What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. –Jeremiah 31:15

I am writing this the day after a teenager walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and killed nineteen children and two teachers, and wounded 16 others.  Before going to the school, he had also shot his grandmother.  This was just 10 days after a young white racist killed 10 people and wounded 3 at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York.  Nine days ago, another gunman killed 1 and wounded 5 people at a church in Laguna Woods, just down the freeway from here.  In the past 10 days, there have been 17 mass shootings across the United States, resulting in the deaths of 44 people and leaving 89 wounded.  This is just a small 10-day sample of the 213 mass shootings which have already occurred in 2022.  By the time you read this, that number will be higher.  I guarantee it, because there were a total of 693 mass shootings in 2021 and we’re already on pace to match or exceed that.  You can see all the numbers at www.gunviolence.org.

There have been a total of 119 school shootings since 2018.  There were 34 school shootings in 2021, and the shooting at Robb Elementary was the 27th so far this year. 

There are 393 million guns in private hands in the United States, the equivalent of 120 guns for every 100 citizens.  Fifty-three people a day on average are killed by firearms in the US.  79% of all homicides in our country are caused by guns.  

According to Pew Research, 53% of the people in this country favor stricter gun laws, including universal background checks.  NPR and Forbes place that number at 60%.  Gallup breaks that down, finding that 91% of Democrats favor stricter gun control but only 24% of Republicans and 45% of independent voters.  77% are in favor of “red flag” laws that would remove firearms from the hands of persons in a mental health crisis, spousal abusers, and persons who threaten violence.  All in all, the takeaway is that a clear majority want stricter gun laws.  Two major gun control measures were passed by the House of Representatives last year: the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 and the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021.  Both bills are stalled in the Senate.  Think about that for a moment.  Fifty Senators are blocking legislation that the majority of the people in the country want to see passed.

All of that is just numbers.  Those numbers describe a country that is addicted to personal weaponry far beyond all need or reason, a country where life is cheap.  Those numbers tell a story of a country that is so sick in its soul that significant numbers of its people are so turned inward on their own fantasies or pain that they can’t see the other people around them as, well, people.  Not even children.

Those numbers tell us a lot.  But they don’t tell us anything about the pain of bereaved families.  They don’t tell us anything about the heartbreak.  They don’t tell us anything about the fear that scars the survivors of gun violence for life.

Nineteen kids in the 4th grade didn’t make it home from school yesterday.  That breaks my heart.  But my heartbreak is nothing compared to the devastation the families and friends of those 19 children are experiencing.

Nineteen 4th graders.  That hits so close to home that I can’t stop the tears as I write it.  Two of my three grandsons, the twins, are in 4th grade.  Their mother, my daughter, Brooke, is a former School Psychologist.  My son-in-law, P.A., is an elementary school principal.  Here’s what my daughter wrote on Facebook earlier today:

“This morning I talked to the twins about the Texas school shooting before school.  I remembered my school psych training, where we had to practice how to discuss this exact topic with different age groups.  We were taught to emphasize how rare it is for this to happen.

But…I just couldn’t say those words without feeling like a complete liar.  Instead, I reassured them that it is very unlikely that something like this would happen at their school and we discussed the safety measures in place.

And then I left them at school.  And I couldn’t stop worrying.

What if someone starts shooting at recess?  What if they’re in the bathroom?  Where are the most likely entry points?

If they come through the office this might buy enough time for the children and teachers to get into their locked classrooms.  But then, what will happen to the people in the front office, like P.A.?

What will happen to all my friends who are administrators, school psychs, counselors, speech pathologists, administrative assistants, parent volunteers?  What will happen to the teachers? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE CHILDREN?

What if one fourth grader comes out of the school, but not two?  What if three kids come home, buy my husband doesn’t?”

The trauma from these incidents isn’t limited to the victims and their immediate families.  It spreads out in ripples and damages all of us.  I am heartbroken.  But I am also furious.  I am furious with a culture that lionizes violence.  I’m angry at a culture that makes life so cheap.  I’m furious with a country that puts profit above health and safety.  I am particularly angry at the politics that greases the wheels of all this.  I’m incensed by 50 Senators holding the country hostage to this violence while their campaign chests are being stuffed by the gun lobby.  And, quite frankly, I am also angry with all the people who wring their hands and say we’re helpless, that nothing can be done.  I am furious with all those people who work to oppose common-sense legislation to curtail the damage done by an overbroad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  The words “well-regulated” are in that amendment.  Let’s start there.

