A grieving and shocked community gathers to pray

First Presbyterian Church of Uvalde, Texas, holds a moving hybrid prayer service

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, standing at the pulpit.

The Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Uvalde, Texas, opens a prayer service on Tuesday. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — More than 200 people gathered online along with members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday evening for a moving and powerful prayer service on the day following the shootings at Robb Elementary School in that community. View the 50-minute service here.

FPC’s pastor, the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, told those gathered in person and online that “we come tonight because as those who follow Jesus, we don’t know what else to do but to gather in prayer.”

“This space is one of prayer, one of offering our hearts, our lives and the heaviness, worry, grief, confusion and shock — it’s to offer all that to God,” she said. “Even as we cry out, ‘We don’t know for how long, O Lord? What happened?’ We don’t understand, but we know God’s heart and God’s presence is large enough to hold all of us, to hold our whole community, all our families — to hold our whole world. I invite you to lift your hearts with me,” she said, “as we are called to worship.”

“It is our tradition to begin worship by remembering our baptism,” Norris-Lane said, pouring water from a pitcher into a baptismal font. “We are God’s beloved people. We know nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We know the spirit of God is poured out upon us … and upon our community. We know the grace and comfort of God welcomes us home.”

Then Norris-Lane prayed: “God of comfort and assurance, tonight we acknowledge our fear and our hurt and our worry. We pray for protection and yet we feel vulnerable. We live with hope … and yet we search for forgiveness … Even as we stand in the valley of the shadow of death, we are your people, gathered yet broken, forgiven and forgiving, searching, striving, hoping, praying, wondering. Sit with us in the midst of our hurts and our heartbreak. Guide us in these moments as we pray and in the days ahead, that we might do your will here on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Norris-Lane recalled preaching the Sunday before on Jesus’ words recorded in John 14:23-29: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’”

“This gift of peace is not given only when things are going well,” she said. “This gift is not given only when we can understand it or strive to make it happen. This gift of peace is a gift, as God’s grace is a gift, as the community of faith is a gift. And so, friends, this night, may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Those gathered in the sanctuary and across the country responded, “And also with you.” Worshipers in the sanctuary exchanged Christ’s peace with one another.

The Rev. Sallie Watson, general presbyter for Mission Presbytery, read selections from Psalm 25 the old fashioned way: Watson said a line and had those gathered repeat the line. Among the verses cited:

“Let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.”

“Relieve the troubles of my heart and bring me out of my distress. Consider my affliction and my troubles and forgive my sins.”

“It is in God’s presence we take refuge, isn’t it?” Norris-Lane said. “I wish we didn’t have to, not in this way. And yet I am also deeply grateful that when things like this happen, our refuge is found underneath God’s wings.”

She asked those present how many had received text messages asking how they are or whether everybody they know is OK. “How many … have shared anguish and anger and sadness and shock and confusion?” A ministry colleague shared three Bible passages with her, including Psalm 34:18, which promises God’s salvation for those crushed in spirit. “Friends … we know a community right now where the heaviness of this feels like a weight that’s going to flatten us some moments,” she said. “We lean into faith that God does heal the brokenhearted.”

John 14:1-4 was also shared with Norris-Lane. We have “the tools to find the way” and “a God who hears us whether we rage” with words not suitable for church “or whether we just don’t have the words. We have a God who knows and hears and holds — and more than that, we have a God who came to be with us,” she said. “Jesus understands sorrow and suffering. Jesus understands crying out to God with honest words … We have a God who understands, but more importantly is with us and was with every person in that school [Tuesday] and is with every family yesterday, today and tomorrow.

“When you forget, take a breath,” Norris-Lane suggested, “for God in Jesus is as close as our very next breath, even when we can’t grasp what that means.”

The final verse shared was Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Hopefully, friends, there will be solutions for communities and schools to be safe,” Norris-Lane said. “But honestly, as the pastor of this place, what I want to say tonight to all of you is that path is down the road a little ways. Tonight we gather to comfort one another, to grieve, to pray and to question … What I know is the power of coming together in community reminds us that as the people of God, we not only rejoice together, but we grieve together. We suffer together. We hold onto each other together.”

Those in the sanctuary were invited to write their prayers on slips of paper for Norris-Lane and two colleagues in ministry to pray aloud. Among them:

  • Blessings on all the medical professionals who have served during this tragedy
  • Prayers for children and the burden they will carry for the rest of their lives
  • All teachers and students heading into the summer with heavy hearts instead of joy
  • For caregivers to keep going
  • For three people who lost loved ones
  • For teachers who want nothing more than to keep their kids safe and to send them home to their families
  • For God’s peace for all of Uvalde
  • For wisdom for parents on how to walk this road with our children, including what to say and how to say it
  • The strength to love our enemies
  • For the older folk in the community who sense that life in Texas and in the nation has changed dramatically. “Hear them and us,” Norris-Lane asked God, “as we wonder how we can breathe hope again.”
  • For God’s Spirit “to break in to provide all that we need and even more.”

“No matter where you go this night or who you are with, know that you are not alone,” Norris-Lane said during her benediction. “No matter whether you have the words to pray or you struggle to find them, know you are heard. And know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are held in God’s love and wrapped in God’s care and given God’s grace just for the moment ahead — every single moment.”

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