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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strong in the broken places

As the reality of the massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, FL begins to leave an permanent scar on the soul of our nation, one way for some folks to deal with this overwhelming, unspeakable horror is to assign it to the time-tested but deeply flawed theology of "The Will of God". 

It begins with a statement which defines the very dynamic of faith: "We don't understand, we can't understand, the mind of God."

"All will be revealed," some assert, "and all in God's good time."

So far, not so bad. 

However, the more omnipotence we ascribe to God, two different, opposite things happen at the same time. We become increasingly infantilized while simultaneously becoming omniscient. 

That is to say, we begin to make some incredible assumptions about "The Will of God" for us the "children of God" who, apparently can only learn things through the punishment of tragedy and loss and death. 

And, funny thing: We seem to need to learn the very things that are important to the will of the very people who claim it is also The Will Of God. 

Of course, these are the same people who assert we can't possibly understand the mind of God.

The other day, I heard a woman at the market actually assert that the reason there have been shootings in schools "is because children are no longer allowed to pray in school," she said, adding, "God is angry and is trying to teach us a lesson."

Yes, she was serious. Very serious. 

I suppose, by extension of this .... logic ... this is why there have been shootings in churches.

But, you see, she isn't angry. God is. And she knows this because she sees what's been happening in 'Murica.  No, we can't know the mind of God but we have two eyes in our head, she said. All we have to do is open our eyes and look around, she said. 

I mean, what's wrong with you, she asked?  Wake up, she said.

Le sigh.

As I've thought about this, I thought it might be a good time to bring out some wise words about "God's Will". 

What follows are some excerpts from a sermon by Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City in 1983, ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident in Boston. 


"As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son--Alexander--who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky"--my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms":

"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. 

When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." 

Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that  
God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Jesus spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.
Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths--I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here--deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist--….

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers--the basics of beauty and life--people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." 

In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends--not many, and none of you, thank God--were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face.  

But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone's protection, just for everyone's unending support.
And that's what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us--minimum protection, maximum support

I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night

If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall - so let us all - seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is. 


So, while some adults are blithering and blathering nonsense around us, know that they are, in their own way, anxious and grieving. 

Try not to engage them in theological conversation. Instead, try being kind as a response, even if that means you simply share a gentle smile, wish the person God's peace, and move on with the rest of your day. As St. Francis allegedly taught his brothers, you may be the only Gospel anyone ever reads.

I know. It's hard. It's really hard. I'm obvsiously still working out the encounter I had with that person in the market. I walked away but she's clearly been following me around for days.

I urge you to take consolation in the words of this grieving father and caring, sensitive pastor.

You might also want to pay attention to the young survivors of the Florida massacre, and look closely at how they have transformed their grief and "found (at least a measure of) peace in the dazzling grace that always is". 

How else would they be standing there, talking with the POTUS who got into office in part because of a $30 million contribution to his campaign from the NRA and who still thinks arming and training teachers - more guns - is the answer to the gun problem. 

Hemmingway wrote: "The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." 

May it be so for us as it has for the young people of Parkland and other places around this country that are rising up in dazzling glory to speak truth to power. 

May the scar that is forming in the broken places of the soul of our nation become strong enough to overcome the evils of power and greed. 


Colette said...

This is JUST what I need to read this morning. Many thanks.

Marthe said...

A thing no one ever seems to say about the NRA leadership puppets (not, the average member, mind you): these are deeply, systemically frightened people, these must have the biggest gun, must "protect" the Second Amendment at all costs people. They are so afraid, afraid of "other", of change, of being assaulted on every level of their beings that they willingly sacrifice their own freedom of thought, their money and other peoples' children to hold on to the only thing that makes them feel safe: the biggest, most, fastest guns they can get. Never mind that it's all a marketing campaign for the gun manufacturers -- that doesn't matter -- what matters is that these zealots are afraid and know no other way to cope.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Colette - You are most welcome

Kay & Sarah said...

I hope that there will never be the embrace given by me or to me, for a grandchild who was lost to us by violence.