Friday, December 21, 2012

Thoughts on Sandy Hook


Sara Hess died more than thirty years ago. I am not over it yet. She lived next door to my childhood home and was one of my mother’s closest friends. Sara had five children, she played the organ at a local church and was the kindest person in my little world. To this day when I try to picture human kindness, Sara Hess’s face comes to mind.

Having attended and presided over hundreds of funerals in my life, it is curious that Sara dying of cancer when I was thirteen holds such a prominent place in my memory. I imagine it has to do with my age and the circumstances surrounding the death.

Sara’s illness and decline caused me as a young boy to confront certain hard questions for the first time. How could someone so good be struck with such a cruel disease? How could doctors and clergy be powerless in the face of this grave threat? But most importantly, what words could I say that would ease the heartache my mother was experiencing?

The day of Sara’s funeral is etched in my mind. The most vivid memory is of my mother walking in the cemetery having to be held up by my brothers as her grief overcame her. I spent the rest of that day actively searching for words I could say that would make the pain less for my mother. I never found those words and felt ashamed about that failure.

It does not take a therapist to see that a young boy searching for words to comfort a grieving mother might be a good candidate for the ministry. By the time I was twenty I was already serving as the pastor of a small, country church. Shortly after taking the position, a tragic death occurred. The mother of twin babies took her own life leaving the grandparents to raise the boys. 

Sitting in the living room with this couple that was mourning the sudden death of their daughter, and contemplating the prospect of raising two babies, I once more felt the overwhelming need to find the right words to say. And, again, I failed. 

The good news is that after spending many years as a minister, and now as a counselor, I have had countless opportunities to sit with people who have suffered a terrible loss. I am now an expert on what to say in such circumstances. Do you want to know the secret? There is nothing to say.

On December 14, 2012 we suffered a tragic loss as a people when twenty children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We have been through these mass killings too many times as Americans, but there was something about the fact that most of the victims were six-year-olds that made this event even more horrifying. Such violence and madness makes us physically ill and emotionally distraught at the realization of what the human species is capable of doing.

In the days since the killings there have been many words spoken. Traditional and social media outlets are ablaze with updates, speculation, accusations, policy proposals, name calling, political posturing and various expressions of outrage. I am having a hard time tolerating most of it. Oh, I am heartened to see that people across the political spectrum are in agreement that something must be done to stop these mass shootings. What previously seemed like empty rhetoric might actually lead to something constructive this time. I pray it does.

For me, the consolation this week has come from a dead philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein said almost a century ago, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I take him to mean that there are limits to what language can express and achieve. There are things that are beyond words. And in the face of such moments in life when we feel compelled to find the right words to fix a situation, or take away the pain of someone we love, we would do well to be silent.

So, I have spent 700 words to say there are no words. It is time for me to take my own advice and shut up. It is time to grieve.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Ultimate Move


I have called fifteen places home in my life. Six apartments, four parsonages, two dormitory rooms, one rent house, my parents’ home, and the house my wife and I own now. Yes, it was not until the fifteenth residence that I could say I owned the place. Well, actually, some mortgage company in New York City owns our house, but they let us live in it from month to month.

The thing that jumps out at me about having lived in fifteen places is that there have been at least fourteen moves. Which surprises me because after every move I have uttered the words, “I will never do this again.” 

People make moves in life for a variety of reasons. Some folks move not because they choose to, but because they have to. I have seen that reality in trips overseas to places like the Republic of Georgia. I visited an abandoned Soviet military base where thousands of refugees were living because they had been driven from their homes by the conflict between Russia and Georgia. I’ve also seen it on a trip to Zimbabwe. The cruel government of President Robert Mugabe has so shattered the Zimbabwean economy that thousands are moving to South Africa and other neighboring countries looking for work. Do they want to leave their homes? Of course not. But they have no choice.

All of which makes me reflect on the immigration debate in this country. There is a tremendous uproar about undocumented people and what we should do about them. But what I don’t hear in this so-called Christian nation is much discussion about the forces that drive people to leave their homes, risk their lives to travel to an unknown country, so that they can work jobs that few of us would be willing to do. I hear a lot about the threat of terrorism, and how unfair it might be if we let a few of these people into our community colleges. But I don’t hear many of our moral watchdogs talking about what drives people to risk so much to come here. And that disturbs me. 

For most of us, though, we make our moves in life of our own volition. The first big move many people make is when they leave home for college. Where we go to school and what we choose to study make a statement about what is important to us. Later, career moves also reveal something about our needs and desires. We might move far from our original home to chase a job opportunity that is right for us. Or, we might sacrifice money and prestige to go to a place that fits the needs of our family better.

The common thread I see running through all of these moves or changes is that we are usually seeking safety and comfort. We select a school based on whether it feels like the right fit for us. We might move a thousand miles for a job that provides a more comfortable lifestyle for our family. Human beings have a fundamental need to find places that feel right, that feel safe, and we will go to great lengths to discover those places.

So, some people make moves or changes because forces beyond their control compel them to seek survival in a new place. And many of us make moves or changes in life because we need to find the safety and comfort of the right place. But there is another move we make that has little to do with having our survival and safety needs met.

This most dangerous move calls us to risk rejection in order to do what we believe is right. It calls us to push beyond our normal comfort zone to do what is just. It calls us to choose a path that others might deem foolish in order to create what is fair. What am I talking about when I describe this ultimate move in life? I’m talking about LBJ signing civil rights legislation even though he knew it would cost his party the South for a generation or more. I’m talking about the kid in school who risks his social status by befriending the outcast. I’m talking about LGBTQ people and their straight allies challenging the homophobia that permeates families, churches, schools and legislative corridors. When we reach the place in life where our need for survival and safety no longer trumps our hope for a more just and fair culture, we will have moved to higher ground. 

The great Stevie Wonder once wrote:

Till I reach my highest ground
No one's gonna bring me down
Oh no
Till I reach my highest ground
Don't you let nobody bring you down (they'll sho 'nuff try)

Yes, Stevie, they will sho ‘nuff try. May each of us keep moving toward the high ground where justice for all is more than a slogan.

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology