Remembering the Dead

We are frequently shocked and horrified now by reports of violent encounters between young people and police. And we mourn for the lives lost, and for the racism that underlies many of these confrontations. But such events are not new, and not always based on racism. Those of us who lived through the protests of the 1960s and 1970s are not unfamiliar with irrational and deadly violence. We remember, along with Watts and other riots fueled by racial oppression, along with vicious incidents over desegregation, the ugly confrontations between police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the killings at Kent State University and Jackson State University. Issues are not simple, and there are no clear-cut solutions.

*****

May 4 is always a day of mourning for me. On that day in 1970, on a sunny Monday noontime, thirteen Kent State University students were shot by the Ohio National Guard; four were killed and one paralyzed. My then husband and I had come to Kent State to teach the previous fall. The events of that May have, in many ways, influenced my life.

Recently, I was talking with a young college student who asked me where I had taught. When I mentioned Kent State, she asked me where it was. She had never heard of the university, much less the shootings, even though she attends a similar state university in the next state west, less than 300 miles from Kent. Her parents may not even have been born at the time of the shootings.

If you want to read about the events of that tragic time and their effect on the nation, the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings is excellent. Here are some observations that I would add to that article.

Kent State was then a university largely populated by first-generation college students who were not deeply involved in political issues and protests. They did not have much experience in protest, and were not well prepared to protect themselves physically. Dispersing when confronted by an armed National Guard would have been wise.

The National Guard soldiers who were on campus that day had come from a ten-day labor union dispute in Akron where they had been the targets of bricks and rocks – and possibly worse. They were tired, jittery, and facing people their own age. Even though most of the students were not particularly privileged – most were working to help pay for college – their student draft deferrals must have made them seem privileged to members of the Guard.

The preceding weekend had been the first warm weekend of a late spring. Kent was then a town full of bars, catering to students, locals, and visitors from a wide area. The atmosphere included a certain amount of general letting loose, along with some indignation over the invasion of Cambodia.

Kent State’s President, Dr. Robert I. White, was out of town at the time and not available to respond to the protestors.

The ROTC building that was destroyed was a small temporary structure used by a very small program that in 1970 was not popular on college campuses in general. In later reports, it sounded as if a major university building had been burnt.

I remember standing at the checkout at a local grocery store a month or so after the killings and hearing the woman in front of me, a frail-looking, white-haired person, tell the checkout clerk that “they should have shot more of them.” Bitterness – much of it aimed against the students – was common in the town of Kent for years.

Most of the students who were shot were either standing around watching a few students actively confront the Guard or passing by on their way to their next class.

The then Governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, was vilifying students for the opposition of some of them to an unpopular war before the shootings occurred. For many years afterward, during Rhodes’ further terms as governor, the university’s budget requests were routinely cut at the state level. There were years in which we, the faculty, brought chalk and erasers to class. Handouts and other materials were rationed, maintenance deferred, and expenditures in general pared to the bone.

*****

When I tell people of my generation or their children that I taught at Kent State, they always ask, “Were you there . . .?” Yes, I was. But now it’s old history or totally unknown to younger people. Have you heard of the killings that rocked the nation? Do you know the names of the dead?

Sandra Scheuer was walking from one class to another.
William Schroeder was also on his way to his next class.
Allison Krause, who had put a flower in the rifle of a Guardsman the day before, was watching.
Jeffrey Miller was participating in the protest.

Nine other students were shot; most were either watching or passing by. The most severely injured was Dean Kahler, who was not himself confronting the National Guard; he was shot in the spine and paralyzed from the chest down. He went on to finish his degree and became a teacher and was active in local and state government. I knew him very slightly later and admired his lack of bitterness. But all of those who were shot that day found their lives shaped by the consequences of the shootings. Those of us who were a part of the campus community were also affected permanently.

Remember them all. Remember the time when the nation killed its own on their own college campus. Remember the names of the dead.

Sandra Scheuer
William Schroeder
Allison Krause
Jeffrey Miller

 

This is a revision of a post previously published on May 4, 2014.

Advertisements

The Promise of Easter

On this Saturday of Holy Week, the sun is shining brightly and the spring air is soft. The forsythia and daffodils are blooming, and the maples and earliest apple trees are in blossom. Cardinals and robins are singing, and the message of rebirth infuses the earth.

