The Candles Say Love

The Candles Say Love
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 25, 2018

I have a photograph on my cell phone, set as the background so I see it every time I look at my phone. I see it if someone called or texted, or if I am just checking the time. The photo is of some candles. The candles are arranged to spell the word “LOVE.” I took this photo after a recent vigil. It was the one for the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida almost two and a half years ago.

The candles say Love. It is a good reminder to me given the frequency of vigils in which I participate and which I attend. The candles say Love. The candles in the picture on my phone were only lit for a short time, a few moments. But they appear to me every day in the photograph, and so they last. And I am reminded, the candles say Love.

There is an important passage in the book of Jeremiah that applies to what I am sharing with you about this photo on my cell phone. Jeremiah was one of the major prophets in Hebrew Scripture. In Jeremiah 31:33, we read that God said: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” This was radical at the time, and in some ways is still radial today. In short, God was saying, all the law written so meticulously over the centuries, preserved and followed to the letter, all of it will fit in a simpler manner in your heart.

And I look down at my phone and see the candles say Love. In all the turmoil of the day, as we navigate the hate and the trauma, the disempowerment of the vulnerable, and the slaughter of the innocent, God’s clearest and simplest law is written on our heats. The God I love calls us to Love. Love is the highest law, Love is the guide to lead us through the wilderness, Love it the way through these times in which we live.

Maybe I will sound too much like a philistine saying the Word of God comes to me through the photo I took on my cell phone, but I offer it for your consideration anyway. God speaks in all the ways available for those with the ears to hear. The candles say Love. In the face of ever more mass shootings, can it be far off to suggest God’s response, or what the holy calls for from us, is anything other than love?

I have attended and participated in a significant number of vigils. Tragedy and trouble continue to plague us. We gather and light candles, praying for tolerance, peace, and understanding; praying for a new way forward from the bloody and traumatic path we have been on so far.

This spring will be the 10th anniversary of the shooting here in Binghamton at the American Civic Association. Ten years! I took part in the vigil for that shooting. There have been so many over the years. In my mind I think of the shooting at Columbine High School as the starting point, that was back in 1999. In reviewing a list of mass shootings in the United States, I see that Columbine was not the starting point of anything beyond when I started paying attention.

The one that devastated me most, that shook my faith in our society, was the shooting a Sandy Hook elementary school almost 6 years ago in which six- and seven-year old children were murdered; resulting in no noticeable response from our government or from society in general to stem the tide of these shootings beyond more vigils and more ‘thoughts and prayers.’ That one was hard for me.

My colleague Sean Neal-Barron says “There are not enough candles.” He says “There are not enough candles in the world. Not if we lit one each time death came to knock, for each man gunned down, for each trans person attacked, for each woman left battered, for each child caught in the crossfires…” Sean imagines if we actually held a vigil and lit candles every time, “there would be runs on the stores to buy them… shelves left bare” until eventually it would become common, “another item to buy on the grocery list.” (From “To Wake, To Rise” William G. Sinkford, Ed) I pray we be spared the experience of such vigils becoming common.

That vigil for the shooting at the Pulse nightclub took place at Peacemakers stage; which is out near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers, along the Riverwalk. A local group raised funds to have the stage built and a larger-than-life statue of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. erected alongside. It has since become a popular spot for vigils and rallies and gatherings. Our UU congregation contributed financially for the statue and the stage, and we have a brick with our name on it down by the Peacemakers stage. It is at that stage, on those steps, where the candles had been arranged to spell out the word Love and I took the picture.

The vigil for the shooting in Orlando, Florida was organized by the Binghamton Pride Coalition with support from the mayor’s office. At the request of the LGBTQ leadership, I offered a prayer. I prayed for the people hurt and wounded. I prayed for the broken system in which we live that allowed this shooting take place, for all the brokenness around us – the broken policies, our broken hearts. 50 people died that night at the Pulse nightclub. Another 50-plus were injured.

In my prayer I said:

We turn our attention this hour to the grief and anguish that weighs on our hearts. We turn away from the clamoring news reports and analysis for a moment. We turn toward one another and to thee O Spirit.

In my prayer I asked:

Shall we talk about homophobia and finding safe spaces? Do we bring up the need for better gun control laws? Can we talk about Islamophobia and about vulnerable communities being pitted against each other? Or Xenophobia or media attention or who is worthy? O Spirit of Life and Love, can we simply talk about how much this hurts? Again?

The shooter was quickly identified as Muslim. It seems that because of that fact, the Wikipedia page describes this shooting as a ‘terrorist attack,’ a phrase that is not used for most of the mass shootings. Muslim communities across the country quickly clarified that the shooter’s actions were not in keeping with the proper behaviors prescribed by Islam. That evening, during our community vigil, there were many Muslims participating, because we, as a full community, refused to be divided.

