February 22, 2018 Tom Berlin

After the Thoughts and Prayers

People with joined hands as a team

Their faces have been before us. Since the most recent school shooting in America, the faces of the students, teachers, administrators and parents related to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have been everywhere. Only days after the tragic loss of life, as injured survivors lie in hospital rooms hoping to fully recover, the voices of the Parkland community have spoken up. They give voice to their loss, trauma and pain. They want change. They want answers. They want this to not happen again.

A recent Washington Post article demonstrates that this community is just one in a long line of those traumatized by school shootings that have left about 250 teachers and students dead since 2000. If we would add in the number of shooting victims in public places such as theatres and nightclubs, the map in the Post article that shows the locations of these incidents would be even more crowded.

It is now customary for Christians and others who have no words to respond to the latest shooting to simply say that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims. In reply, others criticize such a statement, and they have a valid point. Wishes of “thoughts and prayers” can sound hollow, especially to those who do not pray regularly, because it sounds like we are asking God to do what we are unwilling to attempt. Prayer, for Christians, is not about tasking God with our problems or asking God to do our will. Prayer is a means for God to speak to us, to influence our thoughts, call us to action and conform our often-stubborn will to the intentions of the Kingdom of Heaven. The question before prayerful Christians is not, “Will you pray?” Not to pray or pause in silence related to the loss and horror of these shootings would be rather remarkable. The question of prayer is, “What will our prayers call us to do?” When the answer Christians offer through compassionate words void of accompanying action is “nothing,” we seem superficial at best and impotent at worst. It is hard for non-believers to hear us talk about the power of God in our lives when our responses to critical issues of our society are ineffectual. I can’t imagine that the Almighty thinks much better of it than they do.

Some speak of what needs to be done as though these shootings are a simple matter, as if we could do one thing well and then all would be well in our schools. The depth and consistency of this problem does not lend itself to simple solutions. This is not addition or subtraction. This is multi-variable calculus. We might begin by considering what factors are at work to prevent the next teenager from killing and terrorizing their classmates. Some factors that lead to school safety, in no particular order, may include:

A = Caring adults who build dependable and loving relationships with students

B = Access to mental health services for those at risk

C = School security

D = Diminished access to weapons

E = Education in values

F = Diminished exposure to violence through video games and media

G = Family cohesion

H = Bullying and abuse prevention

The equation below is not my attempt to solve the problem. It is not the solution, which would vary greatly depending on community context. My hope is to simply illustrate that any solution will require attention to a variety of variables and important factors to reach the goal of safe schools in America. For example:

School Safety = A(E + H) + C(D) + (B + F) + G

Depending on the context of the school, we might create programs and protocols that would allow us to multiply some of these factors by larger numbers than others. What seems odd this week, in light of the faces and voices from Parkland, are the number of political leaders in our country who encourage us to separate gun access from school security, or who put a zero in front of the desire to limit access to military grade weapons even to those under age 21 or those with a difficult mental health history.

School Safety = A(E + H) + C + (0 x D) + (B + F) + G

It seems unlikely that the current level of access to military grade weaponry and large capacity ammunition clips will diminish these shootings. The desire to remove access to weapons as a factor in school safety by political leaders is apparently not rooted in evidence-based practices that other countries have used to dramatically reduce school shootings. It seems more connected to the influence of gun lobbies who support their campaigns and threaten to back new candidates who will do their bidding if the current politicians dare change their stance on these matters. Nothing teaches us that money talks, or that money can purchase silence and inactivity in political leaders, like their inaction after the shootings of the past 18 years.

People always get nervous when a pastor questions a politician, but when I was ordained they made me promise to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I have spent far too long embracing the first part of that commission while fearing the outcomes of the second. You may understand the feeling. In the last week, I have been reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” (Jeremiah 5:21 NIV) Jesus used a similar phrase when he was frustrated with his closest disciples, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:18) I wonder what Jeremiah and Jesus would say to people of faith in America right now? We simply must see these faces from Parkland, Florida. We must hear these voices and not turn away from them through inactivity as we have so many other school shooting victims.

Here is the good news: our prayers can lead us to action, and will if they are sincere and open to the Holy Spirit. There are many things Christians are doing and many things we can focus on related to school safety factors:

  • Offer campaign support to courageous politicians of any party who are willing to simply reason together about the factors that contribute to school safety, including access to weapons. I prayed about this issue the other day and ended up writing my representative in Congress. I shared my concerns in ways that I hoped were reasonable and polite. I offered to give her money to help backfill the donations gun lobbies gave her at the last election.
  • Give time to organizations and events in our church and community where we get to know kids, build authentic relationships, look out for kids on the margin and encourage behavior that builds others up rather than tearing others down.
  • Become advocates for mental health services and share our experience so that those who suffer in this way are helped rather than marginalized.

Parents focus on these safety factors when they secure gun safes, teach values, set boundaries on exposure to screen violence and care not only for their kids but their friends as well. Adults who volunteer in sports leagues, church groups and a variety of other settings where students are encouraged to develop and mature deserve our gratitude. And most importantly, teachers and school administrators and employees who dedicate their lives to the education and safety of our children deserve all the support and gratitude we can give them.

You can choose to work on any one of these issues or several. Followers of Jesus simply must do something or risk the witness of the church which has addressed numerous worthy causes after receiving its marching orders in time properly devoted to thought and prayer.

