My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.
There were two national prayer services held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, December 5th, both at Episcopal houses of worship. It was a day when I could not have been more proud and grateful to serve as bishop of this diocese.
Supported by the somber cadences of Episcopal liturgy and the dignity of a state funeral, thousands gathered at Washington National Cathedral to celebrate the life President George H. W. Bush and mourned his death. Through moving tributes, transcendent music, Scripture readings and prayer, we remembered President Bush’s long, dedicated life and entrusted his soul to God.
His was a life, eulogist Jon Meacham told us, that was over almost before it had begun. At age 20, Lieutenant Junior Grade George H. W. Bush was shot down off the coast of Japan during the second world war. He was the only one on his plane to survive. For the rest of his life, Meacham said, Bush would ask himself almost daily, “Why me? Why was I spared?” He went on to live “in a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of this salvation on that distant morning. To him, his life was no longer his own.” One tribute after another gave witness to the depth of his servant leadership, loyal friendship, deep faith, and devotion to family. Among his closest friends were his political adversaries, many seated in the first rows of the Cathedral.
On Wednesday evening, St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill was the site of the sixth annual National Vigil to End Gun Violence. Every December, the month of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings, family members from Newtown, Connecticut come to Washington, D.C. to lobby for gun violence prevention measures. Each year, they are joined by hundreds of people who have lost loved ones to gun violence, including suicide, domestic disputes, gang-related deaths, and random shootings.
St. Mark’s sanctuary was filled to capacity, with many people clutching photos of their loved ones. A video stream of photos brought hundreds of smiling faces into the room, all lost to us now. The music was achingly beautiful: piano and cello, a children’s choir, a final hymn sung by candle light. Several politicians spoke, promising to do their part to introduce common sense gun legislation, feeling more hopeful now than they have in years, given how many new members of Congress were elected this year because of their commitment to curb gun violence. A physician spoke whose brother, also a doctor, almost died by gunshot. Citing the National Rifle Association warning to physicians “to stay in their lane,” he said to the grieving crowd, “This is our lane. Gun violence is a national health crisis.”
Most compelling were those who spoke from their grief, telling stories of their lost loved ones, and what it’s like for them now as they try to bring some good out of the tragedy they’ve endured. A high school girl who was in fourth grade at Sandy Hook Elementary the day of the shootings, spoke of what that day was like for her, and her commitment to end gun violence. She stood alongside a survivor from Parkland High School who spoke of the classmates who died while saving her life. Both asked the question young George Bush asked when he survived a shooting that his comrades did not: Why was I spared? And how am I now to live? It’s the question all of us were asking by the night’s end.
One of the questions we often wrestle with as Christians is our role in public life. When and how are we to be present in political discourse? What is our call, as Christians, in the public arena?
There are many valid ways to answer that question. Surely one of them is to offer our sanctuaries for services of national importance and to commit ourselves in prayer and action for the good of all God’s people. This is our lane.
The clergy, staff, and lay leaders of Washington National Cathedral and many volunteers from across the diocese gave the nation a great gift on Wednesday. A state funeral requires the highest levels of dedication, discipline, flexibility, pastoral sensitivity and grace, and all at the Cathedral gave their very best.
So, too, the clergy, staff, and lay leaders at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill. For several days each year they host hundreds of grieving family members and friends, providing food and respite, and craft a moving vigil to honor all who have died by gun violence. It is a gift of exquisite pastoral care, worship planning, and public advocacy. I brought to the vigil a couple who had lost their son to a random shooting in Washington just six weeks ago, and they were grateful beyond words. As am I.