Holding it together when everything is falling apart : an extended reflection on the Boston bombing


Boston… before that Newtown… before that Aurora… Darfur, Ground Zero, Columbine, Jonesboro, Oklahoma City, Munich ’72.  The list is growing.  No longer names just identifying spots on a map, these are now sign-posts of our collective pain, markers where the fabric of our society and our communal life together have been torn.  And with each explosion or gunshot, we hear another rip.  Sometimes the noise is so loud we can’t distinguish one tragedy from the next.  Many go unnoticed.

  • Yesterday, 82 were killed by firearms in the United States.  A third were under the age of 20.
  • Yesterday, dozens were killed or injured by unexploded ordnances – the leftovers of wars we think are over.
  • Yesterday, in Africa, almost 1500 died of malaria (a treatable, preventable disease).
  • Yesterday, almost 16,000 children worldwide died of hunger-related causes.

None of these should in any way minimize the pain and grief we feel because of yesterday’s bombing in Boston.  But, maybe, it will give us the opportunity to see that yesterday’s pain was not an isolated event.  Our world is unraveling.

And I am weary of the weight of grieving for our world.  When I was young, I thought it was the whippings, the nails, the weight of his body hung on a cross that killed my Savior.  Today, I believe it was the weight of our sin, the weight of his grief that ultimately crushed him and expelled his last breath.

That we feel grief today is hope.  That we are still shocked by such senseless violence is hope. The world is unraveling, but we still recognize the pattern in the tapestry God intended.  We have not and should not accept that this is life as it is.  I am reminded, however, that my life of relative security, comfort, and ease, is neither a given nor an entitlement. On observing a convict being led to the gallows, John Wesley commented,

 There, but for the grace of God, go I.[1]

My good life is not primarily the product of my hard work or virtue any more than the pain those affected by yesterday’s events are feeling is a product of some individual sin of theirs, hidden or otherwise.

 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’[2]

Those who suffer aren’t worse sinners… whew, that’s a relief… but unless you repent, your fate will be no better… WHAT?  Here’s how I read this:  Our world is fallen and is falling apart.  Our world is unraveling.  But we are still connected in often strange and unpredictable ways.  Pull a thread here and a hole opens up over there.  Sin and death are chaotic.  They tear at the order of creation God intended.

Here are some affirmations I am holding on to today.

  • Yesterday, God’s will was not seen in the bombing that led to such pain and loss of life.  Whoever is responsible for yesterday’s bombing was working against God, not for God.
  • Yesterday, God’s will was seen in the courageous and loving response of those who ran to help even while still fearing more explosions.
  • God’s will shall prevail because whatever is unraveled in the tapestry of creation, God can reweave.
  • Finally, we are called to help in the reweaving.

So what are we to do?  First, it’s ok to say a prayer of thanks that the little corner of the tapestry under your feet is firm today (if that’s the case, and I pray it is so).  But do not stop there.  Find a loose string wherever you are and secure it.  Weave it back into the fabric of life.  It is these even small things that may matter most.  There is a wonderful quote in The Hobbit (the movie, not the book) by the wizard Gandalf that we need to hear…

gandalf-galadriel Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? I don’t know. Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.[3]

Yesterday, with the explosions at the finish line of the Boston marathon, flesh and bone and the fabric of our society were once again torn.  But there were also many “ordinary folk” who came forward with courage and love to begin the mending.  Today, we begin again, and that gives me hope.

[1] This quote has been attributed to several others including John Bradford, a Protestant martyred in the 16th century and John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress.

[2] Luke 13:1-5

[3] In the movie, the “great ones” (Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman) gathered in Rivendell are faced with the prospect that the ancient Enemy has arisen.  Faced by such evil, Gandalf reflects on how the free people shall resist it.

Lord, Remember Me! Thoughts on News about Coach Pat Summitt

Recently the legendary coach Pat Summitt has disclosed to the world that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia… a condition that will likely take her cognitive capacity and even her memories from a figure who has been revolutionary not only for women’s basketball but for all of sport.  In true Pat Summitt spirit, she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”[1]  But the sports world and many who look up to her are shocked and grieved by this news.

Coach Summitt’s recent diagnosis shines a light on a growing concern in our country – the mental health of our aging population.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.[2]  This number will increase dramatically as the Baby Boomers age.  Alzheimer’s and dementia in general robs its victim of more than ability; it takes something more precious: identity and the ability to relate.  There are few families today who do not know the grief of saying goodbye to a loved one long before they die because of the affects of Alzheimer’s or dementia.  Of Coach Summitt, Wetzel describes this grief well:

“… this is one cruel disease.  What a life this woman has led, and for her not to be able to sit back for decades to come and enjoy every last memory? What an impact this woman has had on so many other lives, and there’s a chance she won’t get to appreciate it, or recall it?  And how brutal is it that a woman of such accomplishment, wisdom and impact might have her career cut short, robbing any number of players that would’ve enjoyed her guidance.”[3]

Memory and forgetfulness are important theological themes especially in the Hebrew Canon.  Forgetfulness leads to isolation from God and usually ends in disaster.  In Deuteronomy, the people of God are implored no less than 20 times to remember and not forget…  the poignant irony of a book written by a people who have forgotten and are trying to remember who they were called to be.  The Psalms too are filled with the relationship between memory and salvation (Psalm 50:22 ‘Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.’)  The Psalmist often declares she should be saved by God precisely because she remembers (“Look on my misery and rescue me, for I do not forget your law.”, Psalm 119:153)

If memory is so important to our continued life and even salvation, what does that mean for those who “forget” through Alzheimer’s and dementia?  Are they destined to “depart to Sheol” with the wicked because the have forgotten themselves and God?(Psalm 9:17)  Will God forget them because they have forgotten God?

God’s apparent forgetfulness is perhaps of more importance to the Psalmist than her own.

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me for ever?  How long will you hid your face from me?  (Psalm 13:1)

Why do you hid your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (Psalm 44:24)

On many occasions it is God’s remembering that saves God’s people.  Noah is saved from the Ark because God remembers; Rachel and Hannah were given children; Moses is sent to save the Israel from slavery.  My favorite passage is God’s own proclamation in Isaiah.

Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)

Ultimately our hope is not in our own memory but in God’s.   And when we can no longer remember for whatever reason, God will remember us and through remembering will re-member us through the Resurrection (remembering is re-membering, a great line I learned from Stanley Hauerwas… I think!)

Just as it is God’s promise to remember, I think it is also the church’s task to remember especially for those who have forgetten.  When powers and principalities forget who is really in charge of this world or forget the needs of those they are called to serve, it is the church’s place to stand up and help them remember.  This week Martin Luther King’s Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated.  It is our responsibility to remember his words and legacy.  When our grandfather looks at us with confusion in his eyes and asks, “Who are you again?” it is our bittersweet burden to remember for him not only who we are, but also who he was and through God’s grace and remembering he can become again.

As Jesus was struggling on the cross to take his last breaths, the criminal dying next to me had only one request, “Remember me.”

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  Something worth remembering.

[1] Dan Wetzel, “Dementia diagnosis won’t stop Pat Summitt,” Yahoo! Sports website (http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/womens-basketball/news?slug=dw-dementia_diagnosis_wont_stop_summitt_082311)

[2] “2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures” (http://www.alz.org/downloads/Facts_Figures_2011.pdf)

[3] Ibid. Wetzel