This last week has been sobering in our country. For those of us in Southern California, the reality of mass shootings that other parts of the country have experienced came home to roost. So many emotions and opinions swirl around my heart and head. It got even closer for me last Sunday night when I stood on the platform with Bishop Bruno to mourn the death of Ricky Galvez, son of Margarita and Downey police officer slain by gun men in the parking lot. As I looked out on the overwhelmingly sad face of his mother, and heard the inspiring stories about his life from his friends, the epidemic of gun violence came home in a powerful way. I couldn't help but think of Ricky and Margarita when I heard about the 14 killed in San Bernardino. I didn't know any of the 14. I now know that some of my friends lost friends and relatives in that violence. We truly are all connected.
As we journey through Advent in the midst of this reality, I think about prayerful waiting. There's been a lot of controversy about the role of prayer in responding to San Bernardino. We all have to pray for those impacted by the gun violence. But it’s important that when we say we are praying we understand that prayer cannot be separated from action. Our scriptures tell us that praying without action is insufficient: “faith without works is dead.” Sunday worship and daily prayers are not complete without action. One of the most pastoral things we can do for those who are victims as well as their families is to take action in addition to praying for their consolation, life-long journeys both of grief and of healing.
Of course, the issue of gun control always comes up around these tragedies, as it should. There are vastly different perspectives about the matter among Americans, and even among religious people in America. While we walk by faith not by sight and cannot be 100% sure about issues like gun control, we can know enough to act. That is what Advent is about. Advent is the season of history between Christ’s coming as a baby and the coming of the Reign of God that will be recognized by all. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul refers to these as the first day and the day of Jesus Christ. We live between these two days. We know some things, but never know enough to act with full assurance. Yet Paul found enough assurance to act and his prayer suggests a way to live between the two Advents.
In our better moments we remember God’s faithfulness on the first day while we are in the dead ends. By remembering, we maintain hope for another day. But all too often we forget there ever was a first day of God’s faithfulness, so we look around and see how bad things look and we fall into confusion and despair. Personal & moral ambiguities continue to confront us because the Day of Jesus Christ remains in the future. I’ve discovered that into my confusion God keeps bringing first days into our lives. There really is something to look back on and remember about God’s faithfulness.
Paul prayed for the Philippians to be able to determine what was best amidst all the choices and all the pressures. That prayer was backed up by his commitment to act. The message of his life backed up that prayer to offer clear guidance. The first part of that message was, don’t just pray, do something. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter because he had acted on the convictions he was praying for the Philippians to uphold. He had a clear vision of the society the Gospel called him to work for. And he had internalized that vision enough to stick with it even when it faced opposition, even when he was threatened with imprisonment. The biblical model of prayer invites us to pray, and then to take the first step toward answering our own prayer.
An ancient Hebrew legend tells us that God did not open up the Red Sea for the fleeing Israelites to pass through until one of them boldly jumped into the sea to lead the way. That one prayed before God answered the prayer. Leslie Weatherhead tells the story of a little girl who was troubled by the fact that her older brother trapped rabbits. She had begged him in vain to stop. One night her mom heard her praying: "Dear God, please stop Tommy from trapping rabbits. Please don't let them get trapped. They can't. The won't. Amen." Her mom asked, "How can you be so sure that God won't let the rabbits be trapped?" her daughter calmly replied: "Because I jumped on the traps and sprung them." Don't just pray; do something.
A second message about prayer for these Advent times from Paul's life was: Don't just take someone else's word for it; know the answer inside yourself. The Philippians were beginning to wonder about Paul's vision. It was under serious attack in their church. Some said he didn't respect authority and tradition. Others said his vision of Jews and Gentiles together in the same church was hogwash. The Philippians were wavering because they had not internalized their beliefs. They had to choose between competing external authorities. Paul, on the other hand, had so deeply internalized the belief that God would complete the work that had been begun that even when that work was threatened he had the courage to walk right into the threat. That's why he was in prison as he wrote this letter.
Our country is deeply divided about how to respond to the violence that has taken the form of more mass shootings than days in the current year. Some argue for gun control as a way to decrease the violence. Others argue for targeting Muslims to increase our security against terrorists. Many would further tighten our borders against refugees fleeing violence in their own countries. What is your prayer? What are the connections between all of these factors? What do we need to pay attention to?
A third message about prayer is Don't try to do it alone; become part of a community that works together to bring about change. One reason the right changes don't happen is because people don't think change is possible. When someone invites us to a meeting to work with others to make a change, we often think, "What's the point? There's too much power for those people to make a difference." So we stay home and watch television. We may even help our kids with their homework so they can make a difference. But we have to wake up to the fact that together people can make changes and have made culture level changes.
One of my favorite verses in Psalm 25 literally reads, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for God will pluck my feet out of the net.” I discovered that image over 30 years ago. It made so much sense to focus on God rather than on the net that had my feet entangled. The only problem was I was never able to do it. I couldn’t take my eyes off the damn net. But a few years ago I discovered a paraphrase of the Psalm. That verse is paraphrased in a way that is relevant today:
When fear prompts me to distraction and excuse,
You place in my path a need I cannot refuse.
I experience so much fullness and I taste the promise of your support.
For surely when I dare to go where I fear to go,
I become aware of the security of your friendship.
And my eyes are on your face in the faces of those I meet,
And my feet are freed for walking.
I realized why I hadn't been able to do it: I'd been looking at God simply as another distraction. Allowing God to speak to me through the experience of someone close frees me to stay with it and find freedom within it. “My eyes are on your face in the faces of those I meet, and my feet are freed for walking,” My experience with Ricky and Margarita became that. The real challenge of waiting is learning to stay with the experience, the emotions, the present moment, and the one who is with us in that moment – both human and divine. If that sounds easy it’s because you’ve never tried. An old Southern proverb says, “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to remember the original objective was to drain the swamp.” We all have times when it seems we’re up to our waist in alligators, flailing around, fearful of predatory persons or forces, unable to remember how we came to this critical moment.
The question I've always asked of Advent is, “What are you waiting for?” But maybe the question we should be asking is, “What are you waiting with?” What are you holding as you walk through Advent this year? Whatever it is, let it be with you as you wait. Whose accompaniment are you counting on as you wait – God’s? Another person’s? We do not have to walk alone. Sometimes we need to seek out another. Sometimes we simply need to let others in. Whatever or whoever you are waiting with this Advent, my you find the peace and strength to hold it with grace.