A day after the horrific murder of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, one of America’s most secular of institutions, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, felt compelled to deviate from business as usual during its regular broadcast. Instead of opening the show with its usual comedy sketch, the “not-ready-for-primetime” TV show began with a children’s choir. Sweetly singing the Christian hymn, “Silent Night.”
The next morning, at my local church, the service began with three leaders making a gun joke from the Pulpit.
I prefer Saturday Night Live’s approach.
The church was holding a fundraiser after the service where cookies were being sold. During the opening announcements, the church lay leader joked about someone using a gun to keep someone else in the congregation away from the cookies. The joke was picked up by the church board president and then the Pastor. I was stunned. In the pews sat the children, more of them present than usual for the service because it was to feature the children’s choir. They listened as the adult leaders of Christ’s church joked about using guns to keep people from eating cookies. I wonder what lesson they took away from that.
Saturday Night Live got it so right. My church got it so wrong.
As soon as the joking about guns ended, we began the actual service with a congregational prayer. It contained this line:
“Restore our fortunes, O God, that we may show everyone we meet your power to transform the world.”
The word “transform” jumped out at me.
It was hard to tell if anyone else was so affected. We read over those lines, monotone, words said because they were printed on a piece of paper and we had to say them to get to the next part of the service. How could we talk about transforming anything with no passion or no comprehending of the words – especially with 20 six-and-seven-year-olds lying dead in their classrooms with their little bodies torn apart by three to 11 bullets. Each. If there ever was a time for us to feel passionate about needing to transform the world, to do something, to protect the little ones who Christ called to Him, it surely was this Sunday.
Instead, the only thing out of the ordinary was the cookie sale and the joke about guns needed to protect the sweets. And, as usual, we droned through the words of prayer printed in the bulletin. The words we spoke were just words to pass over. But if the words we say in church are meaningless, why say them? Indeed, why go to church?
These questions were urgent ones for me, not only because of the soul-numbing tragedy in Connecticut but also because I have been trying hard to give church a second (third, actually) chance. I’ve struggled with my beliefs as an adult, alternately rejected then re-accepting the Christianity of my childhood. During my recent 273 mile hike in Vermont I found myself examining my spirituality and asking myself, “why not just believe?” So when I moved back home to rural Southern Illinois to live with my mother for a few months before making my next move to Seattle, I readily agreed to start going to church with her (and I even joined the choir to boot).
But, I realized that Sunday after the killings in Connecticut that I had set myself up. I walked into church Sunday morning hoping to find some sort of grounding, some words or consolation or spiritual guidance that would help my soul deal with such a senseless act of violence brought upon our nation’s most innocent during the season of peace. Surely, I thought, if a tawdry, secular show like Saturday Night Live can comprehend the need to depart from the norm the House of the Prince of Peace could do the same, if not more. But I was wrong.
In the end, though, it’s my fault. Many churches surely got it right on the Sunday morning after the killings. The words offered in the vigil in Newtown were good words. Calming words. Spiritual words. We are fortunate they were said. Lucky, perhaps. My error was depending upon a human institution to provide spiritual support and allowing my expectations to grow from that dependence.
Churches are run by fallible human beings and my church’s leaders failed me that Sunday morning. I realized that, while church or religion may help at times to bring me closer to God, I shouldn’t depend upon them to do so. A week earlier we discussed the role of religion in Sunday school class. Religion’s role, I thought, is to bring us closer to God. But since religious organizations are run by humans they simply can’t be trusted to fill that role. I trusted my church to help me find God in the aftermath of one of the most horrific events of violence that has occurred in my lifetime. I misplaced my hope.
If transformation is to come, it must start within ourselves. We must examine our individual role in changing the one tiny part of the world we have control over, which is what lies within our own hearts and the actions we chose to take. For that transformation to occur we each have to find God ourselves and not allow the quest to be diverted by the distractions of human failure. The church may at times be able to help in that quest – but I will no longer look to it as the primary source of my spiritual growth.
That has to come from God. With a little assist, perhaps, from Saturday Night Live, whose clip of Silent Night I’ve played repeatedly as I try to move past the terrible tragedy in Connecticut and the callous comments about guns that my church’s leaders felt led to make just two days later.