We long ago crossed any imaginary threshold of an acceptable number of deaths.  We are way past the threshold of patience.  We have spent too much blood on the altar of alleged “rights” and not nearly enough sweat on the sacred ground of responsibility.

And yes, we need to pray.  We need to hold the victims of our violent culture in our thoughts and prayers.  We need to ask God for help.  But we also need to ask God for the courage, the wisdom, the will, and the vision to be part of the solution as we try to find a way to disarm this country and to address the alienation and dysfunction that’s at the heart of these incidents.

Finally, I know that some people who read this will not like what I am saying here.  I offer no apologies.  My ordination vows obligate me to speak for justice and to stand with victims.  But beyond that, I want to live in a country that loves its children more than it loves guns.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

While There Is Still Time

1 Kings 17:17-24; Acts 9:36-42; Luke 7:11-17

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65 or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid?  It’s going to break your heart.”  That arresting thought is from Anne Lamott who has an uncanny way of getting right to the heart of things.

In our traditional Confession of Sin we confess that we have sinned by things we’ve done and by things left undone.  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about things left undone.  I’ve got a list as long as my arm.  I’ve been thinking about things undone because it was brought home to me this week in the starkest way possible that we have no guarantees about being able to get to it later—that thing we really want or need to do or say.

When I opened A Women’s Lectionary on Monday morning to take my first look at the texts assigned for today, the 7th Sunday after Epiphany,  my heart sank a little.  I suppose that’s a strange reaction to three stories about resurrection, three stories about someone being raised from the dead, but honestly, it just felt like the Holy Spirit was getting all up in my face.  Mocking me a little, even.  

Here’s the thing—I had just learned on Saturday that Joe, one of my oldest and closest friends, was on hospice care.  His Significant Other, Allison, had contacted me with this news, and asked me if I could come see him and pray with him while there was still time. 

While there was still time.

On Monday morning Allison suggested that 3 o’clock would be a good time to come see Joe.   That left me with several hours to fill so I turned my attention back to the texts for Sunday.  But I couldn’t concentrate.  It felt so incongruous to be thinking about biblical accounts of resurrection while at the same time trying to prepare myself mentally and spiritually to anoint my friend and pray for him as he passed from life into life.  

Over the years, I have stood in the room with Death more times than I can remember.  It’s part of what we do as pastors.  We accompany people to the door between this life and life eternal.  We give them a last anointing to remind them that they are in God’s protective care and if they’re able to receive it, one last taste of the eucharist to remind them that they are part of the communion of saints on both sides of that door.  More often than you might think, we give them permission to let go, to fall upward and outward into the grace of God and the beauty of what comes next.  

I deeply trust the promises of our faith.  I deeply trust that, as St. Paul said, if we have been united with Jesus Christ in a death like his then we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:2).  I trust what Paul says in Romans 8—that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I believe that life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon at the limit of our sight.  I believe that death is not the end of the story, but rather the opening of a new chapter in a far more amazing story.  I deeply believe these things, so I’ve always been able to stand in the presence of death with my pastoral tools and a certain degree of confidence.

This time, though, was different.  This time it was Joe, my long-time friend who was dying, my friend with whom I had worked in the recording studio as we produced commercials and jingles and even a recorded version of the Bible in those years before I became a pastor.  This time it was Joe who, because he was my friend, drove long miles from Huntington Beach to Riverside every Sunday for four years to play keyboards for our little start-up congregation.  This time it was Joe, who had performed with me and others in our impromptu band and with whom I had had deeply personal conversations over the course of decades.  

As I stood there beside his bed and anointed him for the journey we will all eventually take, I felt the poverty of my words and a profound sense of loss.  I began to realize that, while Joe was about to enter another dimension of life altogether, I was about to enter a world without him in it.  He wouldn’t be there for long lunches of fish tacos and conversation.  He wouldn’t be only a phone call away anymore.  I began to feel the space of him, the shape of the place he held in my life, and I know it was like that for everyone else who was in the room as he died.

Richard Rohr has said that “to hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt.  To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable.”  I could tell you that after forty plus years as friends I knew Joe well, but honestly, there is always more to know.  There is always more to know about each and every one of us.  We participate in the life and love of God, so there is no bottom to that well that is Joe.  Or you.  Or me.

We place so much emphasis on trying to understand things…and people.  It’s one way we try to protect ourselves from pain and disruption.  The truth is, though, that some of the most important things in life are mysterious and unknowable.  They can only be experienced.  The great mysteries—life, death, love, God, our own souls, friendship—these are things that go beyond understanding.  They are mysteries that must be entered into, embraced, endured, journeyed through, carried, danced with, and wrestled with, all the while knowing that our understanding of these things will always be partial at best.  Now we see dimly. 

