Thoughts about tragedies and the questions they make us ask

Question MarksIn October of 1998 I ran the Chicago Marathon. I remember the feeling of exhilaration I had when I crossed the finish line. I remember the tears of joy when I hugged my wife, Michelle, and we celebrated a life accomplishment. I remember the elation of my children as they recounted how they had spent the hours while I was running at the Shedd Aquarium. What a celebration! I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that moment interrupted with a bomb.

It is less than two weeks since the bombings at The Boston Marathon and we have moved past the initial “Who?” to the more ubiquitous question: “Why?” When most of us ask that question in this context we are meaning “Why did these people do the things that they did?” We would like to know what their motives are in part so that we might be able to protect ourselves from this happening again. However, there is a bigger “Why?” Why does there exist the possibility that these things can happen? Why is it possible that a human being could conceive of a plan to kill unknown strangers in a crowd?

A few weeks ago someone asked me if I believe in the devil. In answering I quoted the membership liturgy of my church which asks us to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “reject the evil powers of this world.” If I did not believe in the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world before the Boston bombing I would be hard pressed to disclaim them now. Evil exists. We may disagree about the particulars of how evil manifests itself in the world but when innocent children waiting for their parent at the finish line of a racing event are murdered without cause we cannot dismiss the fact that evil exists.

I have wrestled with the big “Why?” for a long time, probably most notably when my first son died in 1986 and when my second son died in 2010. I wish I had the answer to that question. People hand me books and say, “Here, read this. It will help answer your questions.” They are sincere, well meaning people, who care about me. I suspect they want me to have my answer so that I will be in less pain and so they will feel less pain vicariously generated by my grief. And some of the answers help. But they don’t explain away the pain – they only knock feebly at the door where the answers live.

I guess I have come to terms with the mystery of the big “Why?” and have, through the years, lived with a different question: “What now?” How do I attach meaning to the questions I cannot answer and to the events in my life that I cannot explain? How do I profess faith in goodness in the midst of so much evil? How can I be optimistic in the midst of a grief that sometimes overwhelms me? These are some of the questions that we all ask at one time or another. Remarkably, I am predominantly optimistic and hopeful about life in spite of the ambiguities involved in living it.

Maybe I will write a book someday about the why questions but for now I settle for affirming the fact that I do not have to face them alone. It is the companionship of those who walk with me that provide the gentle salve that heals my soul. It is my firm conviction that God weeps with me as Jesus wept by Lazarus’ tomb that helps me feel less alone. It is the sure and certain hope that goodness will prevail in the end.

One of my favorite books, without many easy answers to difficult questions, is Praying Our Goodbyes by Joyce Rupp. Rupp reminds us that it is kinship that helps us through the difficult times. She says that “kinship is grounded in the truth expressed in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, a gentle Father and the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our sorrows, so that we can offer others, in their sorrows, the consolation that we have received from God ourselves.'” She goes on to say that “kinship is much needed for the healing of our woundedness. Our healing will be blessed by the consolation of understood pain and by a bondedness that supports us at times when we feel that the parts of our life will never reassemble into a whole again. Kinship encourages healing and with healing comes hope.” (Praying Our Goodbyes, 111)

And so, I may not have the answer you’re looking for. I’m not good at simple, easy, or aphoristic answers. What I do promise is that I will walk along with you, cry with you, laugh with you, and celebrate in the end when our questions either find ultimate answers or no longer have any relevance.

I weep for those who are most immediately affected by the tragedy in Boston. I grieve for that little piece of all of us that dies with them. But I also believe that we are co-participants in something bigger, something generative, a light that shines brighter than the darkness we now feel.

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