Pastoral Reflection For Las Vegas
This meditation was first shared by Rev. Arionne Yvette Williams (Associate Chaplain) at the University of Indianapolis’ Service of Lament for the Tragedy in Las Vegas in the McCleary Chapel on October 3, 2017.
Moments like these are some of the most difficult through which to live. We struggle to take in and process what has happened. We grieve for the terror that has been inflicted on so many people. Our hearts break for the children now without a parent, for the parents now without children. Spouses without spouses and for the friends and loved ones left to pick up the pieces. Some of us research for information, trying to understand how it even was possible. We want answers, who did it. How was it done? Why was it done? And how could any human being bring themselves to do something so ugly, so evil, so heartless?
Others think about the immediate needs and rush to offer support and help. We give blood, donate money, and send supplies, and where feasible offer our services. We pray, meditate. Or maybe we don’t because can’t bring ourselves to find the words or the focus. We cry. We get angry. We post messages of hope and encouragement on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We start talking about ways to engage our leaders and we talk about policy change. Still others of us are glued to our TV screens and cell phones for the latest updates, the latest count, the latest message from our mayors, governors, president. We want somebody to do something. Fix it. Take action. Ultimately, we feel some strange mix of sadness, anger, despair, confusion, and disgust. Our collection of reactions to a tragedy of this magnitude are as varied as we are.
Let me first say that whatever your emotion is in this moment, it is the right one. The most important thing we can do initially in the midst of such tragedy is to let ourselves feel what we feel. If you need to cry, cry. If you are angry that’s okay. Even still, some of us are just numb. It has been one tragedy after another lately. We are getting to the point of absolute fatigue. It’s exhausting, particularly in this rather divisive social and political climate in which we live in the U.S. these days. But I want to encourage us to let ourselves feel every emotion. Don’t rush past the hurt, or the anger. In many faith traditions, we have sacred texts that encourage us to lament in appropriate ways. In my tradition, Jesus let himself feel his pain. When he heard the news that his close friend Lazarus had died, the Bible says that, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35). Though it is the shortest verse in all of the Christian cannon, it is an incredible model. It shows that the appropriate response to loss, is grief. It is good to let those real and raw emotions flow. It is the most human thing we can do.
I am often bothered in moments like these by our attempt to make ourselves seem stronger, better, and more composed than we should be. When tragedy strikes, whether communal or personal, we say things like, “I’m okay.” “It’s alright.” “We’ll be fine.” And yes, maybe we will be fine, but not if we don’t tell the truth. It is not healthy or productive to force ourselves to be okay when we are not. Conversely, if we are vulnerable and honest about our deep personal and communal brokenness, we might find the needed restoration on the other side of it. Being honest about our hurt does not make us weak, it offers us relief.
What matters just as much as how we feel, is what we do with how we feel. We might find it easy to place blame on one group or another and to point fingers at each other, even God. Though these are certainly natural reactions, I think there is a better way. It is in these moments that we should turn to the resources of our many faith and philosophical traditions to find comfort. What are those practices that strengthen you most? Engage them. What sacred words are available to uplift you? Read them. What raw emotions do you feel? Pray them. God can take it. And God is not overwhelmed by our pain, but able to heal it.
I am personally no stranger to tragedy. In my lifetime, I have sat through 4 different double funerals of family members and friends. Once when I was 7, again when I was 14, later when I was 17, and finally when I was 24. One of those funerals stands out to me because of the hope I felt in the midst of it. I had been worried all week about what the preacher would say. How would he encourage the family? What could he possibly say to make any of this better? Thankfully, he reminded us of Psalm 46:1, which says that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble. This single reminder was just what was needed to move forward because we had been reassured that God was present, but also able and willing to help.
The point here is that God desires to be present with us in the midst of difficult times. While this tragedy in Las Vegas was not God’s will and certainly not God’s desire, we still wrestle with the question of why this happened. But perhaps what is more helpful than to ask why is to ask where. Where is God in the mist of this? The psalmist declares that God is very present, able to help us, take our pain and comfort us, strengthen us, heal us, and transform us. Where is hope in the midst of this? It is in the outpouring of support and love from people, strangers from around the country and the world. It is in the hearts and determination of those rushing to the scene to offer relief, support, and help to those who needed it most. Where is love in the midst of this? It is in the people at the concert who helped each other, put their own bodies on top of each other, complete strangers even, to protect, to block, and to prevent others from being harmed. Where is peace within the midst of this? It is inside each of us. It is in our commitment to get up every day seeking to be better, to do better, and to build real community, with people we like and the people we don’t like. It is in our collective action to make changes that make tragedies like this harder to perpetrate. It is in our practice of speaking truth to each other in loving ways. It is in our personal collective convictions to pursue love and justice, rather than war and violence.
These moments are tough ones, but we can be encouraged that we have each other. Ecclesiastes says that two are better than one because if one falls, the other can pick her up (Ecclesiastes 4:9). We best express our faith and ethical commitments as we show up for each other and commit to being the change we want to see. What if we decided to be present, to be each other’s help? How can you best model compassion, love, justice, and community in the classroom, in the dorm room, in your office, and anywhere else on campus or in your community? What difference could that make in the kinds of communities we create?
I encourage you to be prayerful and thoughtful about what you can do as you are being honest about how you feel. May the frustration, pain, or whatever you feel motivate you to do what you can in your little corner of the world. The small steps you take make a bigger difference than you think. We are not without hope, for we have each other, we have our faith and beliefs to guide us, we have the divine presence and love of God to sustain us.
In love and hope!