These mysteries are our teachers.  Death, in particular, can teach us more about the value of life and love and our need for each other than anything else. 

And in an odd way, that brings us back to the three resurrection stories in this week’s readings.  The thing each of these resurrection stories have in common is that the dead person was raised back to life for the benefit of someone else.  That applies to every resurrection story in the Bible, by the way, including the resurrection of Jesus.  The dead person is raised for the benefit of others.  That means that these stories are all about God’s compassion for those who are left behind. 

For the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings who had been allowing the prophet Elijah to stay in her home, her son was her social security.  It would be his duty to provide for her in her old age, and without him she might become destitute.  That’s just how the world worked in those days.  The same thing holds true for the widow in Nain in the gospel of Luke.  When Jesus raised her dead son to life, he was actually saving two lives.   

The raising of Tabitha in the Book of Acts is a little different, but it’s still a story of someone being raised for the benefit of others.  The text tells us that Tabitha “was abundant in good works and benevolent giving.”  She was a woman of means and her little Christian community in Joppa depended on her generosity.  When Peter restored her to life, he was also restoring the community that depended on her.

We don’t always realize how dependent we are on each other.  “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken,” said Anne Lamott, “and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved.  But this is also the good news.  They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.  And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never completely heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”  

We all will go through that kind of loss at one time or another if we haven’t already.  We all, if we’ve loved at all well, learn to dance with a limp.  But more importantly, we learn to lean on each other and support each other as we walk each other home.  

Death is never very far away.  But God’s compassion is always right there embracing us.  If we’re even half awake, Death teaches us to really appreciate life—our own lives and everyone else’s.  That’s grace.  Death tells us to use the time while we have it,  to go ahead and go swimming in warm pools and oceans, to dive in and have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space.  Death reminds us that Christ has given us life in all its fullness and the promise of resurrection.  And each other.  Christ has given us each other.  Death is telling us to do the loving things not yet done and say the loving things not yet said.  While there is still time. 

The Cloud of Witnesses

My very earliest memory is full of lightning, thunder, and freezing rain.  And my mother crying.  

I was not quite 4 years old.  It was nap time at the preschool, and we were all supposed to be stretched out on our rugs relaxing and thinking sleepy thoughts, but most of us were curled up in a fetal position because the lightning kept flashing and the thunder kept thundering and the little beads of freezing rain pelting the windows sounded like something skittering and malicious trying to break in.  And suddenly, there was my mom, appearing out of nowhere, bending over the teacher’s desk and whispering something to her while my teacher made an “Oh no!” face.  The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of the car.  Mom sat in the driver’s seat.  But she didn’t start the car.  We just sat there.  Then my mom put her face in her hands and wept.  

Clearly something was very wrong.  Something awful had happened.  And since I was not quite four years old, I assumed that whatever it was, it was my fault.  So I started apologizing, just saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.  And, of course, I started crying, too, because I was confused and scared and not quite four years old, and my mother was crying, and the thunder kept thundering and the lightning kept flashing, and the wind was howling as it threw freezing rain against the windshield.  But mostly I cried because I was absolutely positive that I had done something very, very bad that made my mother cry, though I couldn’t have told you for the life of me what that might be.

Finally, Mom composed herself and reassured me that I had not done anything wrong.  She told me that my grandpa had died.  Her father, the person who, at that point in my life, I loved more than anyone else in the world, except maybe her,  had died.  I had sat in his lap in the farmhouse kitchen just one week before, sneaking sips of cream and sugar coffee from his saucer.  And now he was dead.  

Everything about the following days after that moment is blur in my memory.  Except for this: I have a very clear memory of looking at my grandpa laid out in his casket at his funeral.  I must have looked at him for some time, because when I close my eyes, I can still see him.  As I looked at him, I realized that he was both there and not there—that the body lying in the casket was my beloved grandfather, but that the something that made him the person I knew and loved was not in that casket.  And yet, I felt him so close to me.  As a matter of fact, I have felt him close to me many, many times since then.  

I learned some very important things about death at the tender age of not quite four.  

The first thing I learned is that death hurts.  It may or may not hurt the person who dies.  That depends a lot on how they die.  In fact, if pain is involved, death is a blessed release from that pain.  Still, death hurts.  It hurts those who are left behind, those of us who love the one who has died.  Death rips a piece out of the fabric of our lives, and there’s no patching it.  It hurts to know that the loved one who has died won’t be here with us any more—at least not in the tangible, put-your-arms-around-them-and-hug-them way they were here before.  It hurts to know you won’t be able to sing with them or cook with them or walk with them or joke with them or have lunch with them or any of the million little things we do with each other.  At least not in the way you did those things before.

