In the wake of Vegas shooting, prayers still matter

So I hear that Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t want our prayers.

Well, not exactly. But he did, in a very emotional monologue, decry politicians who offered their “insufficient” prayers, saying they should instead pray for forgiveness regarding their inaction on gun control.

One one level, I understand his frustration. Las Vegas is his home town. I know from my Columbine experience that when attacks hit close to home, the horror becomes more real. It feels personal.  And Kimmel, like the rest of us, wants to do something, to keep this from ever happening again.

My purpose here isn’t to wade into the gun debate. Rather, I want look at the prayer side of Kimmel’s monologue.  Because I suspect many of us are feeling the same way.  “Our prayers don’t seem to be helping.”

But are they?  Is prayer just another failed tactic?  If we are asking “Have our prayers stopped the violence?” then obviously they haven’t.  It continues.

But making that the only gauge of “successful” prayer misses the point of who God is.

Of course, I could no more explain God and the mystery of suffering than I could manufacture a mountain range.  But I do know what God has revealed about Himself to us in Scripture.

I know that He hates evil.  He hates the destruction of innocent life.  And the man (or woman) who destroys innocent life will face His judgment.  But He gives us free will, which we can use for good or for evil. And ever since Adam and Eve used it to defy Him, evil has been let loose into the world.  And the God Who loves us and intervenes in human history does not always intervene to prevent it.  He in fact didn’t prevent the physical evil perpetrated against His own Son.

Why?  We can’t fully know.  His ways are above our ways. He sees this world through the lens of eternity.  We are all destined to die, whether in our beds at a ripe old age, or at a Jason Aldean concert in our prime.  It is evil for one man to take the place of God in deciding when another man should die.   But the greatest evil is not the loss of our earthly life.  It is the loss of the eternal life that God desires to share with us. His interventions into human affairs are, I suspect, most often geared toward guiding us toward our eternal destiny than toward keeping us safe and comfortable in the here and now.

Most important, I know that “all things work for good for those who love Him, and walk according to His ways.”  All things.  Even the choices of evil men.  If He could use Roman executioners to bring about our salvation, He can bring good from any evil.

Have our prayers been answered?  Yes, even if we can’t know the extent. Has He thwarted other attacks?  Has His hand of protection minimized the casualties?  And, more important, have our prayers impacted the eternal fate of those whose lives were lost?

I know we see His love in action in the heroism of first responders and others on the scene.  We see it in the outpouring of love and support from a grieving world.  And we know that He is with us as we grieve, and as we search for solutions.

God isn’t a god who protects us from every evil that could befall us in this life.  He is the God of all consolation — the God who knows suffering because He suffered, who walks with us in our suffering, and works it all for the greatest good, our eternal salvation.

So in this situation, like all others, we need to act.  We need to work toward effective ways of protecting innocent human life.  But as we do that, we also need to pray.  Earnestly and consistently.

All of us.  Even politicians.

Even Jimmy Kimmel.

Featured image by Drew Angerer | Getty Images

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.