I think about tomorrow, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, named in our language for an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth. And I think about the way many religions, ancient and contemporary, reflect on the cycle of the year through stories of the god who dies and is reborn. Rebirth – resurrection – is the central concept of Christianity, but we are not unique.

There is something very powerful in the turning of the seasons that stirs human imagination. We may explain the seasons scientifically, but they still seem more significant and more amazing than the physical facts of scientific explanation. Perhaps this is because the forces that drive the seasons are so much larger than we are.

But the mystery of rebirth is also larger than we are. We need our myths to help explain the incomprehensible nature of rebirth. And so we have our stories of the god who dies and is reborn. The story in my heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of the Christ. I am a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and the stories of the Christian tradition resonate with me. They help me find my way to God – or, rather, they help me see that God is with me. But I don’t for a moment believe that my stories are the only ones that are true.

We are like the group of blind people in the story of the encounter with an elephant. One person, feeling the elephant’s leg, said that the elephant was very like a tree. Another, touching the ear, declared that the beast was like a ship with a large sail. A third, stroking the trunk, said that the elephant was like a snake. And so on. Every faith has grasped a part of God, but no one has grasped all of God. We are human and limited in our understanding; we can’t fully comprehend the infinity that is God.

And so we waste our energy arguing over our beliefs, assuming that our own way of faith is somehow more true than others. When we believe we know the only truth, we try to convince everyone else to believe exactly what we believe, while those of other faiths do the same. And so we have crusades, jihads, holy wars, grieving God in the name of God.

We try to discover evidence that Jesus really (that is, in physical fact, empirically observable) did die and rise again. Some seem to believe that the truth of the resurrection depends on such physical reality. But the real truth of the story rests in its power to transform us, its power to bring us into an ever-growing relationship with God.

What matters about the story of the god who dies and is resurrected is not its historical accuracy. What matters is not even the story of rebirth’s connection to the cycle of the seasons. What matters is the message of God’s power and love behind the story of resurrection. What matters is the little bit of truth about God revealed in the story.

There are many different theological statements about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus. The one that one hears most often is that Jesus died for us, to save us from the consequences of our sinfulness. There may be truth in this concept, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. It may be the elephant’s tail, but the whole truth of the elephant is something else.

For me, the larger truth of the passion and resurrection is the revelation of God’s overwhelming love for us and the promise of God’s presence with us. God chose to suffer and die as we suffer and die. God understands us completely and is with us completely. God promises to go with us into the darkest places of our lives. But even all that is not, I think, the whole truth of the Resurrection. The whole truth is beyond my limited human comprehension. All I can do is experience the power of the story and love God.

(Note:  This was first posted a year ago.)

What Is Truth?

“What is truth?” he asked, lifting one hand slightly.
The ragged man before him glanced upward and did not reply,
while the abyss between them deepened and grew wider.
A single word danced above it and split into a hundred permutations,
each with its own singular meaning.

Truth is sunlight pouring through the leaves of the maple.
Truth is the lightning bolt that shatters the tree,
the lily bud unfolding in the morning light,
the wind howling across the mountain pass,
the warm arms of the sea in a sheltered cove.

Truth is the convolution of the nautilus,
the mysterious equations of the stars,
the first stroke of paint on wet paper,
the rainbow in the waterfall,
the crystalline promise of the unbroken geode.

Truth is the bullfrog’s song in the warm dark of a May night,
the storm clouds gathering against the sunset,
the winter moon in the branches of a tree,
the scent of peonies on a warm morning,
twilight moving across a northern sky.

Truth is the magma seething at the earth’s core,
the collision of cells conceiving,
the shuddering of the earth forcing one plate against another,
the acorn sprouting under the soil,
the breath of God in everything that is.

 

(Note:  The image above is a photograph of children playing on the Temple Mount, near the area that was once thought (probably erroneously) to be the site where Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, asking “What is truth?”)

 

A Night in Gethsemane

Tenebrae: The Service of Shadows

Maundy Thursday. A difficult night. A difficult service. We love to rejoice with the risen Christ, but it is far harder to suffer with the betrayed and bleeding man on the cross. As the readings for the service of Tenebrae move from betrayal and desertion to mockery and death, the candles in the sanctuary are put out one by one. As we hear the story in scripture, the shadows of our own sin and guilt grow deeper, closing in around us.

