Friday, April 27, 2007

Big Blunder

This week I discovered that I made probably my biggest blunder since being ordained. I was out of the office on Wednesday (at the Cathedral Center for Fresh Start). When I returned to St. Alban’s on Thursday, I found a letter in my mailbox. It was from a parishioner and addressed to Susan, the rector. The short letter expressed concern and disappointment that when I preached on Sunday, I did not even mention the shootings at Virginia Tech the previous Monday (April 16).

When I met with Susan that Thursday afternoon, we talked about the parishioner’s letter. She said that she was, likewise, a little surprised that I had not mentioned Virginia Tech. She asked me why I hadn’t, and I did not really have an answer. The only thing I could come up with was that I had been struggling for several weeks with how to deal with Gospel lesson for Sunday and must have just been so focused on wrestling with the text as I prepared my sermon that I completely forgot about the events that had occurred three or four days before. Although, I have to admit that while I was driving to church on Sunday morning, about 7:20, I had this flash of insight that I probably should have dealt with the Virginia Tech tragedy. But, by then, 40 minutes before the start of worship, it was a little too late to do anything about it. Of course, as Susan noted, there have been numerous times when Sunday morning she threw out her sermon and went completely extemporaneous in order to address some issue or event that had recently occurred.

In hindsight, I was fairly distraught that I had neglected to address the Virginia Tech tragedy, particularly when it became obvious that there was at least one person (and probably others) who were looking for some pastoral words from the pulpit to help them make sense out of the tragedy. I spent a lot of time thinking about what had happened, and why I might have possibly neglected the opportunity and my responsibility to provide such pastoral care. In talking with one trusted and well-seasoned priest about the situation, the question came back to me “is it possible that you are avoiding dealing with reality?” That question hit pretty hard, as I have always considered myself to be a pretty grounded person.

This question nagged at me throughout the evening. I spent a lot of time thinking, reflecting, and praying about the question and what it might really mean. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the previous week – the events at Virginia Tech themselves, my sermon preparation time, and a number of other events that occurred in between. The whole thing bothered me so much that I called another friend, my most trusted confidante and provider of pastoral care. In the course of talking through all of this, I began to come to some realizations about myself.

I determined that I was not avoiding dealing with reality. On the contrary, I had already dealt with reality. I was, admittedly, deeply moved by the events at Virginia Tech. But I typically do not dwell on such things. I process them and move on. And that’s what I did in this case. I reflected on the events and recognized that they were a manifestation of evil. Operating out of my personal faith and my understanding of theology and theodicy, I recognized that I could not explain why the shootings happened. I know enough that theologians have been questioning for centuries why bad and evil things happen. If greater minds than mine have not been able to come up with an adequate explanation, I certainly was not going to be able to. The only thing I knew for certain in the wake of the events of April 16 was that God did not want those events to happen. There is no rational explanation for why they did happen.

As I further reflected, I determined that we cannot understand or explain the events at Virginia Tech precisely because we are people of faith. As people of faith, we do not understand evil, at least not evil on this magnitude, nor do we understand or are we really capable of understanding what motivates people to act in evil and sinful ways such as killing other human beings. We do not understand because we believe in and attempt to follow a God of pure love – a God who loved us so much that he came to live among us in the form of his son, as one of our own; who allowed his son to be crucified on our behalf, that humanity might be forgiven of it’s sinfulness and the evil that humanity has perpetrated.

If anything, events such as those at Virginia Tech only serve to remind us that sinfulness and evil are still rampant in our world. They remind us that that humanity is in more need than ever of the gift of salvation that Christ freely gave us through his death and resurrection. As people of faith, we know that the events at Virginia Tech, and all other acts of sinfulness and evil are an exception to God’s ways and to our ways – that they are reminders that in times like these, more than ever, the world needs to be shown the love of God manifest through his Body – through those of us who embrace his love and attempt to live our lives in accordance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the aftermath of events such as those at Virginia Tech, we do see glimmers of hope that the hope of salvation and new life promised in and through Christ’s death and resurrection are not lost. We see people from all over the world reaching out to the families and friends of those who were brutally killed. We see people expressing concern for the wellbeing of the other Virginia Tech faculty and students who were not physically harmed, but by their mere presence in that place suffer spiritual and emotional injury. There has been an outpouring of prayers and compassion that is only made possible by people of faith who know that the evil and death that occurred on April 16 is not the last word – by the Body of Christ throughout the world who know and believe that God through Jesus Christ has promised a new life where there is no pain, suffering, or violence – a new life where evil will be vanquished. In their response to these tragic events, people of faith are seizing the opportunity to begin to make that new life a reality here and now, not in some uncertain future.

(I guess that is at least part of what I should have preached on Sunday).

Back to the question at hand about whether I may have been avoiding dealing with reality, I came to the conclusion that the answer is no. As I said, I had processed it and moved on. But the time I began writing my sermon, I had dealt with several other pastoral issues (one fairly major). By the end of the week, I was so far removed from the events of Monday that they did not even cross my mind as I struggled with preaching on a text that I considered to be rather difficult. What happened was not avoidance, but compartmentalization. What I have become aware of is that the way I deal with life, with reality, it by compartmentalizing. Something happens, I deal with it, put it in a little box, and put it on a shelf in the recesses of my mind. Then I move on to the next thing.

As I reflected on this way of operating in light of my parishioner’s letter, I also realized that not everyone deals with reality the same way I do. Now, of course, on one level, I know that people operate differently. But this approach of compartmentalizing is so ingrained in me that I don’t even think about it, or think about the fact that others may not approach reality in a similar manner. Since I had dealt with the events that occurred six days prior, I guess I just assumed that everyone else had too. My parishioner’s letter was a wake-up call that there are people under my care that take more time to process such things, and that they are looking to their clergy to help them in that process – an expectation that is unstated. So, what that means for me is that I need to be particularly vigilant. When other tragic events happen in the world, I need to be aware that even though I may have dealt with them, some of my parishioners may not, and may be looking to me to provide a response from the pulpit.

While I deeply regret letting down a parishioner when he needed assistance in understanding how his faith operates in a broken world, I am thankful for him having the courage to raise the issue, thereby giving me a chance to explore it and to learn something about myself. The learning and insight that I have had because of this situation will, God willing, only serve to make me a better priest.

[As a postscript of sorts, I have written a letter to the parishioner, thanking him for his comments (which were quite eloquent), acknowledging my negligence, apologizing for letting him down when he was so in need of pastoral care, and inviting him to get together over coffee or lunch to discuss the situation.]


Anonymous said...

I mentioned VT in my sermon, but only on a whim-- in passing. I can't even remember the connection I made, to be honest. But there you have it-- whether we benefit or inconvenience the bride of Christ in our service to the church remains to be seen. Much of that remains in the hands of the laity, and is based on a perception of our suitability for the office of the ministry. Worrisome, is it not?


Pastor Fincher (though they call me 'Father' on occasion.)

Joyce said...

I also mentioned the shootings, but didn't spend as much time as I could have dealing with the tragedy, especially given that my diocese borders on VT, and I am campus missioner!

What can we do?
Mea culpa, y'all.