Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Remembering those who died in Casper

(Last night students, faculty and administrators at Laramie County Community College held a candlelight vigil as a show of support for their counterparts at Casper College who are mourning the deaths that took place there a week ago. I was honored to take part. The following is the message I offered those in attendance.)

An unnamed theologian was asked to explain why so many people purposefully contribute to the harm of other human beings. In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises. Where is God when some among us choose to do harm to others among us? He answered the difficult question using a fictional conversation between the two brothers, Cain and Abel:

“Your fascination with God is folly,” said Cain. “With or without God, I can make the Earth yield up its fruit by applying my intelligence, my strength, and the tools which I craft. Why do you spend so much time fawning over that which is invisible, when the tangible is more real, and more useful?”

Abel replied to his older brother, “You must not speak like that. God will hear you and be angered at your insolence. You are insulting the Holy One.”
“I see no evidence of this God,” scowled Cain. “But if he exists, he would surely favor me, for I am the firstborn, and the more intelligent of us. Like him, I make tools and divide the Earth. Like him, my work brings forth the fruits of the Earth. You merely watch over the animals, who hardly require your labors to prosper. Your work is but little, and mine is great. I say to you that God would favor me.”

Abel said, “You may be correct, but I cannot decide for God. I merely wish to serve Him. It matters little to me whether he favors you or I; perhaps he likes both of us equally.”
“I doubt that, said Cain. “I cannot imagine that he could regard your work favorably when compared to my own. But let us test to see if God will decide between us. We shall make an offering to God. I will choose the fruit of my work, and you shall choose the fruit of yours. We will bring the offerings before God, and see who he prefers. Then we shall know which of us is the better, and whether this God you all speak of is real or not.” Abel was reluctant, “I do not think this is a good idea. It may offend the Lord.”
“You said that you wish to please God,” Cain challenged his brother, “and I say that by bringing God a gift, you will do just that. Bring your offering to God tomorrow at dusk, and I shall bring mine. Then we shall behold his answer, if he answers at all.”
Abel acquiesced saying, “If it will please you, my brother, I shall do as you request, but I ask in my heart that it may please God as well.”

Cain said, “Tomorrow, then, we shall know two things: whether or not this God exists, and if he does, which of us he favors.”
On the following day Cain murdered his brother. God lamented the death of Abel but protected Cain from retribution. And so we learned…as Cain predicted…both that God existed and that God favored neither one brother over the other.
Tonight we gather with the heaviest questions of life. Does God exist? Who does God favor? Those questions burden our hearts and minds in the wake of the tragic deaths James Krumm, Heidi Arnold, and Christopher Krumm. It is not as though we are unaccustomed to violence. We see it vividly each day on our television sets, we read of it incessantly in our newspapers. It happens regularly in places we have never been to people we have never known for reasons described to us by people who claim to understand…but don’t.
Violence is institutional in our culture…but there is something quantitatively different when it comes to our doorstep. Violence in our own communities, among members of our own communities creates a dimension that we, as humans, have little, if any, experience. When it occurs, we are left seemingly alone, searching, almost speechless, certainly confused. We have no words to describe the feelings we experience but cannot understand. We have no basis in our lives that will allow us to adequately proceed with explanations.
We’ve heard it said at times like this, “It was God’s plan.” But most assuredly it was not. God does not plan, through the disordered thoughts and life of a single person with free-will, to end the lives of himself and others. God’s tears were most certainly the first to fall…long before the news of the tragedy in Casper began to spread. In his grace, God’s arms opened to receive the three, yes…all three of those who died that day long before any human could begin to fathom the horror.
Just as Biblical scholars search the Hebrew scripture in vain… hoping to find a word or a phrase that could help explain why Cain would murder his younger brother, we will search in vain to find a satisfying answer for why a son would kill his father and the person his father loved and then himself. Journalists will interview people who knew them, the police will conduct an exhaustive investigation, and conclusions will be reached. But an answer we can grasp will evade us all forever.
Our communities often respond to violence with retribution but that wont has been denied us in this circumstance. Humans seek to find blame, but there appears to be no one living at whom we might point our fingers. How then can our very human and understandable need for understanding be satisfied?
Perhaps the answer for which we search can be found only in the ambiguity we experience. Certainly, if God had wanted to create a world in which there were readily ascertainable answers to the questions such tragedies engender, God could have done so. God didn’t and so the ambiguity must have been God’s intention.
Perhaps the need for answers is itself the source of much of our grief and confusion. Perhaps the answers are to be found only in the ambiguities. Maybe it’s what Solomon was trying to teach when in his great wisdom he wrote:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
To which Solomon added, “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
The ambiguities of life evolve around its dual nature. Life offsets death, joy offsets pain; there is a time to be born and a time to die; there is a time to kill followed by a time to heal; there is a time to mourn as we do tonight, followed by a time to dance; a time to weep and a time to laugh. Each is inseparable from the other.
And so we live with the ambiguities not for their sake but for the sake of what it is they prepare us to do, how it is they prepare us to respond and go on living after the inexplicable. We mourn the loss of James Krumm, Heidi Arnold, and Christopher Krumm…not for the sole purpose of mourning but to prepare us to search for and resolve the problems of institutionalized violence in our culture. The causes of these three deaths are many and not without a connection to all of the violence on the earth. The fact that we each may see the causes differently means only that together we will have the ability to find solutions to them all.
Remembering is about finding a way to take the pain we feel and to turn it into the power we have through our membership in a larger community…a community that consists of both victims and those who victimize. It’s not about forgiveness…that comes later, if at all. It’s about self-reflection and the willingness to know we are and have been a part of a community that has the power and the authority to take what we feel this night and use it to make our little corner of the culture less violent, more supportive and loving.
Tonight is, however, neither the time to ask those questions nor to resolve the problems of the world. It’s a time to weep, a time to mourn. The time to mourn and to keep silence is upon us but the time to speak out will come and then speak out we must.
According to an old Polish proverb, Adam and Eve were standing on the bank of a creek, when they first saw the corpse of Abel. As they sat there, not knowing what they should do with the corpse, a little bird fell from a nearby tree. The little bird was very young and could not fly. The fall killed it. Adam and Eve looked at the dead bird and saw that it was a raven. Soon the old raven flew by, and when he saw his young one was dead, he scratched a hole in the ground with his feet, and laid it inside. Then he scratched the hole full and flew away. Adam and Eve observed all this and followed the raven's example. They made a hole in the earth, laid Abel's corpse in it, and covered it with earth.
All of this has scratched a hole in our hearts. Whether we lift our prayers to God, Yahweh, Allah or to whomever we know as the Divine…let us all seek the strength and the wisdom to fill that hole with life, using whatever remains of our own to seek a better world in memory of James Krumm, Heidi Arnold, and Christopher Krumm.

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