I started to go to a funeral today. I did not know the deceased, had never heard of him until a young man exploded and killed nine people inside a house of God, and the news exploded all over every kind of media outlet. I said I would go: I would stand between the mourners and those who would explode outside the house of God. I would drive the five hours and more alone, and I would pray, and I would speak peace and love. I would place my body in the place where nine bodies would never again bow or pray or sing or welcome a stranger coming through the door. But then God said, “Stay.”
I stayed home today. I have prayed for Clemente Carlos Pinckney, in case God is pleased by prayers for the dead, because I do not know or understand such things from my own life experience, and because I do believe Clemente Pinckney lives on with God. I have thanked God for his life, infant, child, and man, and for all those who were blessed by knowing him. I have prayed for his father, though I do not know whether he survives; I have prayed for the men who may have mentored the deceased, who may have looked on him with some of the affection and pride of a father. I have prayed for his mother, living or gone, and for the women who have prayed for him, encouraged him, fed him, hugged him, and cheered him on. I have prayed for his brothers, not only by blood – if there were any – and so for the men who have tested their mettle against him on teams or committees, who have been inspired or humbled by him, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with him to put faith in action. I have prayed for his sisters, though I do not know his family relations, but for all the women who have admired him and valued his approval, who have seen him as a model of a good man, who have been motivated to faithful living by knowing him. And God said, “Pray.”
Who is praying for Dylann Storm Roof? I am, now. I am home, surrounded by love. Where is Dylann? Can I pray for a young man who has intentionally taken lives? Oh, but can I see the darkness in my own heart, where Christ told me that harboring anger is subject to judgment just like murder? God loves me. God loves Dylann. Can I cry out against the hatred and rage that drove him without looking into his eyes with love? Can I see beyond whatever I think I see in those eyes, in photographs and videos of a troubled young man – defiance, indifference, hatred, hopelessness, defeat – and see what God would see, a wounded soul?
Yes, I can pray for Dylann. So I have prayed that healing will find him, and that he can accept healing for his soul. I have prayed that he’ll be able to allow the bandage of anger to be loosed, that he’ll be able to let the painful places in his heart be exposed to the healing touch of God. I have prayed that Dylann can experience true love, and true healing, and true wholeness. Still, God said, “Pray.”
We do not have permission, do we, to decide who receives His grace? We do not have permission, do we, to judge who is worthy of prayer? We do not have permission, do we, to refuse to pray for those whose behavior displeases us? “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” God reminded me what initially moved me to want to go to Charleston: I wanted to stand between the mourners and those who would heckle and protest and interfere with the proceedings. I wanted to be another body representing the body of Christ, standing against the members of Westboro Baptist Church who claim the same position. I guess in a way I wanted to go to war, but as a representative of peace. I guess my Commander, who changes the world by changing hearts, knew I needed to bow down more than I needed to stand up. And now I have prayed for the members of Westboro Baptist Church, that they would receive the love that exceeds and transcends the need for contention and strife and hate. And I have prayed for those who wave battle flags of any color as not-so-silent insults to those who disagree with their views, for brave folk and for cowards who hide from their own truth by getting behind causes that seem bigger and better than life or love. And I have prayed for forgiveness, because I have seen my own narrow-mindedness and judgment and impatience, my sin, yet again.
Can we make a bridge of peace not only across rivers and races and sociopolitical divides, but from hope to desperation? Can we build a community so passionate for God that fear and hatred and generations of enmity will melt in the heat of its love? Can we make a world where we embrace the other, welcome the stranger . . .
But, Lord, that’s what the people did, and he killed them. And God said, “Yes.”
This is no easy fight. This not a low-stakes game. The God who sent his son to love and embrace and welcome the ones who would betray and torture and kill him, that same God asks us to do that same thing. Can I love again and again, when I’m disappointed and rejected and despised and criticized? Can I love again and again, when I’m afraid and uncomfortable and awkward and embarrassed? Can I love again and again, when I’m angry and vengeful and unforgiving and selfish? Can I keep putting on the nature of God, following the example of Christ, laying aside my self-imposed burdens? Even if it’s weird? Even if it’s inconvenient? Even if it’s controversial? Even if it’s hard?
I can. And I will. I will look into the faces of those around me and I will look for what God sees. I will seek to affirm and to heal and to bless. I will pray that my actions will be multiplied by God in the spirit, so that no one will have to turn to hate and rage and violence to find meaning and satisfaction and hope. I will pray for those who would divide and devalue God’s children, and I will speak against symbols and systems and programs of division and oppression and inequality.
I will remember that those who hate and those who are hated are both victims of fear. And I will love, and love, and love, again and again, because perfect love, and only love, casts out fear.