The local Imam spoke early in the evening, and he left soon after. The shooting and subsequent vigil took place during Ramadan; the Imam had responsibilities back at the mosque for evening prayers to break the fast that evening. Ramadan is one of the holiest times in the Islamic calendar. It is notable that the Muslim community chose to show up in such large numbers supporting the LGBTQ community and rejecting hate. Ramadan is a time of daily fasting for Muslims with a particular call for adherents to live and behave as faithfully as possible.

The Imam had to leave to lead the sundown prayers that signal the end of the fast at the mosque. Yet a significant number of Muslims remained at the vigil throughout the evening. And sitting in the back as I was, I got to witness an event that has stayed with me through the years as a reminder of the power of solidarity and love. Quietly and without fanfare, that large group of Muslims at the vigil broke their fast.

One among them stepped away and returned with cups of water and a bowl of dates so the group could solemnly break their fast. They opted to miss their own prayers to remain with the larger grieving community. I imagine they each silently recited a version of the prayers necessary at sundown, or offered them later away from the public eye. What stands out to me was the way all of this did not stand out. I’d guess maybe a dozen other people even noticed. It was a subtle reminder that more than I see is happening around me in the hearts and choices of decent people.

It was not only the candles that said Love that night.

The mayor spoke, as did several local clergy from many different faith traditions. Families were present among the hundreds of attendees. There was a large card expressing our city’s sympathy for the city of Orlando which people lined up to sign. It was a powerful event; healing and a good reminder of the solidarity we experience here as a town.

Yesterday morning I was hosting a session of Building Your Own Theology for some of the Young Adults in our congregation. We were in a deep conversation about what we mean about people being inherently Good or inherently Bad. We circled around how the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are social constructs rather than moral absolutes; we talked about cynicism and optimism; we discussed the systemic vs individual. At one point we talked about the people who commit mass shootings.

We agreed that compassion is possible for the perpetrators of such violence. Indeed, there are studies and anecdotal evidence that this type of psychopathic destructive behavior is predictable and preventable if we had the will to address the situation with compassion. The individual stories of these shooters are littered with red flags and opportunities for compassionate redirecting. A better way is possible. All of us have the seeds of goodness within us; in some they lie dormant, awaiting the encouragement to take root and grow.

And on the systemic level, there are steps we as a society can take to prevent these tragedies; again, if we had the will, for example, to take the teeth out of organizations like the NRA by limiting how much money they can pour into the pockets of our legislators. The systems we have in place now almost guarantee we will continue to have mass shootings. #thoughtsandprayers.

These vigils we keep hosting are not the solution, but they are a recurring opportunity for us remember our resolve to seek and find a better way together. In my prayer at Peacemakers stage two and a half years back I said:

May we learn, O Spirit, to be tender and gentle with the broken places in our own lives, and in the lives of our neighbors near and far. May we learn to be tender yet persistent with the broken places in our society. May we be tender but not complicit, demanding but not unkind. Let us stand up, speak out, and reach out with love.

These vigils we keep having serve to remind us that the candles say Love; that these shootings are not normal; that there is a better way. These vigils are important because they give us an outlet for our personal and communal grief. They give us hope in the face of the temptation of despair. They keep our consciousnesses piqued.

Part of my work as a minister, as a pastor, is to take in the pain and turmoil around me, to take in what is broken and then turn it back out into the world transformed as blessings. Much like those candles lit by grief and distress, and arranged to offer a message back to the world – the candles say Love.

I concluded my prayer that evening saying:

As a person of faith, love is the center of my theology, love is the core of my spiritual practice. Help me, O Spirit, to bring that love to bare on today’s brokenness and pain.
Help us, O Spirit, to transform our grief into action to make a difference. Let our grief and anger be converted, O Spirit, into power, that we may today take one more step toward building a better and safer and saner world.

As Unitarian Universalists, our values lead us to engage with the world, to support the vulnerable, and to speak out for truth and for justice. These mass shootings and other similar tragedies threaten our values. We are called to speak out, to challenge the hate, and to make a difference. It is not easy or simple. It can be overwhelming. But we are in this together. And together we will persevere.

Gathering in solidarity, lighting candles, and saying prayers are all activities we do in response to the hate and destruction. It is one of the steps of rebuilding. It is not insignificant. It helps us to recognize our shared humanity as we call for our political leaders to respond with appropriate legislation. It sends a message to individuals who are hurting that they are not alone. It helps us to recognize the call of Love, the presence of the Spirit across our religious differences, and the demands of compassion in the midst of the difficulty. The candles say Love. Let us do the same.

In a world without end,
May it be so