Christian writer Anne Lamott wrote a book which was released in 2015 called Help, Thanks, Wow in which she explores these three essential prayers; and we’ve all prayed them, haven’t we? In my own experience, though, there is one other prayer that may not be “essential” but it’s certainly part of my prayer repertoire and that is Why, Why, Why???
Why so much shooting? Why are we so violent? Why so many guns? Why? Why, Just why?
It is oddly fitting that these recent days of national mourning for the most recent shootings — and these are only the most recent in a long list of white supremacist, masculinist, fearful racist shootings – fall on Tisha B’av, the Jewish day of mourning. Fitting, because Tisha B’Av is not just about mourning. It also, it dares to explore the reasons behind Why, Why, Why???
As background, lots of bad things have happened to the Jews during the month of Av: This was the month In which Moses sent 12 spies into the land of Canaan to scope it out for a possible invasion. When the spies returned to base camp they reported that Canaan was great and they brought back big figs and pomegranates to show what kind of crops it produced. But, the spies were pessimistic about their ability to take the land even though God had promised it to them. Because of their unbelief they had to stay in the desert for 40 years! That was pretty bad.
Av is also the month in which both temples were destroyed. The Jews were expelled from England in Av of 1290 and from Spain in Av of 1490, World War I started during Av. The Treblinka death camp began operation during Av too. So, it’s not a very good month for Jews.
Just prior to the ninth day of Av Jews observe three weeks of lessened joy as a prelude to this day of mourning. In synagogues around the world today our Jewish friends will sit on the floor and read Lamentations and think back on these tragedies that happened during Av. It is a somber day, but not necessarily sad. Joy is lessened, sure. But, there is so much joy in being friends with God that grief is tempered and an undercurrent of joy remains.
Christian communities will just continue on with the Lectionary readings, same as always. It’s a regular day in Year C for us. But most of us, if we are honest, will allow our minds to think on the tragedies of this week at some quiet point during the liturgy. It might manifest as a prayer for our children’s safety, or a touch of sadness in solidarity with those who bear the weight of tragedy within their families, or maybe it’s that nagging prayer: Why? Why? Why?
Then there is an answer. It is Baseless Hatred. That’s a relief, isn’t it? I mean, none of us hate baselessly, do we? Oh, whew… It’s not on us. It’s those others, the shooters, the bad guys, the NRA, President Trump. We can all sit back in our pews and rest easy, right?
Maybe not. Baseless hatred is not just about hating someone for no reason. It includes not doing anything to help others who are being treated cruelly. There’s a story, of course. It’s a long story, but here’s an abbreviation:
Once there was a man who threw a lavish party. He accidentally invited his enemy. The enemy assumed that the man was making an overture of peace and gladly went to the party. That was not a good assumption, though. When he saw his enemy at the party the host tossed him out. The enemy begged to be allowed to stay and not be publicly shamed, but the man was adamant, his enemy must go! On the way out the enemy saw the religious elite and noted that they did nothing to try to help him make peace with his host. They just sat there. No one spoke on his behalf and he left having been shamed. Anybody would be upset about that, but the enemy who had been shamed now became the enemy of all Israel. He plotted to set-up the temple establishment with Rome and incite troubles. The troubles ended with the destruction of the temple.
It is tempting to blame the Romans, they were the on-the-ground destroyers, after all. It’s also easy to blame the enemy who allowed his shame to turn to rage, and his rage to action. He is certainly not innocent either. But, all could have been averted if one rabbi, just one, had done something. He wouldn’t even have had to be successful. Perhaps the enemy would still have been shamed, perhaps there would not have been reconciliation between the two. The men might have remained enemies for the rest of their lives. But, if even one rabbi had done something… ANYthing, the unwelcome party guest would not have become bitter and gone to the Roman authorities. Just one.
When we talk about the sin of sinat hinam, baseless hate, that is what we are talking about. Doing nothing. Suddenly we aren’t all so innocent anymore, are we?
The time for thoughts and prayers was over a long time ago. Put pronouncements from on-high in the same category. The recent statement from our TEC bishops is like incense, it made some of us feel better but has no substance and will soon disperse into meaninglessness. We all know it’s true. It is just another unwanted offering.
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me
The same is true of all the self-righteous posting and posturing on social media too, so we can’t put it all on the bishops. Most of us are, in fact, doing nothing.
God has really had it with our big talk and no action:
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
She is not even listening anymore.
But, God is always calling, pleading:
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
God is reasonable, after all. “Let’s talk it over,” she says:
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Every prophecy of doom is an if statement. In other words, doom is not preordained. Seek justice, defend the oppressed take up the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow… Do something! It is the doing nothing, the quiet observation, cluck-clucking, and fake (com)passion that’s killing us. It’s too easy to blame guns, shooters, men, white supremacy… all those things are real and they are factors. But, when we humble ourselves enough to stand up for those who can do nothing for us in return we create allies and community. By doing nothing we create bitterness, contribute to division, and grow our own terrorists. Doing nothing is the practice of baseless hate. It destroyed the second temple, but it doesn’t have to destroy us.
On this day when joy is lessened, let’s think not about those others who have committed such heinous wrong and look within to our own complicity, look ahead to our obedience, and look up to the God who is always and forever in the business of redemption.
Linda McMillan is writing from small-town Texas.
Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott – Hodder & Stoughton – 2015
Available at Amazon. Only ten bucks for the Kindle edition.
Av is the eleventh month of the civil year and the fifth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar. Wikipedia. Tisha B’Av means the ninth day of the month of Av.
You can read the story of the twelve spies in Numbers 12.
Talmud, Yoma 9b, says that the first temple was destroyed because of idolatry, immorality and murder.
The second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.