I was blissfully unaware of the school shooting yesterday in Florida for much of the day because I was busy with meetings and preparations for Ash Wednesday. When I saw the “Breaking News” alert on my phone, I tried to ignore it as long as I could.
Not until I got home from the Ash Wednesday service last night could I spend any time processing what happened.
Since I have already announced that our Lenten focus will be going deeper in prayer, let me suggest a couple of important things to know about how to pray in the aftermath of big tragedies such as a school shooting:
- Because the blame game will shortly begin, it’s always good to pray a Prayer of Confession. The usual suspects will be on TV soon — the NRA gun lobby, a do-nothing Congress, the state of mental health services, those who knew the shooter was a threat but did nothing, etc. But we all shoulder a portion of the blame for this national trait of ours. As Americans, we are complicit in a culture that celebrates violence, shames those with mental disabilities, and does nothing to prevent future school shootings. A Prayer of Confession is the only way to approach God in this matter.
- Pray for victims, survivors, and first responders by name. As names pop up on the screen or in news coverage, use those names in your prayer. This personalizes the situation for you, and has the effect of deepening your empathy and compassion. It’s one thing to pray for “all those affected by” an event, and quite another to pray for Reginald, Barry, and Leigh.
- Pray for the shooter. Our natural impulse will be to pray for the shooter’s destruction, or to leave him out of our prayers altogether. He has committed an atrocious and horrific evil. We want to avoid mentioning him, but the Truth-with-a-capital-T is that he is a beloved child of God, as surely as those whose lives he took. He is a human being who deserves dignity and respect, even if he did not extend dignity and respect in kind. Our prayer for this particular shooter ought to be that he finds grace from God such that he is driven to repentance.
- Very few words rise to the surface of one’s consciousness when trying to pray about a school shooting; thus, it can be a helpful thing to attempt praying without words. One way to do this is to watch news video footage with the sound muted. Let the images guide you; enter the scene with your imagination, and let the emotions you encounter lead you into prayer, either wordlessly or with words. Remain in silence for as long as you need to.
- Finally, pray for guidance to action. On Twitter yesterday, politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” for the shooting were mocked endlessly, because this has become the standard response to a recurring problem. If prayer doesn’t lead to corresponding action on our part, then one can rightly question whether our prayers were prayed in all sincerity. Ask God what you can do to counter the rash of school shootings in America.