Orlando: A Letter to My Great-Granddaughter

Dear Great-Granddaughter,

This is your Great-Grandmother Whitney writing to you from the far away and strange land of 2016.

I know the technology you’ll be using will be so advanced that I hope you can still access and decipher a humble old Word document that is a letter from your recent ancestor. But I have faith.

It’s been a hell of a week.

I know these events will be ancient history for you, but for me and my parishioners, they’re brand new and fresh. We’re still reeling.

Last Sunday, a gunman entered a gay nightclub in Orlando and shot over a hundred people, 49 of whom died.

It’s the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and in a culture where mass shootings have become agonizingly common, that’s saying something.

Then there seemed to be something in the air, because terrible things kept happening.

A two-year-old boy was eaten by an alligator. A singer was shot and killed signing autographs after her concert. A British Member of Parliament was shot and killed meeting with her constituents.

A dear friend of mine from childhood received news that her father had been swept out to sea while kayaking with family in Honduras. Luckily, he was recovered safely after 18 hours alone at sea in a kayak, but most of the people in the news this week didn’t have happy endings.

And the climate of fear and anxiety and conflict has filtered down to all of us.

In church, at work, we are struggling not to pick fights and bring up old grudges and tear ourselves and one another down.

The reason I decided to write to you was because I was thinking of my own great-grandmother.

I have no letters from her, I never knew her.

But I was thinking of the world she lived in, and it is so difficult for me to imagine.

She lived in a world where she as a woman couldn’t vote, and didn’t know if she’d ever be able to vote.

She lived in a world where a woman couldn’t serve as a priest.

She lived in a world where African-Americans were lynched on a semi-regular basis.

She lived in a world where gay people could be beaten and killed with impunity should they ever reveal their sexuality.

How could they live like that? I ask myself.

And then I realized you must be asking the same thing about me. How could they live like that?

Not very well, great-granddaughter.

Let me tell you the things I hope are incredibly strange and foreign to you because life in your time is so radically different and better.

Right now, in our country, people are still being shot and killed by a madman because they are gay.

Right now, in many Christian denominations, women are not welcome in leadership.

Right now, young Muslim men are being radicalized and urged to commit violence because they lack social and economic opportunity.

Right now, assault weapons and other weapons of war are almost as easy to obtain as a soda and a candy bar.

Right now, more young African-American men are imprisoned than were ever held in slavery in the U.S.

Right now, no matter how many people die for it, none of us can find any common ground on these tragedies that are tearing us apart.

What are we to do?

How are we to live so that life will be different for you, our great-grandchildren?

What did our great-grandparents do so that things are different for us than they were for them?

What do we have to offer that counters the tide of violence and hatred and fear that drives us farther apart every day?

We have roots that run deep. We have a well that never runs dry. We have a strength and a wisdom that does not belong to us and did not come from us, but lives in us and through us.

We have the faith.

We have scripture and tradition and the living witness of the communion of saints through time and space.

That is where our ancestors turned when their world collapsed into terror and violence, and that is where we turn now.

Great-granddaughter, I can’t imagine what challenges you face in your day and time, but I hope that you will turn to the faith to strengthen and guide you just as we’re trying to do today.

Today’s a Sunday, way back in 2016, and so there are certain scriptures we read. It’s Proper 7, Year C.

I wonder how many times I will have read these scriptures by the time this letter reaches you, and how many sermons I will have preached on them.

I wonder how many times I will have had to stand in front of my congregation and struggle to find a word of grace and peace after a hurt and angry world has convulsed in violence once again.

But today we look to our text in 1 Kings and we find that terrible calamity was happening thousands of years ago just as it does today.

And we learn from Elijah that it is not surprising that we struggle to find God in the noise and chaos and violence that surrounds us.

The scripture says, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”

The Lord is not in the violence.

The Lord is not in revenge, and the Lord is not in death and wounding and retaliation.

The Lord is not in our petty squabbles and our failure to accomplish meaningful change.

These storms and fire and earthquakes rage around us and God neither causes them nor sanctions them.

If we choose to continue to be driven by violence and consumed by fear of violence, we will not find God.

Elijah couldn’t find God either, in the crises that were overwhelming him one after another.

Where did Elijah find God?

The scripture says, “the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

And here, in the silence, Elijah found God.

Great-granddaughter, I don’t know what life is like for you, but in our day and time, silence is perhaps the most foreign thing imaginable in our American culture.

We are surrounded by noise all the time.

TV, radio, smartphones, social media, and our own gabbling voices, the tide of sound and fury washes over us.

And more and more often, the cacophony includes gunshots.

And when terrible things happen, we try to solve them with more noise.

Pundits analyze political implications endlessly on news shows.

Politicians extend their “thoughts and prayers,” much good that does anyone.

The President shows up and has to give iteration number 35 of his grieving nation speech, which you can tell even he is weary of.

And I stand here in the pulpit, trying to solve things by talking.

Well, it didn’t help Elijah, and it doesn’t help us.

God comes in scripture in the sound of sheer silence, and that is how God will come to us now.

Why is silence so valuable in the aftermath of chaos? For two reasons.

First, because it enables us to listen.

It enables us to listen to the victims and survivors of that violence tell their stories.

It gives space for the voiceless and powerless who have been unable to be heard through our self-important speechifying.

We might hear a message we really need to receive if we gave silence a real chance, if we engaged in prayer of listening rather than prayer of speaking.

And the other gift of silence is that it gives us room for grief and lament.

Grief is a shy emotion, one that is easy to bury in anger and loudness, busyness and speed.

Grief, which is the tribute we owe the slain, will only well up in its cleansing tide when given space and time and silence to manifest.

And if we do not grieve, we will not heal.

The silence we seek is not a blank and featureless emptiness.

It is the giving up of noise to welcome the presence of God.

And as long as we keep drowning out God with our noise, the storms and earthquakes and fires that Elijah faces will continue to overwhelm us.

The violence will not end.

And so, great-granddaughter, I have spoken long enough.

I have written to you today with hope that you do not wonder who will be shot today when you wake up in the morning.

I have written to you hoping that the idea that someone could be criticized or persecuted for whom they love or what religion they practice will be as foreign and bizarre to you as it is to me that my great-grandmother was not allowed to vote or preach or lead worship.

I have no doubt that you will be facing challenges that I can’t possibly imagine, challenges that feel to you like storms and earthquakes and fires as much as our problems seem that way to us today, uncontrollable and overwhelming.

What we have done to find our way through is look to our ancestors in faith.

Elijah showed us that after the noise he found God in silence, listening and peace and grief and faith.

Today I and my congregation are your ancestors in faith, and we seek to give you the same gift we have received.

When the world is falling apart, quiet your mind and heart and open them to God.

Let your grief and heartache mingle with your hope, and know that in that silence you are not alone.

The love of all the people who have come before you is there supporting you, and the silent voice of God will be a balm to your spirit.

We who have gathered here way back in 2016, are doing what we can to leave you a better world, not only because we want it for you, but because we long for it ourselves.

Pray for us, as we pray for you.

And today, when you finish this letter, take some time to be in silence, knowing that we are doing the same, and our hearts will be bound together by God.

With love from your great-grandmother,


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