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.

Crying for the World to Change

I was thinking about repentance today.  After all, it is Lent, the season of repentance.  Lent is the 40 day season of preparation before the great celebration of Easter.  Yet when we give up something for Lent, I suspect most of us look at that particular practice more of as a faith challenge (“Can I do this?”) than as a means of showing penance and contrition (“I’m sorry, God”).  In short, repentance seems in short supply even during Lent.  Yet it was not a reflection on Lent that led me to think about repentance.  It was a post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Stephen Prothero:

My Take: Rush Limbaugh’s ‘apology’ fails test for public confession

It’s a good article and worth your time to read.  Prothero not only calls into question Rush Limbaugh’s apology but also gives a good summary of what confession is (or at least should be).  First, admit wrongdoing; second, say you are sorry; third, humble yourself; fourth, change your ways.  What struck me in particular was his mention of tears in his second point.

“Second, show that you are truly sorry. Saying “I’m sorry” (which Limbaugh did not do) is a good start, but it isn’t enough. You have to make yourself believable. Here tears are not necessary, but they help. Others need to believe that you are confessing for the sake of your soul, and not merely for the sake of your career. Hint: the best way to make that happen is to actually be sorry.”(bold emphasis mine)

First, I cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh, the radio persona, actually ever being moved to tears by his own poor choice of words.  And then I began to wonder, might Prothero actually be wrong?  Maybe tears are necessary, if not for true confession, then for true repentance.  From the collective wisdom of the Desert Fathers, found in the Philokalia, there are many references to the shedding of tears.

 When you fall from a higher state, do not become panic-stricken, but through remorse, grief, rigorous self-reproach, and, above all, through copious tears shed in a contrite spirit, correct yourself and return quickly to your former condition. (St. Theognostos, II, On the Practice of the Virtues, sec. 48)

before we have experienced inward grief and tears there is no true repentance or change of mind in us… for without tears our hardened hearts cannot be mollified, our souls cannot acquire spiritual humility, and we cannot be humble. (St. Symeon the New Theologian, IV, Practical and Theological Texts, sec. 69)

The Desert Fathers saw tears at least as a sign of true repentance and perhaps even a means for achieving true repentance.  I cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh, the radio persona, ever being moved to tears over his mistakes.  But when was the last time I cried over mine?  Too long I am afraid.  When was the last time I cried at all?

If I cannot be moved to tears by guilt, then can I by compassion?  This week was a heart-wrenching week in the news.  So many killed by the terrible storms moving across the Midwest and South.  So many continue to be killed in Syria by the hand of their own government.  So many children die in Africa by a disease that is preventable (every 60 seconds malaria claims the life of a child in Africa; want to know more? http://www.imaginenomalaria.org/).  I was almost moved to tears.  Why only almost?

I believe God cries tears over such tragedies of the world.  Jesus wept.  So why don’t I?  My four year old daughter cries tears over the slightest hint of disappointment from her father.  So why don’t I?  How have I become so callous over the disappointment of my heavenly Father who loves me?  How have I become so callous over the pain I see in the world?  In his beautifully haunting song, “Tears of the World,” Michael Card imagines the collective grief of the world filling the oceans.  And he, too, wonders, “So how could it be that my own eyes are dry?”

I remember a favorite line from one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings.  Gandalf, saying goodbye to Sam, Merry and Pippin for the last time, declares, “Go in peace!  I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”  Some tears are not an evil.  Some tears are heaven-sent and blessing… tears of guilt, even, and tears of compassion.  Our tears, when joined with God’s tears, can lead to true repentance and wash away the stains upon this world.  In the chorus of “Tears for the World,” Michael Card prays a prayer… for tears.  This Lent, it is my prayer for me and for you.

so open my eyes

and open my heart

and grant me the gift

of your grieving

and awaken in me

the compassion to weep

just one of the tears of the world.

-Michael Card, “Tears of the World”