It seems that I haven't had much to say this week. I have been saddened by the VT tragedy and also by other news...the Johnson Space Center killing today again has eclipsed news we should probably take note of; a particularly violent week in Irag and a massacre in Chad (near Sudan and involved in the same conflict) don't seem to get the same attention as the rising Dow Jones index.
I've been sad, too because the VT killings struck a real nerve. That's my state, a school my friends went to, one of the victims was related to my home church and one of the earliest students interviewed also went to my home church and is the grandson of a good friend. College was for me a safe place, where my friends and I could sort of be incubated into adulthood in relative security. Was that partially naive? Sure it was; one of the places I felt safest in my time at William and Mary was the volunteer office from which my service fraternity ran the Campus Escort office, providing walks across campus for women alone at night. This was an incredibly busy project because at that time, there was a serial rapist preying on William and Mary sstudents and Colonial Williamsburg employees. We were not unaware of the danger, but we were a bit oblivious. We were together, we were the Tribe, and we felt we could not be harmed.
Students deserve to feel that way. In a world where, as Gene Nichol pointed out, the unthinkable has become almost expected, we need safe places. The Hokies are trying to reclaim their sense of security by reaffirming their identity and relationships. All day today I have read stories and heard interviews with students hurting in heart and body, who are staying on campus or returning for classes Monday so that they can be together, and together, find some meaning in the meaningless violence that could have torn them apart. Instead, acts of will and bravery and generosity are drawing them closer together. They will never be the same, but they will be stronger, and closer, and God willing, better in the years to come.
A pastor taught me years ago his formula for preaching funeral sermons. They all started with "Our Christian faith is made for times such as these, when we come together in our grief to celebrate a life of faith." They all celebrated the successes and good qualities of the deceased, and ended with the affirmation that he or she had "run the race, fought the fight, kept the faith." I hope the funerals this week have better sermons, but I also hope they acknowledge the terrible tension of the Christian faith: God exists in this place and time where lives can be snuffed out at random. The resurrection does not exempt us from fear, pain, and danger, but rather the Spirit of God accompanies us in our fear, pain,and danger, and redeems our suffering with eternal life.
I suspect this comes as paltry comfort to those who have lost loved ones this week. I wish I had something better to say, but the fault is in my words and ability to express the goodness of God, and not in God's guilt, vengeance, or absense. What makes sense out of the evils of this week is not that God did it, that God is mad at us, or that God is simply not there when we need him. Instead, we can find meaning as we live together in grief and bewilderment, knowing that God is present, and struggling to understand what that means for us.
We can't live with our heads in the sand, hiding away in little protective enclaves, trying to keep the world from hurting us. Turning off the news or saying, "thank God it wasn't me or mine" is selfish and short-sighted. Instead the Christian community must come together and support one another, and find that we can be our truest and best and closest to God when we love each other in the hard times. It's no kind of love that's not there in the rawest of times and places or in the sweetest and best of days. And it is love we are called to offer: the love and mercy of God, the hard love that we live because we believe it even when we can't feel it, because God loves through us when we can't love on our own. That's our goodness: that God's at God's best even and perhaps especially when we aren't our best, and when we are. When we are weak, God is strong. And when we are strong, God is strong. And it is God's strength, God's presence, God's mercy and grace we must rely on when the world seems to turn against us. It is to heaven, and the unending presence of God, that we turn always and in all things to answer our questions and share our tears and our laughter.
Although I can't explain it, somehow God is affirmed, not challenged, when the worst happens. That's when we should come together and put hands and feet and hearts and voices and presence into sharing God's presence with those who suffer. And because we share in the suffering, we share too in the healing, and the mercy and grace of God takes our joy and pain and produces redemption and resurrection.
I believe the VT community began to see resurrection in the life-giving love of students and professors who risked themselves for others. I think Nikki Giovanni preached resurrection when she rallied the community around the words, "we are Virginia Tech." And when the strains of "Amazing Grace" were shouted down by cries of "Hokies, Hokies," a community was resurrected in love for one another and a common determination to live and not die, to love and not surrender to grief and recrimination, to go on as a testament to life and faith and the goodness of God.
This is the word of grace we have to offer Darfur and Baghdad and the people who are jurting just down the block: we are here, because God is here. We love you, because God loves you and us. We will share our lives with you, and together we will see resurrection, grace and love that conquers evil, is greater than sin, and replaces death with life and hope and peace. We are the people of God, the followers of Christ, accompanied by the Holy Spirit. We live in this world, we love in this world, we demonstrate the presence of God in this world. We are the people of God, and God's love will prevail. We are the people of God.