, , , , ,

Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

Comments (12)

  1. Jerome Wolgin


    It’s clear that the U.S. has many more gun homicides than any other developed country i the world (Central America and the Caribbean have higher rates), For example, the UK has .07 gun homicides per 100,000 population, while the US has 3.85 per 100,000. The U.S. rate is 55 times higher. Do we have more crazy people here? Are our teens more depressed? More isolated? The only factor that differentiates the U.S. from other countries is the availability of guns. All other solutions are bandaids when we have cut an artery.

    Despite the very real cultural divisions that we have, I think that, unless, we begin to address the issue of gun control, we will be revisiting these tragedies again and again.

    • U. Han Hummus

      I strongly shared this sentiment until I read the book “More Guns, Less Crime” by John Lott. It was a rather academic and tough read (for me anyway), but it widened my horizons. And while I agree with his conclusions, unfortunately the book does not address what spawns and how to curb the desire to mass shoot. It does, however, give a strong argument for ways to reduce the casualties associated with mass shootings.

  2. With each needless, tragic and horrific school shooting, we hear, “Thoughts and prayers” and “Now is not the time to talk about guns.”
    Wrong on both counts.
    Thoughts and prayers are hollow and do nothing. Stringent gun laws work, and yes, now is exactly the time to discuss this and enact stringent gun laws.
    No, I repeat for the tenth time, NO private citizen needs a military weapon, EVER!
    Every gun owner must carry liability insurance on every gun he/she owns.
    Cars can be weapons if driven by a driver who is under the influence of drugs or ETOH, or rage. Cars must carry liability insurance, why not guns?
    States with stringent gun laws have fewer gun deaths! Google this if you do not believe me.
    Stop the “thoughts and prayers,” they do nothing but allow more senseless gun deaths!

    • chuck

      thought to ponder prior to 1980 you could buy a true assault rifle now only our military has an assualt rifle which is fully automatic. non military owns semi automatics. I Wonder what has changed in the years since? The weapons available prior to 1980 could have killed so many more, faster than today’s weapons? I Wonder what changes the weapons have gone through since 1999 to target helpless people in schools? The weapons haven’t changed but somethings have.

      • The Internet, Chuck. The Internet went public in 1991 and since then the sales of weapons as escalated.
        Gun shows, on the other have dropped in popularity, although still vastly popular in some areas.
        Areas where I would have thought that people might wish to own a gun, not a military weapon, but a shotgun or handgun for protection, such as Wyoming, and Montana, the citizens have fewer guns.
        Since there, so far, are no background checks on Internet sales, guns sales proliferate.
        On further research, I learned that the most popular weapon is a military weapon, which to most of us who want to keep our children, friends and other family members safe, think that these types of weapons should be banned.
        If our congress is forced to refuse money from the NRA, maybe we will see some changes, as they will no longer be able to take their “blood money.”

  3. Jerome, you are absolutely correct. I Googled a map of the states with the highest and lowest gun deaths. The states with the most stringent gun laws saw fewer gun deaths.
    I agree we are not the only nation with people who are mentally ill but we do have a higher number of deaths due to guns. So the issue is not mental illness it is guns.
    Wayne La Pierre spoke at length this morning on MSNBC and blamed Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and on and on he ranted, however, since his agenda is guns and the gun industry, he never, even once, mentioned that guns were the problem.
    Well, Mr. La Pierre, guns are the issue, too many guns, and too many military weapons in the hands of civilians, who should never own a military weapon.

  4. Kate Murphy

    As a teacher, I find it increasingly difficult to show up for work each day, although I love to teach and adore my students and colleagues. The thought of working next to a teacher carrying a concealed weapon, on the theory that that would be deterent or a prevention, makes me angry. We teachers need to focused on our students, especially in an emergency. The time, money and resources that some would put into arming teachers would be much better spent on identifying and helping the mentally ill, anti-bullying education, and getting assault weapons out of the hands of civilians. In the meantime, I spend my spare minutes thinking, what do I do if …?

    • Kate, you are in a position to know. Kudos to you and the other teachers who do not think that it is appropriate for teachers to be armed.
      We need fewer guns, no, absolutely no military weapons in the hands of civilians, and stricter gun laws.
      Mental illness is not the issue, the issue is gun control. Other advanced nations have mentally ill citizens, but hardly any gun deaths. Why? Because there are fewer if any guns!

  5. Maggie

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Tom. I’m finding that it always helps me to read your reflections on difficult issues.

  6. Great ideas, Tom, and they should be incorporated, but we need to have stricter guns laws, too. European nations have mentally ill citizens, and some areas are deeply devout and virtually have state religions, whereas others are agnostic and atheist, and none of those nations have the gun deaths that our nation has had. So, it is partly the need of religion in one’s life, but also, the need to control guns.

  7. Connie Bare

    Dear Reverend Berlin,
    Thank you for your blog! All of your posts are timely, well-written, and thought-provoking. I am glad to hear a voice such as yours coming out of the United Methodist Church, particularly in these challenging times. My father is an 88-year-old retired United Methodist minister who stays active by continuing to teach. I recently encouraged him to start a blog dealing with thoughts on religion in contemporary life, which he has since done. We are both very impressed with your posts and site. Thanks again for your voice and leadership!

Leave a Reply to Carla and Bob Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *