I knew it was going to be a special worship service when I heard the Introit, a stunning rendition of?I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More (by our bass soloist, Bob McDonald).
Last Sunday we had a guest preacher at Western Presbyterian, the Rev. Jim Atwood, who is passionate about the cause of ending gun violence.
He preached an excellent sermon, which drew a parallel between the current issue of ending gun violence and the church’s history around the issue of slavery. (Western’s history began in 1855, as tensions were escalating toward the Civil War.)
To Jim, ending gun violence is an ethical imperative similar to ending slavery.
After the sermon our Interim Pastor, the Rev. Beverly Dempsey, led us in a Litany to End Gun Violence. (She adapted it from a resource by the Rev. Mark Koenig of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.)
I love liturgy. Etymologically, it’s “the work of the people” and I like to hear the words with that work in mind. It’s one reason I enjoy spending hours crafting liturgy, and why I cherish the role of leading worship. Liturgy has the power to add new layers of meaning to familiar words. It comforts, challenges, and calls us to action.
In the case of this litany, one line really spoke to me. I’ll excerpt a few lines below, and bold that particular line, then reflect about its impact on me:
Some 30,000 Americans die by guns each year in the United States.
And we grieve.
An average of eighty people are killed by guns every day, including eight children.
And our hearts break.
Guns kill some 1,000 people each day in the developing world.
And we mourn.
An American child is twelve times more likely to die by a gun than are the children who live in all twenty-five industrialized nations combined.
And we weep.
Faced with gun violence,
We grieve for those who are killed and those whose lives are forever changed;
We seek comfort for those who have lost loved ones;
We pray for a change of heart for those who resort to violence.
With a jolt, I realized that the line “forever changed” was talking about ME. I belonged in that line because MY life was forever changed by gun violence. Tears sprang to my eyes and my voice caught.
I have long been a supporter of the cause of ending gun violence. But I have never really considered the emotional connection between that cause and my own history. That may sound surprising, especially to someone who knows my story. How could I not have been aware of this connection? After all, I was once held at gunpoint by masked intruders, an experience which changed the course of my life. This story is not a secret, although I haven’t spoke about it often, until recently.
And yes, it’s true that I had made the intellectual connection between my history and my interest in the cause of ending gun violence. I hate guns partly because I’ve been on the wrong end of one. I’ve said that many times.
But what I’m describing here is something different than connecting certain factual dots. During the speaking of this litany, I made a spiritual connection that I had never made so clearly before.
As I spoke that sentence aloud, I claimed that enduring that violent experience sent deep roots into my life. Those roots connected me to the countless other (often nameless) victims of gun violence. It is not a them, it is an us. This connection was on a visceral level.
Perhaps the fact that I’ve been writing about this portion of my history primed the pump, but speaking the lines of that litany moved me to hear a new call to use my voice in this cause.
I stand against gun violence precisely because I understand the implications of violent intrusion on innocent lives. What’s more, I claim that MY life was one of those intruded-on lives. This is not a cerebral statement. It is not something a preacher says from the pulpit, to marshal facts or sway opinion. It is a statement about how my life was affected by a random wanton act because someone had access to a gun, and that gun gave him undue power.
And here’s the thing: even as the tears sprang to my eyes during that litany, I glimpsed that this was the movement of the Spirit. Here was a congregation of people willing to consider this issue deeply, and to take a stand. My heart was grateful.
In my experience, these kind of grace-filled moments only happen among the church community during the course of worship. These moments are true gifts, glimpses of some new possibility, some new call or direction, some shifting into forgiveness and new life.
So yes, I found myself in church the other day. Because sometimes, being among the gathered believers allows the gospel to shine a new slant of light across the page of one’s life. Thanks be to God.
(The photo is of the Rev. Jim Atwood & the Rev. Roxana Atwood, taken at the March to End Gun Violence in DC last January, which was in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and which I blogged about here.)