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What can a parish church do?

When faced with events such as the Sandy Hook shootings, what can a parish church do?

The first responses are rather obvious – if you’re the parish in that town you comfort the afflicted, you bury the dead, you grieve with those who grieve.  If you are someplace else, you show solidarity, you change the sermon you had planned, you listen to the anxious, and you sing the names of the departed in the Prayers of the People.

And we cry.

And what about after the first responses? What then? 

Three thoughts:

1. A parish can encourage conversation.

Part of that needs to be encouraging the public discussion about guns.

I’ve never owned a gun. I did handle rifles when in the Scouts and during my brief stay with the USMC. I remember that the trainers at Camp Hart B.S.A. were from the NRA. They focused on safety. Nice guys.

I lived in Philadelphia for the first half of my life. I recall Uncle Dick coming by our house in his police car and showing us a machine gun. I think my parents had a handgun in their dresser. It came from an inheritance. There were no bullets in the house. I think they didn’t know what to do with the thing.

Living in Philadelphia and later in NYC and Trenton, I knew about the damage guns could do. I recall burying the son of a parishioner killed by someone with a handgun. When I was a parish vicar in South Philadelphia there was a man who interrupted a meeting with a handgun. I'm slightly embarrassed to say that when he announced that he was going to kill himself I felt relieved.  I told him he wasn't allowed to do that in a church. He bought that and walked out. I saw him hanging out at Broad and Snyder the following week. 

I’ve been around people who hunt—there were a few of the fathers on Augusta Street when I was a kid, there were people in Connecticut and Maine when I lived in those states.  I never had any interest in hunting myself. My father seemed repelled by hunting but had close friends who did hunt. I think his reaction had something to do with his service in the Philippines during WWII.

I think that’s the extent of my personal relationship with guns. I haven’t had my hands on a gun in 49 years. I have the typical knee-jerk left wing response to guns – control them, ban most of them. I don’t understand how anyone can support having weapons that can do this kind of damage.

While our conversations have to be informed by what we each make of the experiences we have had, they need to be more than that. What I think, feel and want aren't the only or even the primary considerations. Of course, I'm right about gun control (and a variety of other issues). The problem is that others think they're right, too.

A parish church can help the society by not starting out with a gun control stance. It’s too expected and too easily discounted when coming from us Episcopalians. If the point is to reinforce our self-righteousness I’m sure it will have that effect. But if what we want to do is both show our community a way to be in conversation about any difficult issue and make a contribution to this particular issue, we might be more faithful and more effective by inviting a more reflective conversation.

Events do sometimes break open the possibility of new ways of thinking.

Senator Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va) is a longtime gun rights advocate. It’s reported that he would be open to a discussion on restricting assault rifles. The Senator is reaching out to the NRA, saying that he wanted them "engaged in this dialogue" and that they "need to be at the table" to help craft a 'reasonable' solution." In an Associated Press report Manchin said, "This is bigger than just about guns." He added. "It's about how we treat people with mental illness, how we intervene, how we get them the care they need, how we protect our schools. It's just so sad."


There’s an interesting article posted on the New York Times website about the relationship between guns, individualism and our ability to have conversations. While it seems to be primarily about making a case for the need for some gun controls, it does come at the question in a unique manner. Thinking that moves beyond us yelling at each other might be useful. There was another one about young men and empathy. Both try to think about this in ways that may be useful to our hard hearts and very correct minds.

While we need to participate in such conversations in the broader society as citizens, and be willing to use the common language of citizenship, we may along the way offer something from our tradition’s wisdom. When I said the Office on Friday the words of the psalm became for me a mantra – “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *and why are you so disquieted within me?”  I found myself stuck there, repeating the phrase, Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *and why are you so disquieted within me?”

Later I read Ross Douthat, a Times columnist I love to disagree with, and found myself appreciating his speaking to this out of his Christian tradition.

In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains. That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.” In "The Loss of the Innocents," NYT April 15, 2012

Just how difficult it is to have the needed conversation can be seen in the comments after his article. Most move into their corner of the gun debate. Those not doing that want to make points about religion, for and against.

