Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cry, Cry, Cry: A Sermon for Sunday April 22, 2007

“Cry, Cry, Cry”
Revelation 21:1-6; Romans 12:9-21
April 22, 2007

When I was in seminary I took my daughter to see “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim musical, which was then running in revival on Broadway. It is a play which cobbles together a bunch of well-known and not-so-well known fairy tales—Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Baker’s Wife, and others. The stories are told in such a way that they weave in and out of one another, one plot line cropping up unexpectedly in another story. At the end of Act One, when maidens are matched with princes and Jack gets away from the giant with a golden harp, everyone sings a song called “Happily Ever After.” Yes, that’s the end of Act One. Then comes Act Two, and it all falls apart. An angry giant rampages through the woods, wreaking death and destruction, and immediately the recriminations start, with everyone looking angrily at everyone else, singing “It’s your fault.” “No it’s your fault.”

As the whole nation responded this week to the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, I had a curious experience of déjà vu. I listened and read and watched and waited for the voices to rise up, angry voices with their authoritative pronouncements. A desperately unhappy and paranoid and angry young man had shot 32 people to death, and then himself—and the whole country clamored to know, Whose Fault Was It? And everyone gave the same answer—It’s YOUR fault.

Here, in no particular order, are some places where Americans assessed blame this week.

Some said, Campus security, you failed—it’s your fault.

Some said, it’s those lax Virginia gun laws—NRA, it’s your fault, and you too, spineless congress—it’s your fault.

Some said, this is the result of sin. The young man who did this allowed sin to overtake him. Young man and Satan, it’s your fault.

Some said, no, it must be his parents; they must have raised him wrong, damaged him or abused him, or spoiled him, or pampered him: family, it’s your fault.

No, actually, others said, it’s the legal system: judge who didn’t keep him locked in the mental institution, it’s your fault.

Some said, it’s this liberal, weak-sister educational system that never teaches students anything useful, like self-defense—academia, it’s your fault.

Others said, what about bravery? What about personal responsibility? Victims, it’s your fault.

And some even said, God is punishing America for its complete sinfulness and depravity. America, it’s your fault, and God, it’s your fault—but of course, you are God, so you must be right.

Everyone who commented gave essentially the same answer—it’s your fault, not mine. It’s their fault, not ours. Sometimes I think our response to a horrible event such as this has the effect of a Rorschach inkblot test: how we respond has more to do with our personality characteristics and emotional functioning than anything verifiable or external to ourselves. In many ways people responded absolutely predictably, with the left blaming institutions and laws and the right leaning on personal responsibility.

I think we want to know whose fault this is. As a nation, and as individuals, we crave clear-cut answers at times of crisis, answers that will tell us what to do next. We want to take action in response to tragedy and horror—we want to do something, and we want to do it now. Some of the actions people take are spontaneously beautiful and heartfelt. Silent candlelit vigils come to mind. And some of the actions people take are heartbreaking—like students of Asian descent fleeing Virginia Tech’s campus for fear of retribution. And some of the actions people take are sick and horrifying, as in the case of the death threats that have already been made against the university president and the shooter’s family. We want to know whose fault it is so that we can do something—anything—in response.

But the question of fault, at this moment in time, leads us down a primrose path; we think we’re going somewhere, but we’re really being led astray. There will be a time for assigning responsibility, and hopefully that will be done carefully, and by people who have the appropriate expertise, and without some political agenda attached. But we can’t and we probably shouldn’t try to answer that question because, right now is not the time for that question. Right now is the time to cry.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we don’t know how to grieve in our culture. We don’t know how to cry. One reason for this, I think, is that American culture values action so highly. Grief appears to be too passive for our taste. But you know, all our resistance against grieving, all our, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and move on” bravado is not scriptural in the least, and it is not faithful. Scripture tells us clearly, there is a time to mourn—it is one of the seasons of human life. We need to learn to enter it faithfully.

Jewish tradition contains much wisdom about how to go through the grieving process. The excellent and informative website, Judaism 101 explains that mourning practices occur in periods of decreasing intensity. When a Jew learns of the death of someone close to her, she tears her garment—the tear is over the heart if it is a parent who has died. In the first phase of mourning individuals remain at vigil beside the one who has died, and have as their only responsibility preparing the deceased for burial. Jews practice prompt burial, often burying the deceased before sundown on the day of death—one of the Virginia Tech professors, an observant Romanian Jew, was flown to Israel for burial within 24 hours. After the burial there follows a seven-day period of mourning known as shiva. During this time, the parents, spouse, siblings and children of the deceased are gathered into one place so that they may grieve together. If you visit a house of mourning, you are not supposed to offer shallow platitudes. You are expected allow the mourners to initiate conversation about their loved one. If you visit a house of mourning, you are not supposed to distract the mourners with other, lighter subject matter—this is disrespectful to the process. The goal is to allow the fullest possible expression of sorrow.

