Quick verbal assurances of healing and redemption and glory in the afterlife – “they’re in a better place” – are bull. Offering cheap grace doesn’t fix the problem, it only deepens the grief of the very people we need to help.
Ten years ago today, a troubled man barricaded himself inside a small schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, PA. He killed five children and severely injured five others, then killed himself. Afterwards, the grieving Amish community responded to their horrific losses in a surprising way. This morning we’ll reflect on their response, in light of today’s Lectionary reading. We’ll begin by listening to an interview of the killer’s mother, Terri Roberts, as heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this past week.
“I will never forget the devastation caused by my son” she said. The devastation inflicted upon the Amish, upon the Roberts family and their entire community. It wasn’t just the loss of loved and innocent lives, but the loss of innocence, the loss of the identity they thought they had. Their rural existence, isolated from the tumult and pains of the outside world, was replaced with the isolation of their grief.
On that day, Terri Roberts, the ordinary mother of an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, in an ordinary little town, became the mother of a mass murderer. She later wrote “I was – always will be – his mother. Surely if anyone could spot signs of trouble it would be the woman who gave birth to him.” But she didn’t, no one did.
We see these same emotions: guilt, grief, unresolved and unresolvable questions, in this morning’s reading. The surviving Jews in Psalm 137 are exiles in Babylon: strangers in a strange land. Their homes and their stable and prosperous lives are gone forever.
Why were they spared when so many of their friends and family died? Their city and nation are destroyed. Their identity is gone. Even their God is gone. The Temple that connected them to their Creator and Protector is in ruins.
Evil is sneaky. It rarely announces itself at the door. It sneaks into our lives through the pain and the loss we all encounter every day. Grief is not to be minimized or ignored. It is a valid emotion. Essential, in fact: because all things have an opposite. For light, there is dark. For wealth there is poverty. For evil there is good. For loneliness there is companionship. We cannot really know one until we know the other.
… it is OK to feel that anger, it is OK to allow ourselves to experience it, just as it is OK to experience the grief and sadness. It is part of what being human is all about. Our emotions are a critical part of who and what we are. Without emotions, we could not love, without emotions we could not create, and we could not grieve; but also, without emotions, we would not destroy and we would not hate.
One of my favorite songs of all time is Don McLean’s rendition of “Waters of Babylon” – a beautiful, haunting, sad three part canon that mourns the loss of Zion and the captivity of the Jews following the Babylonian’s destruction of all they had known and loved, including the Temple and the City of Jerusalem, in 586 BCE.
The lyrics are taken from Psalm 137 in the Bible, which I quote in full here (using the New Revised Standard Version):
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator!} Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
It is times such as the recent shootings in Newtown and this week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon that bring back this song into my mind in all its power and beauty – the events and the music working together to forcefully remind me of how frail and fragile our human existence is; that our time on earth, and the lives of us and all of our fellow human beings, are far too precious to waste.