on us daily by the news. Some of the most difficult involve responding to yet another shooting or vehicle attack with massive innocent casualties. These events are horrific. When they happen in a pastor’s own community, I see leaders rise to the occasion. They speak a community’s grief; they sound notes of reassurance and resolve. The question is immediate and local. Many respond well.
But what do we say and do when these events do not touch our communities directly? A little over a year ago in Quebec City, some 400 kilometers from where I pastor in Ottawa, a young man entered a mosque after prayers and opened fire. A trigger was pulled. Children lost fathers. In the following week, Christian ministers throughout the city of Ottawa sent notes of sympathy to Muslim leaders in our community. It wasn’t hard to imagine that they would feel vulnerable. Our churches prayed for them too. We wept for them. We wept for the state of things.
Such a response was not nothing. Yet, when worshipers are intentionally cut down by bullets, praying and weeping can often feel like nothing.
In a better world—if it is possible to hypothesize about such things—anyone’s willingness to kill for personal gratification, ideology, faith, culture, or nationalism would trigger an automatic personal shutdown. Some moral force would cause the would-be-killer to stop in his tracks, like a robot unable to violate his programming. It would be a sign that, if our ‘love’ of something demands the death of others, our desires had twisted us into something for which our freedom was not intended. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world. People have these thoughts, they make plans, and afterwards everything goes on as disgusting normal. So what do we do? I do not know exactly, but part of the answer surely depends on who the ‘we’ is. When the ‘we’ are fellow citizens, there is the action of getting to know our neighbours, and the longer reach of promoting sensible legislation. We encourage and cajole our elected officials to do something.
However, I do not think churches are at their best when pastors see them primarily as vehicles for legislative change. When the ‘we’ is the church, our primary response must be different. If we reduce the church to a lobby group, we should not be surprised that people find it redundant. Some pastors believe the best response for churches is to protect their own: hire guards, arm the deacons, get marksmanship training for the seniors. I am in favor of prudent security measures, but I can’t see Jesus in the arming of the congregation. I also have my doubts about the underlying assumption that the most serious threats to freedom can be beaten back with bullets. Better, if it comes to this, to worship in secret.
The congregation I serve does not celebrate communion every week. However, as it happened, we did so the Sunday that followed the shooting in Quebec City. Presiding over the ritual in the emotional aftermath of that event was, for me, a revelation.
On that Sunday, we sidestepped the usual limitations and shared the bread and the wine with all in attendance. In the tiny portions of bread and wine was a symbol of a divine love so intense and so real as to suffer on our behalf. We ate and drank our belief that God is not only the transcendent judge above the fray, but also the one who bears the wounds we inflict upon each other. We made visible our belief that God’s sustaining power is offered without discretion. Without words we said that the bodies the violent seek to break are bodies that God loves. They are bodies in which God’s breath has been placed. We publicized our belief that God suffers with us—the whole way, even unto death.
I have come to think that every celebration of communion is a vigil for those who suffer. It tastes like bread and wine—but it is the presence of divine justice and love. Now I have gotten in the habit of looking to our congregation’s rituals and practices for answers when I’m faced with a pastoral question to which I do not know how to respond.
I have come to believe that the bulk of a congregation’s response to such violence is far upstream from bullets and alarms. Our most relevant work is slow and little-celebrated. We form people that abhor such acts. When a church’s life is vibrant and hospitable, it is a place where we learn to think beyond ourselves. We learn to value others. We learn to value them, not for some thrill they can give us (either in life or death) but for the simple reason that they are held dear by their Creator. We remind each other, week after week, that our lives are gifts and that to handle such gifts requires learning patience and forgiveness. We help our young men learn that gentleness is not an absence of strength and that costly love is more meaningful than short-term gratification. The milk of the biblical story nurtures in us the conviction that our lives have meaning.
I am not sure that I will know exactly what to say or do when another wave of violence breaks upon us. But I think I know where I will look for pastoral wisdom. In the mystery of the church’s practices, I am reminded that our enemy is not so much flesh and blood but devils in the form of nihilism or nationalism or xenophobia or narcissism. They hunt and roar with new energy today. Devils like these cannot be chained by legislation or gun-toting deacons. They are only finally cut down by liturgy and worship.