The darkness presses in on me. If I had been there that long night and the dark day that followed, which role would have been mine? Would I have taken an active part, calling out accusations before Caiaphas? Would I have been convinced that this man was a disrupter, a threat to my faith, a creator of disorder who had to be destroyed in the name of God?

Might I have been a Roman skeptic, amused at the foolishness of these Eastern fanatics who thought a poor itinerant preacher a serious threat? Or would I have played the part of the military bullies who jammed the crown of thorns on his head and struck him repeatedly in the face, not caring who or what he was, only knowing that this was a chance for a bit of fun?

Might I have been one of those who had heard Jesus teach, seen him heal, who had believed that he was indeed the Messiah? Would I have watched from a little distance, my faith in the Lord who had entered the city in triumph only a few days earlier violently shaken by the sight of the blood on his face? Would my voice have been the voice of Peter, denying that I even knew him?

Jesus was not, after all, the clear sign that had been expected. The Jews looked for a military leader who would free them from the yoke of the Romans. They expected ritual purity and unmistakable glory. Instead, Jesus had eaten with sinners, entered the city on a donkey, and washed his disciples’ feet. The Romans were expecting the sort of armed revolt they were so good at crushing, not a king who claimed his kingdom was not of this earth. When the sign came, it was undecipherable – not because the sign wasn’t meaningful, but because the people who saw it were blinded by their own expectations. The dying Christ and the empty tomb were mysteries too deep for human reason.

The shadows close in. All I can do is weep for my sins, my doubts, my blindness, and for the infinite suffering endured for us. Endured so that we might glimpse our own brokenness. Endured so that we might know the infinite love that made us and pray for the marvelous, undeserved, overwhelming light of Easter morning.

(Note: This was first posted two years ago.)

Suffering and Lament

“Just get over it.”
“Let it go.”
“Let go of the past and look to the future.”
“Put it behind you.”
“Big girls don’t cry.”
“Be a man!”

In other words, hide your suffering away. Pretend it isn’t there and you’ll forget to suffer.

We all know how well that works.

Pain that is ignored or denied clogs the arteries of the soul until nothing of life can flow through them. And yet the pressures of our culture encourage denial.

If we’re not telling ourselves to get over it, we’re telling ourselves to be ashamed of what we feel.
False piety: “Think of others who have suffered so much more.”
Dismissal: “No one wants to hear your complaints.”
Fear: “People will think I’m weak.”

Even the conventional wisdom of religion doesn’t always deal well with suffering. Historically, it’s most often been assumed that suffering is a result of sin. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The same notions are at work today when we assume that if we eat the right foods we’ll never get sick, or that a chronic condition is the result of not taking care of ourselves, or that if we’re just good enough (whatever that means) bad things won’t happen to us.

When the bad things do happen – and they do happen to all of us – conventional piety tells us to just lay our suffering at the foot of the cross or to give it to God – as if it’s simply trash to put out for collection. But it’s never that simple. We can’t just give our suffering away; we have to do more than that.

The usual response to suffering is either to deny it or to wallow in it. Tough it out, or play the role of victim. In either case, the pain festers and is not healed. But there is a better way. Job got it right. The psalms of lament got it right. Suffering is too real to release without expression. That expression, whatever form it takes, is lament.

Lament is therapy for the soul. Grief, anger, fear, regret, guilt, shame, loss, resentment – any emotion that grows out of suffering is a spiritual burden that needs to be voiced if the suffering is ever to lessen. The burden can’t simply be set down and forgotten or stuffed in a dark corner. Nor is it healthy for the soul to languish in victimhood.

In our culture, which stresses the ideal of the rugged individual who is self-reliant and strong, we tend to think of lamentation as whining. It makes us uncomfortable and touches too closely the very real fear that we are not in control of everything. But lamentation is not whining. It’s the expression of strong emotions that need to be released so that healing may begin. It’s also a spoken or unspoken recognition that the person who laments is not alone and that wholeness is possible. That’s why the lament is made to another – to a friend or to God.

Lamenting can be uncomfortable for the listener. Our culture values doing. When someone is suffering, our first impulse is to try to fix whatever is wrong or at least help the sufferer move beyond the suffering. But most of the time what is needed is not fixing but listening. Simple listening is a real gift to the one who is suffering – much more of a gift than good advice or exhortations to get over it.

