When Words Won’t Work

Sometimes Words Don’t Work

A preacher’s job often involves trying to put words around experiences or ideas that are too big, too deep, too strong or too painful for words to describe.  Try as we must, there are times in all of our lives when human language cannot contain what we feel; times when words don’t work.

By God’s providence, the Florida Annual Conference  met in Orlando last week, the first time in living memory that we met there.  Still reeling from the attack at the Pulse nightclub, we prayed, sang, lit candles and reached out to support our pastors who serve the Orlando community, particularly those who have a history of welcome and support for LGBT men and women.  We affirmed a powerful statement from our Bishop and Cabinet.  First UMC of Orlando hosted an amazing Interfaith Prayer Service and St. Luke’s UMC (the church we birthed 37 years ago) became a center of hope and healing for folks in the Disney-Universal community.

And yet…words simply won’t work to carry the full weight of this tragedy and what it represents in our community and nation. The tragedy is only compounded by the inability of the Senate to approve reasonable gun control legislation that is support by 85-90% of the American people.

Groaning Prayer 

At times like these, I’m grateful for Paul’s promise that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  (Romans 8:26 NRSV)  J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase says “agonising longings which never find words.”

Perhaps providentially, one of the devotional guides I use in my personal prayer life quoted John Bunyan last week: “The best prayers have often more groans than words.”

I think the writer of the 77th Psalm might have been feeling that same loss for words.

I cry out loud to God—
    out loud to God so that he can hear me!
During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.
    At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;
        my whole being refuses to be comforted.
I remember God and I moan.
    I complain, and my spirit grows tired.  (Psalm 77:1-3)

Relentless Hope 

But Paul doesn’t leave us speechless. The word that works when all other words fail is hope. 

We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.  (Romans 8:24-25)

Again, Bunyan wrote:  “Hope has a thick skin, and will endure many a blow.”

When CBS News asked my friend Tom McCloskey, the Lead Pastor at First UMC, Orlando, how he keeps believing that things will get better, Tom said, “My faith says that one day all will be equal.”

That’s hope with a thick skin. It’s hope that is grounded in the assurance that one day God’s kingdom will indeed come and God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For the psalmist, that hope was rooted in remembering God’s work in the past.

But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;
    yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.
I will meditate on all your works;
    I will ponder your deeds.
God, your way is holiness!
    Who is as great a god as you, God?
You are the God who works wonders;
    you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. (Psalm 77:11-14)

When other words won’t work, the word that works is hope.

Grace and peace,







Please Don’t Call It “Senseless”

Was It Really “Senseless”?

Of all the words pundits are using to try to make sense of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the one that makes no sense to me is “senseless.”

If by “senseless” you mean “unconscious” as in “I was knocked senseless,” you may have a point. The sheer magnitude of the devastation, the reality of the blood and gore, the immensity of the pain, the depth of the sorrow can overwhelm our senses and leave us stunned, nearly incapable of any response other than tears.  Our assurance is that the Spirit prays within us with “agonizing longings which never find words.”  (Romans 8:26)

But if by “senseless” you mean “done for no reason, nonsensical, lacking sense or meaning,” I beg to differ. In its own diabolical way, this horrendous event makes perfect sense.  

The Recipe for Death 

We may not know everything, but know enough to name the primary ingredients that produce this deadly stew.  

  • Begin with a violent male (there has only been one woman involved in our recent history of mass killings) who, for whatever complex concoction of reasons, has a history of anger, resentment, spouse abuse, racism and hostility to gay men.
  • Add a dash of an apparent inner conflict with his own same-sex attraction.
  • Measure a spoonful of ISIS radicalism that turns home grown terrorists into martyrs.
  • Stir in a generous helping of the easy availability ammunition and guns.
  • Mix it together in an emotional pressure cooker flavored with virulent fear-mongering and boiling over with political rhetoric that gives voice to the worst prejudices, hatreds and fears that ferment in the basement of our culture.
  • Bring it to a boil with the assurance that the gun-lobby-owned cooks in the Congressional kitchen will do nothing to turn down the heat.
  • Serve it up in a place where it can do horrendous damage.
  • Call for prayers and moments of silence to honor the dead.
  • Prepare for it to happen again.

It just makes sense.

The Consistent Ingredient 

One thing that really is “senseless” — meaning “without sense or reason” — is why we do not deal with the one ingredient all of these mass shootings have in common, namely, some version of an “assault” rifle. (I realize that term is used loosely and that AR does not stand for “assault rifle,” but the AR-15 has been the weapon of choice in 13 of our recent mass shootings.)

It’s also senseless is that while 90% of the American people (87% of the Republicans) support background checks for gun purchases, every effort to implement them has been defeated in Congress.  But even that makes sense when you “follow the money.”

Let’s be clear: No one (including Hillary Clinton) intends to “abolish the second amendment,” regardless of how many times Trump says it.  But if we can reduce the number of deaths in car accidents by requiring seat belts and if we can reduce the deaths by lung cancer by banning smoking in public places, then why can’t we save at least a few lives with reasonable gun control?  (President Obama spoke eloquently to this in an NPR Town Hall.)

It just makes sense.

Grace and peace,