A Message of Death
When 32 people were shot and killed at Virginia Tech in April 2007, I was in the middle of the desert.
I’d been there for over a week, hiking through the canyons of Utah, doing invasive species removal with a group of volunteers for the National Park Service. We were too far to be reached by telephone signals or electrical wires.
But not too far to be reached by death.
The park ranger’s brother passed away unexpectedly while we were in the field. The Park Service flew signal plans over the canyon where we were camped, lights blinking trouble-trouble, until he climbed to the top of a nearby ridge where we could get a weak radio signal.
Come back, they told him, there’s been an emergency. So we cleaned up camp, cached our tools, and hiked the 7 miles back out of the desert, returning a few days earlier than planned.
I noticed the minute my feet hit the concrete: all the flags were at half mast.
Then I found a newspaper.
It was a strange way to find out about national tragedy. For days our little group had communed only with each other and the stars. We had worried only about getting our work done, about not disturbing sleeping snakes, about properly purifying our water.
It is shock enough to come back from the wilderness, but it was worse to come back to a different reality than the one we’d left.
Indeed, grief is a far-flung messenger that will find you no matter where you hide.
Meaning Beyond Absurdity
It didn’t take so long for the message of Sandy Hook to reach me.
Friday morning, as events unfolded somewhere else, I was playing piano at a funeral for a beloved woman I never knew. It was a message of death that was bittersweet, welcomed at the end of a well-lived life, and we, her congregation, gathered to eat and sing and pray together, to give thanks for her life and death, to speak hope for life beyond.
I heard about Sandy Hook the minute I turned on my car radio.
When I heard the number of deaths, I had to pull over to put both hands on my face. Out to dinner that night, I cried in a public restaurant just trying to speak of those children, of the children in my life that I know and love.
Didn’t we all pull over and cry in public? Didn’t we all lean on each other, rub our knees raw, search for something meaningful to say about tragedy and violence?
Aren’t we still searching?
Ten days before his death, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did a television interview for NBC. When asked if he had a special message for young people, he nodded.
Remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity.
Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power,
and that we do, everyone, our share to redeem the world,
in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.
(Interview transcript can be found here)
Even if we do not know what to make of this tragedy — in the face of absurdity, frustration, and disappointment — there is yet meaning. Though we don’t know what to say or do that can possibly be adequate, we try anyway, because we cannot say or do nothing.
Every little deed counts; every word has power. And together we are responsible for redeeming the world.
Tikkun olam, as the Jewish teaching says, heal the world.
The Work of Redemption
And then it’s Christmas.
We have been waiting this Advent. We knew we were waiting for redeemer come, but we did not know we were waiting for this — for a message of death, for absurdity and grief.
Death came anyway, and we are still waiting for that redeemer to be born, tiny and fragile, into our midst. Has Advent ever felt so long?
Over the weekend, we asked our youth to hold a moment of silence for the victims, and one boy asked Why? It doesn’t make any difference to remember. Why should we hold silence?
But it does matter.
Our waiting — in this Advent season, in this time of grief, in this very moment of silence — matters.
Our grieving — for brothers lost unexpectedly, for beloved grandmothers who lived life full, for tiny children who were only strangers — matters.
Our hoping — for peace in our communities, for the healing of our hearts, for the coming of our redeemer — matters.
May we not tire in waiting, grieving, and hoping — for this is the work of redemption that belongs to each one of us.