A friend of mine recently visited an elderly woman who had worked for her for years until she became too ill to work, and whose son, her primary caregiver, had died not long ago. My friend sat with her all afternoon, listening while she recounted the loss of her son and her grief. This was a true lament, deeply felt and vividly expressed. My friend may have been a little uncomfortable, but her quiet presence was a blessing, allowing the full expression of the woman’s grief. This was a ministry of presence and of listening.

Much as friends and confidants might help by listening to our laments, God is the ultimate listener. Voicing our woes to friends and counselors is helpful, but God is the one who can use our suffering for transformation and spiritual growth. Our laments provide an opening for God to bring acceptance and healing, even though we may not be aware of it at the time.

Unfortunately, we all too often feel that we can only show our positive emotions to God. Our worship is filled with lots of praise, much thanksgiving, a bit of repentance, a little supplication, and almost no lament. The unspoken message is that pain and suffering are not fit for God’s hearing – and certainly not fit for the congregation to hear. We end up thinking we can only tell God the good stuff. But the truth is that everyone suffers, and all communities suffer. We can’t surprise or offend God with our complaints.

When we do have negative feelings, we may try to give them to God, hoping God will simply take them away. But if God were to do that, no space would be created for healing and growth. Nothing would get better. We would not get better. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve given God their anger, their grief, their shame, or their need to control – but then found themselves taking it back. Or they’ll say they tried to give their worries to God, but it didn’t work.

Lament, on the other hand, opens us up to God’s action within us. It doesn’t fix anything instantly or necessarily bring us immediate relief, but over time, it can bring us closer to God, and that is where we will eventually find healing. In lament, we bring our pain and our negative emotions to God – but more than that, we express those feelings, voicing them fully. As we describe our emotions in detail, we not only purge some of the pain but we also gain a greater understanding of our feelings. Lament helps us know ourselves and our suffering more fully, and that can lead to acceptance and healing. In time.

I can think of three times when I have felt overwhelmed with anger. Not the ordinary, passing annoyance that is a routine reaction to small offenses, but a deep, roiling sense of betrayal. On two of these occasions, I lay awake all night, rigid with anger and grief at what had been done to me. I was burning up with emotion, and it never occurred to me to try to express it. I tried to escape it by thinking of other things; when morning came, I busied myself with my usual activities. The anger festered in me for days before it began to abate. I was left diminished and weakened.

On the other occasion, I sat down and wrote a long, explicit letter to the person who had betrayed me, detailing what had been done to me and my emotions in response. I also described in detail all of the personal flaws of the one who had made me angry. No, I did not send the letter or show it to anyone. I tore it up. But the very act of lamenting not only the acts of the betrayer but also the loss of the relationship was healing. The pain was lessened, and perspective restored.

Lamentation is not a place to linger. It is a spiritual practice whose goals are growth, wholeness, and relationship. Like all spiritual practices, it is not an end in itself but a means of drawing closer to God and all creation.

Lament is for any negative emotion we may feel. We may think of lament as an expression of loss or grief, and often it is just that. But laments can also express anger at a person or an injustice. They can give voice to worries and anxiety and fear. They can be a release for guilt or shame or resentment.

The psalms provide patterns for lament and restoration. The emotions are expressed, and often (but not always) a recollection of God’s goodness follows. Reading them can help make us more comfortable in expressing our emotions to God. Here are some of my favorites. Among the best for expressing anguish are Psalm 22 and Psalm 38. For anger, you might try Psalm 10, Psalm 13, or Psalm 58. For fear, Psalm 27 and Psalm 56. For injustice, Psalm 26, Psalm 28, Psalm 43, and Psalm 44. For resentment, Psalm 41. For betrayal, Psalm 55. For grief, Psalm 42 and Psalm 137. For despondency or depression, Psalm 88 and Psalm 102. For a desire for vengeance, Psalm 109 and Psalm 137. For guilt, Psalm 25 and Psalm 52. Look for one that resonates with your own suffering, and pray it to God.

It’s not enough to “turn it over” to God. It’s necessary to experience our pain fully by expressing it fully. That isn’t easy or comfortable, but it’s healing. Although we’d rather not experience our pain fully, that’s what we need. When we allow ourselves to face the deepest truths of our suffering, we open ourselves to God’s transforming presence within us, and to God’s healing.

Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?