With and without a language for tragedy

Posted: October 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

This past week, just on the heels of the massacre in Las Vegas, I attended the regular meeting of the service club to which I belong. Like in most places where people have been collectively impacted by a tragedy the mood was pensive, uncertain, reflective.  When we inhabit the ambiguous liminal space on the other side of some unthinkable threshold we live somewhere between here and there, a somewhere that is often nowhere.

What struck me was the inability of normally articulate people to say a word that made any sense.  Rather than naming the elephant in the room, the president made an oblong reference to the past week and then proceeded to tell some jokes he hoped would lighten the mood. He is a really fine person. I admire him in many ways. Then, during an announcement about a forthcoming event, another person promoted the occasion by saying that with all that has transpired it will be good for us to get together make merry. After all, she continued, this just means our work at building relationships is not done.

No breakfast conversation at my table actually reflected on the tragedy at hand. There was no collective action that addressed it. We left the meeting in the same fog through which we entered. It occurred to me that that they were utterly unequipped to deal with a tragedy and deal with it together. They had no language for such a thing.

I contrast this with a mid-week prayer service our congregation provides in which we prayed for brokenness, unspeakable loss and the strength and power to overcome evil.  I think of the difference between the vacuum of my service club with a Saturday night Bluegrass worship service in which we talked about the hypocrisy of praying for the families of those affected by the shooting but not pursuing a courageous solution that would stop this plague of gun violence in our land. I compare my service club to worship yesterday morning and the direct ways that we named the tragedy, provided for expressing sorrow, told stories of hope, and even suggested that creating beauty is the right response to hate and ugliness.

In the tradition of the church we have an advantage, admittedly so. We actually reflect on suffering and death. And we have a very specific response to suffering, loss and tragedy. It is called lament. We carve out space to outwardly lament, give voice to our sorrow, fear, bewilderment and disillusionment. Lament is scattered all over the Psalms. It is found on the lips of Jesus on the cross as he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Those same Psalms and Christian scriptures combine lament with hope. We sorrow but not as those without hope.  It is scattered through our hymnody. The season of Lent and Holy Week major in it. People often say, “Oh, Lent is just too depressing.” It can be heavy. It looks sin, violence to others, suffering and death right in the eye without blinking. Which is exactly why it is so important. This language, these clear and unflinching truths about life, are exactly what prepare us for Las Vegas and anything like it. We have a language, a narrative and symbol system for this.

I do not harbor any kind of contempt for my friends in my service club. They were simply out of their depth. They had no language or even ideas to deal well with something that terrible. Expecting them to be fluent with suffering in a moment like that would be like me expecting a non-Spanish speaker to translate events in Spanish.

There actually is a language we may speak following events like Las Vegas. This language has a grammar, syntax and vocabulary. It includes words like evil, suffering, sin, hope, restoration, redemption, healing and justice. It is a sturdy language, sturdy enough to speak after the shooting has stopped. It is insistent on ways to prevent such inhumanity. And in the end it is a language that we, the ritual makers, use to walk the path of life in a particular way.

For those who are interested, this way involves a person named Jesus who was and is the way, the truth and the life. You should get to know him. He’ll teach you how to understand and speak a new language.

  1. Jane McGuire says:

    Amen and amen.

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