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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Thoughts about visiting the dog park

This is a picture of our dog, Bo, enjoying the Columbus Dog Park.

During the fall of last year I was able to take a three month renewal leave from work.  Everyone serving in my position with the church gets such a renewal leave during their fifth or sixth year as a district superintendent. I must admit that I didn’t plan anything spectacular during my time off. My main goal was to see how many days in a row I could wear shorts, a tee shirt, and flip flops.  I also had plans to take our dog, Bo, to the dog park every day. Actually, both of those plans panned out pretty well. While I did have to put on real shoes a few times, a real chore after letting your feet run free for weeks on end, for the most part I was able to bum around, read books that had lain dormant on my reading list for quite some time, and watch every episode of “Lost” on Netflix.  Not particularly productive but certainly relaxing.

Bo and I have been making more frequent trips to the Columbus dog park recently and I am surprised at how quickly I can relax in that space. It is almost as if the physical location of the dog park puts my body and spirit in the framework of that renewal leave and I immediately feel the tension melt away.  For Bo, part of the attraction is the other dogs that happen to be there on any given day. For my part, I sit on the bench while he runs free or plays, reading or just watching. Sometimes I have conversations with the other dog owners who are there with their pets, mostly about our dogs, their endearing characteristics, and how they interact with one another. While we may enjoy these conversations, we know that in this space and for this brief time, it is all about the dogs. And somehow, moving the focus away from the world outside the park helps us relax all the more.

Mystics talk about “thin places” where the veil between the corporeal and the divine is less pronounced and people’s ability to experience the sacred is more easily achieved. I have visited places, like Stonehenge, which are widely recognized as thin places. However, I also believe that there are personal thin places where our individual experiences create a proclivity to experience the divine more profoundly. In some ways I would say the dog park has become a thin place in my personal spiritual experience.

I suspect most people have a place like that. A place that represents tranquility and well being. For some it is a particular room in their house or a beloved chair. For others, it is a walking path or a pew in a church. The places are probably as varied as our experiences of God’s presence in our lives. For me, in this season of my life, it is sitting on a bench, watching a loving dog run and play, sometimes with other dogs, sometimes just exploring the sight and sounds of this generous enclosure.  Midst the storms of my life it is a happy oasis.