I know that I have mocked the idea that schools would be safer if teachers had guns. That’s still what I think, at least in the sense of what I’d vote for. But I paused for a moment when I heard that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and the psychologist, Mary Sherlach, tried to tackle the shooter. Just for a moment my mind opened to the thought, “What if they each had a gun?” That’s a conversation within me that needs to happen. I, and maybe we all, need a bit more openness to the complexity of this.

How can we begin to have real conversations in our parishes?


2. We can contribute to the conversation by saying what we know about the spiritual life of people.

That’s to say we can offer insight in a place where we have some expertise.

As an introvert (“the MBTI tells me so”) I am creeped out by the regular references to the shooters being “introverts.” In a day or so the stories may shift off that word and use “shy” or “a loner.” But really!!!

So, this isn’t entirely about defending myself and the 50% of us that score as an “I.”

The parish can in its preaching, pastoral care and education help people see that the issue isn't that these people are introverted or shy but that they were, in Henri Nouwen’s framework, consumed by, and resentful about, their loneliness.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll offer the promised first part of the exploration on Henri Nouwen’s “Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.”[i]  That will be on the movement from loneliness to solitude.

For now –

“The roots of loneliness are very deep and cannot be touched by optimistic advertisement, substitute love or social togetherness. They find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.” - Nouwen

It’s not introversion but accumulated resentment and lack of emotional control that we face. Or as the Great Litany says,

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory,
and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want
of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In our loneliness we rage. Loneliness is a very self-absorbed, self-centered condition – one that all human beings know. Nouwen suggests that, “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.”

The church knows something about these things.


3. We can take on the task of reshaping parish cultures where there is the illusion that the solution to loneliness is togetherness.

There’s a need to turn around our own tendency to approach the loneliness of people by togetherness instead of by solitude.

Many parishes seem driven by a superficial understanding of inclusion. People are pressed toward togetherness, and because we speak about the importance of diversity and uniqueness, we may think we have avoided the danger. That’s our illusion. 

Nouwen wrote, “Real openness to each other also means real closedness …When we do not protect with great care our own inner mystery, we will never be able to form community.” Can we shift our mental model so it contains more complexity, more paradox?

Most people in any parish are likely to be convinced that togetherness is the solution.  That’s not going to change. We are not going to preach people out of it.

People are in different places in the spiritual life. Not all will be apostolic in faith and practice. Any attempt to make it so damages the sacred dynamics of the Body. It also will nurture our own illusions about the perfect parish (and such illusions are grounded in loneliness and hostility).

However, that doesn’t mean we are to do the reverse and nurture the illusion of “togetherness as a solution.”

What parish leaders can do is shape the parish by nurturing a strong core of apostolic faith and practice and create a climate that nurtures solitude. We can do that without overwhelming those with little tolerance for it. Leaders can hold in mind several spiritual maps to help them navigate that work.

Specifics? I’d start with the obvious and simple. Real silence and stillness in each Eucharist. Not a lot, just some. Grace, beauty and flow in the Eucharist on the part of the congregation and those serving the liturgy at the altar and in music. An Advent Quiet Day even if only 4 attend. Maintaining a Christmas Eve Mass that happens late that night; suggesting that children might take a nap and attend, so they have this experience of liturgy that feeds solitude.

We can teach people, including children, the spiritual practice of silence and stillness. We can teach people, including children, the spiritual practice of reflection.[ii]  Of course children will only develop the competence they are capable of as children. It can’t be what it might be when they are 45 or 70 years old. But it’s something, it’s a beginning.

By its nature parish life and worship is an activity of togetherness. The art is to weave into the parish’s very external life moments that call us into solitude, that invite reflectiveness, and nurture the inner life.




A List of All Postings

[i]  Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen

[ii] Michelle Heyne and Bob Gallagher offer an approach on such practice in In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today's Christian Life  and In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice  . See Chapter 4 in each