Death hurts.  So we weep.  My mother wept.  Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He felt the pain survivors feel in the face of death.  In fact, the original language of the story hints there was anger in his weeping—anger at the pain and bewilderment that death always brings with it.  Death hurts.

I also learned when I was not quite four that death comes to everyone.  No exception.  As my mom talked to me about my grandfather’s death, she made that pretty clear.  She grew up on a farm, so she didn’t pull any punches.  I am going to die, she said.  Someday.  Your dad is going to die.  Someday.  You are going to die.  Someday.  It happens to everyone.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.  It’s a part of life.

Death is a part of life.  Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And if you don’t find a way to make peace with that idea—make peace with the idea of your own death—you will find all kinds of ways to make yourself crazy trying to deny death.  Our whole Western culture is built around exactly that kind of craziness.  Ernest Becker described our collective insanity from denying death and its destructive consequences so well that he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Denial of Death.   Money, seeking fame, gluttony, narcissism, surrounding ourselves with stuff, addiction—all these things and more can be ways to hide from the deep truth of our mortality.  

We just don’t want to think about it.  We use euphemisms so we don’t have to say the words.  He passed. Passed away.  Passed on.  She’s gone ahead.  He kicked the bucket.  Bought the farm.  Gave up the ghost.   Went to be with the Lord.  Went to heaven.  Met his maker.  Was called home.  Has gone on to a better place.  Even the military will say that there were X number of casualties instead of saying that X number of people died or were killed.  They died.  They are dead.

Death.  It’s a spooky word.  There is a finality about it.  I think sometimes we’re afraid to say it because we think might summon it.  But guess what?  We’re not that powerful.  We might have mojo, but we don’t have that kind of mojo.  And besides, death coming eventually anyway.  For each and every one of us.

I’ve thought a lot about death since I was not quite four years old, especially during the last twenty-five years.  As a pastor, I’ve been in the room with Death a lot more often than the average person.  But that’s not why I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.  I’ve thought a lot about death because I’m in the Life business, specifically the Life in Christ business.  And one of the things that’s essential for Christians to remember is that we were baptized into death.  Saint Paul said so in Romans:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Newness of life.  That’s the thing you get if you make peace with death.  You don’t need to be afraid of death anymore.  You understand that life and death are part of the same thing, the same continuum.  So you can be free from all the crazy-making things that shackle you if you’re trying to deny your mortality.  You can be free to live life in all its fullness. 

There are some fairy-folk in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels called the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re six inches tall, blue, mischievous, wear kilts, and speak with a Scottish accent.  They are absolutely fearless and embrace life with joyful ferocity.  The thing that makes them fearless and so fiercely, joyfully alive is their one central belief:  they believe they have already died and that the world they now live in is heaven.  There’s no need to be afraid of death.  It’s already happened.  And if they do happen to die, they believe that they are just going to another part of heaven they haven’t been to yet.  I can’t help but think that as Christians, we’re supposed to believe something like that.  We’ve already died.  In baptism we have died with Christ so we can walk fearlessly, freely, and even with a fierce joy into newness of life.

Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And it is a continuum that continues.  Life. Death. Resurrection.  As Saint Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  It is Christ’s life in us that carries us through death.  It is Christ’s life in us and our life in Christ that guarantees our resurrection. Someday.  In God’s own good time.  

In the meantime, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.    In so many, many ways our loved ones who have died still walk with us and stand beside us.  Their lives have shaped our lives.  We feel their presence.  They gather with us at the table in the Communion of Saints and share the sacrament that connects us through all the generations in an unbroken line all the way to the apostles and to Jesus himself.  

At his last supper, Jesus told us to remember him.  He didn’t mean that we should simply think about him with fondness and nostalgia.  He meant it in the Jewish way of remembering.  He meant for us to bring him forward out of the past and into the present to be fully with us so we can be fully with him.

This is a day when we remember the saints—those people of faith who have died in Christ and will rise again in God’s own good time.  But they arise with us now in a different way when we remember them.  

We remember them.  Re-member.  To receive again as a member.  To reassemble the whole from parts that were separated.  We speak their names. We remember them.  We call them out of our memories and acknowledge their place in the assembled body of Christ.  We remind ourselves that they have died, but they still stand with us in the body of Christ.

We believe that on this day and every day the saints live on in the love of God and life of Christ.  This is not a denial of death.  We do not deny death.  We defy it.  We defy it as we fiercely and joyfully embrace life eternal.