In the Face of Tragedy, Petitioning God Is an Act of Faith

NASHVILLE — The sun was still shining brightly when I pulled into the parking lot of Christ Presbyterian Church here on Tuesday. Traffic was backed up outside the church, and I was a few minutes late for the start of a prayer service for the victims of the Covenant School shooting that had occurred just a few miles up the road the day before. Christ Presbyterian is a sister church of Covenant Presbyterian Church, a member of the same evangelical denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, P.C.A. for short.

The church was packed. The pews were full. Men, women and children lined the walls. Faces were streaked with tears. As I walked into the room, Nate Morrow, the head of Christ Presbyterian Academy, spoke to the congregation. “Prayer,” he said, “is the first and most powerful thing we can do.”

If you’re a parent of a schoolchild in 2023, you’ve perhaps gotten some form of the “lockdown” text. It could come from the school itself, announcing that a dangerous, or at least suspicious, incident is underway at school or nearby. More likely it would come from your network of friends. “Does anyone know anything?” someone will ask. They’ll have heard about an incident elsewhere in town, and the rumors cascade across social media and group texts.

On Monday, I was finishing recording a podcast when my phone lighted up. I saw the words “school shooting.” Then, “Covenant School.” I froze. I know Covenant. I belonged to P.C.A. churches for 18 years, until my family and I moved to a new church late last year. I’ve been to meetings at Covenant Presbyterian. I’ve spoken to the pastor. The P.C.A. is a very small world, and I knew that I’d be at most one degree removed from the victims. I learned later, to my heartbreak, that the pastor’s daughter, Hallie Scruggs, was one of them.

The rest of my day was torn in two. My professional self locked into an all-too-familiar fact-finding routine. Who did it? Which weapons did they use? Do we know their motive? Does this shooting fit the patterns? My personal self, by contrast, was focused on a single, overriding question: “Who is hurt?”

As the day dragged on, there were bursts of good news and terrible news. One friend’s daughter had been there, but was safe. News trickled in that other families were breathing sighs of relief. And throughout the day, the same words came across my screen, short prayers. “God have mercy.” “Lord have mercy.”

It is a terrible sign of our polarized times that the very concept of prayer in the midst of tragedy has itself become contentious. “Spare us your prayers,” some will say. “We demand action.” But what if people need prayer? What if grieving neighbors are desperate for prayer?

Wade McGregor, an elder at Covenant, spoke to us at the service. He said that he’d stared at a blank sheet of paper as he prepared his remarks. Words failed him. “I sat there for quite a while with my pad of paper,” he said, “and after a while I looked down at it. All I had written was ‘Pray for us.’”

In an increasingly secular culture, there is often a misunderstanding of the true purpose of prayer. If you don’t believe in God, it may strike you as silly, something beneficial only to the extent that it provides a placebo effect. At its worst it can seem like a cheap and easy way to respond to a terrible, preventable tragedy. Prayer, in this formulation, is a substitute for action. It’s a way that a guilty culture can feel good about itself even as it does nothing — nothing but watch children die. Again.

Moreover, there’s no doubt that there are some people who use declarations like “I’ll pray for you” as a polite form of dismissal. It’s a way of expressing a vague blanket concern, and nothing more. This is the way that the rote recitation of “thoughts and prayers” turns the sacred into the profane.

But when there is genuine belief and genuine humility, prayer is something else entirely. It’s an act that — again, presuming you believe anything close to what I believe —connects you to the creator of the universe. In that way, Morrow is exactly right. Petitioning God is more powerful than petitioning any president. After all, the Book of Proverbs declares that “a king’s heart is like channeled water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses.”

Petitioning God changes us. It changes others. Confronting an immense tragedy can make us feel small. It can make us feel helpless. How do you comfort a community in pain? How do you respond to a parent who lost a child? How do you know when to speak, or what to speak, about a terrible wave of mass shootings that is touching so very many American communities? And what is the wisest response — personally, culturally and politically — to this horrific wave of mass violence?

For the faithful believer, prayer isn’t a substitute for action, it’s a prerequisite for action. It grounds us before we move to serve others. It grounds us before we speak in the public square.

Moreover, petitioning God is a tangible act of faith. It reminds believers of their ultimate sense of trust in an eternal presence. It reminds us of the very concept of eternal life. As my friend Scott Sauls, Christ Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor, said in the service, “We grieve, and we hope.” Prayer helps us grieve. Prayer helps us hope.

As the service neared its close, David Filson, the head of spiritual life at Christ Presbyterian Academy, rose and reminded us of precisely what we hope for. He quoted C.S. Lewis: “In Heaven,” Lewis wrote, “there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly Beloveds. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures He made lovable to Love Himself. But second, because we shall find them all in Him.”

Another American community is feeling the indescribable pain that has afflicted our brothers and sisters in Columbine, Parkland, Uvalde and so very many other communities. As a lawyer and a writer, I’ve grappled with the challenge of mass shootings, writing and speaking in support of legal reform again and again and again.

I am, in general, an advocate for gun rights. I’m a gun owner. My family has received years of ugly threats from the Trumpist right, and I’m keenly aware of the need for self-defense. But I’ve also called for “red flag” laws that permit the police to seize weapons (and prevent weapons purchases) when people demonstrate that they’re a threat to themselves or others. While the investigation is still in its infancy, there’s emerging evidence that if Tennessee had had a red flag law, the Covenant assailant’s parents and law enforcement may have been able to prevent the shooting.

I’ve grown appalled as parts of the gun rights movement have veered into embracing a form of gun idolatry or gun fetish that treats a gun as a quasi-sacred object. Indeed, Representative Andy Ogles, the congressman for Covenant’s district, sent out a Christmas card featuring him, his wife and two of his kids holding AR-style rifles. Gun fetishists delight in “triggering” and intimidating fellow citizens with open displays of firepower.

I do not for a moment think that prayer is the only response to tragedy. But for me and millions of others it is a necessary response. On that terrible day and that mournful night, when people I know were torn in two by unspeakable loss, I prayed with my friends and with my neighbors. I prayed that God would comfort the families of the fallen, that pastors and other caregivers would possess the wisdom to minister effectively, that families and friends would be aware of and respond to the troubled young people in their midst, and that lawmakers could also demonstrate the wisdom and (just as important) moral courage to enact the policies that can make a difference.

But the specificity of the prayer is much less important than its existence. Indeed, everything I just prayed for can be summed up in the same cry that was texted to me as the details of the shooting were still unknown. It is the same cry of believers across the ages who’ve suffered in this valley of tears.

God have mercy, we ask. Lord have mercy, we plead. But then we must act — to heal wounded hearts, to bear one another’s burdens, and to address the terrible scourge of violence that scars our land.

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