One of the most fascinating practices Jews observe is the saying of the mourner’s Kaddish. This is a prayer that is recited, usually by a son, every day for a year following the death of a parent. I always assumed the Kaddish had death as its subject, that it had to do with the memory of the loved one, or that was a prayer seeking God’s comfort. Not so. The prayer begins Yit’gadal v’ yit’kadash… “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days…” The prayer is a powerful hymn of praise to an almighty and sovereign God, that God’s name be praised, glorified, exalted on earth and in the heavens. Judaism 101 explains:

After a great loss like the death of a parent, you might expect a person to lose faith in G-d, or to cry out against G-d's injustice. Instead, Judaism requires a mourner to stand up every day, publicly… and reaffirm faith in G-d despite this loss.

The process of mourning, in Jewish culture and practice, takes those who grieve on a journey from the most intense period of pain, through a time of relative seclusion and reflection, and into a time of affirmatively praising God, so that the faith may grow even when hearts are broken.

Chapter 11 of Paul’s letter to the Romans culminates with a prayer that is not unlike the mourner’s Kaddish: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” …For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”(Romans 11:33-34, 36) And then chapter 12, from which our reading is taken, begins with a great, sweeping, “therefore.” Therefore—and what follows is a lengthy list of affirmations, telling us how Christians should live in the face of the marvelous mystery that is God. And in that long list we find this verse: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (v. 15).

Weep with those who weep. This is our commandment, the one that guides us in a moment like the one we are living today. This moment, when the fairytale that is supposed to be American life is interrupted and we all wonder, stunned, where that rampaging giant came from, is a moment in which we can only follow that simple and yet somehow difficult commandment, “Weep. Weep with those who weep.”

Near the end of Act Two of “Into the Woods,” many of the characters have been killed by the giant—who, it turns out, is a wife, angry and heartbroken because Jack has killed her husband. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood keep a sorrowful vigil with the Baker, who by now is a widower. Cinderella sings to the little girl,

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you're on your own.
Only me beside you.

Still, you're not alone.

No one is alone. Truly,

No one is alone.

The characters, faced with irreparable loss, weep together, and in doing that, something new is born—a new community, a new way of being in a post-rampaging Giant world. But first they have to allow themselves to feel the loss, to cry together. We have in our community many connections to the people at Virginia Tech… our stories are woven together, our plotlines appear in each other’s stories. No one is alone. God is sovereign, and unsearchable, and has given us to into one another’s care. No one is alone. Amen.

Photo is by Kevin Cupp, Virginia Tech student, courtesy of flickr and Catherine+.


Liz said...

I realized that this is our first national tragdy since the exponential growth of blogging. There is a common thread to all that I have read, and that is to really learn from this, NOT just say we are going to learn.

I have a friend who is not an educator who always asks, "What is the lesson?" and I realized that your point of grieving is so vital. The first lesson is to grieve. The second lesson, I believe, is to forgive. The third lesson is to learn to identify these people and offer them hope. So many of them have lost hope.

Mother Laura said...

Powerful, Mags, thank you.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Last week, when we attended Grandparents Day at my grandsons' school, as we were waiting for the entertainment to begin, we were talking about the Virginia Tech tragedy with the woman behind us, and she said, "God must be very angry at us." I did not even know this woman, but I said, "Oh, no! The young man who did this was severely mentally ill."

We could not continue our conversation, because the program began.

Why this response? Why did she think it was God's doing? Is it because if we can attribute the tragedy to the wrath of God, then, we no longer have to grieve? Is it then all settled?

I don't know the answer.

MoCat said...

This is wonderful and touching Mags, thank you for this.
Too often in the aftermath of tragedy we seek to quickly place blame on someone or something to give us some sense of control over our anger and grief.
Even more disheartening are those who pour their grief and energy into "solving" the wrong end of the problem - in this case, calling for tighter security on school campuses or incarceration of the mentally ill. Too often we think treating the symptoms will cure the disease.

BTW - In regards to the supportive comment you left on my blog about seminary - I was wondering if you would mind emailing me about your experience at the NYC seminary. I'm heading down to the school for a visit on Monday and it's looking more and more likely that it may be a better fit than my previous choice. I'd love to pick your brain as to what to expect as a student!

You can reach me at

Jennifer said...

Thank you for so beautifully validating the giant sob that escaped when I first went on-line and saw this unbelievable news. There are still moments of great tears....and they must continue to fall, as long as they are present.