On the Sunday after tragedy, who speaks of the soul?

A Sunday afternoon phone call alerted me to the blog that Diana Butler Bass posted the day after the shooting in Tucson that killed six people including federal judge John Roll and severely injured congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Bass notes that politically aligned commentators will have much to say about this event but then asks “but who will speak of the soul?

“The ministers,” she answers. She then speaks clearly about what kind of commentary preachers  should offer. “At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming.  Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words…Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans—how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.”

To which could be added other needs of the soul: to express remorse and to lament, and to be pointed toward hope in a time when there is little reason for that hope. Equally important, although it may be more difficult to provide, is to propose a theological framework for understanding the ongoing events of life.

While sermons on the Sundays after terrible events are important, there is an even greater need for a steady diet of preaching that is politically aware, spiritually sensitive, and theologically constructive—all at the same time.

In addition to the sermons, the prayers in the service of Word and Sacrament provide a way for the needs of the soul to be cared for. Prayers combine an awareness of the living presence of God, the continuing reality of life in the world, and the ardent desires of those who offer the prayers. Certainly the long prayers of intercession can be adapted to conditions in life, with specific references to the events that dominate the news and overwhelm the hearts and minds of worshipers. They can easily (and properly) become prayers of lament as well as of bewilderment, frustration, intercession, and hope. When national events are so horrendous that the president calls for a minute of silence and the House of Representatives rearranges its order of business for a week, it is appropriate for churches to include these events in the prayers they offer to God.

Roman Catholic theologian David Power proposes that even the eucharistic prayer can be offered in  ways that incorporate the events from our lives—especially those marked by tragedy—into the events of Christ’s passion and exaltation.

On some liturgical calendars the next few Sundays are referred  to as Sundays in “ordinary time.” One of the themes appointed for these weeks until the beginning of Lent is  the “epiphany,” the manifesting” or presenting of Christ to the world. This could be a time for church leaders to give special attention to the kind of world Jesus proclaimed and to interpret the implications for all of us who follow after him.

A request to pastors and others who see this blog: please send me links to or comments about the things sermons and prayers in your churches on this Sunday after this most recent horrendous happening in American public life. I look forward to seeing your thoughts about planning and leading worship that is politically sensitive but not partisan in its political character. With your help, I would like to write more on this topic.

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2 Responses to On the Sunday after tragedy, who speaks of the soul?

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks Keith, I’m going to post a link to my sermon — though once in the pulpit I did expand even on these words. I was fortunate that the text and sermon I had been writing allowed for an inclusion of comments on the day.

    http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/2011/01/servants-call-sermon.html

    I can add this that as I was sharing announcements at the beginning of the service I was moved to offer a prayer – extemporaneously — for those involved in the tragedy, as well as for the nation. This theme emerged in the Pastoral Prayer given by our intern, and again in my call to communion.

    On days like this we cannot ignore the realities of the day.

  2. Rod Reeves says:

    Appreciate Keith your observations in response to the blog post by Diana Butler Bass, “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul.”

    One sentence in your blog post is especially important in my view. “While sermons on the Sunday after terrible events are important, there is an even greater need for a steady diet of preaching that is politically aware, spiritually sensitive, and theologically constructive — *all at the same time*” (my emphasis).

    Your “both-and” rather than “either-or” approach on the timing of *both* pastorally & prophetically dealing with the immediacy of current individual, community, national & global existential angst in the midst of the present moment, *and* a longer nurturing pastoral & prophetic process of a “steady diet” on the dynamics involved in seeking to journey through life as a disciple of Christ, *both* individually and as disciples of Christ in community, fully resonates.

    Worship to be most meaningful must relate in some manner with what is going on in the individual lives of the worshippers and the communities — local, state, national & global — of which they are participants.

    Thanks again Keith for your thoughtful blog post.

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