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Another Mass Shooting

Sermon | Comments Off on Another Mass Shooting

February 18, 2018

Pr. Bea Chun

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:9-15)

There was another mass shooting. We are shocked, or perhaps numb, or outraged and angry, disturbed, heartbroken, grief-laden. We feel perhaps bewildered, lost, helpless, undone. Politicians say that their thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims – a phrase which has become so overused, it seems increasingly shallow and hollow. Arguments for and against gun control get repeated in an endless cycles. And then what?

Sooner or later most people need relief from these terrible feelings. Sooner or later we move on to something else, at least those of us who can, tend to move on to something else. Others, usually the parents, the spouses, the immediate family members, close friends, are left behind to stumble through the strange and terrible land of grief.

But those of us who are by-standers, we soon move on. After all, there really is not much we can do, or is there?

There is an alternative, and the alternative is this: to commit ourselves to the slow and deep emotional work from which true change can emerge. What do I mean by slow and deep emotional work? Right now we see a glimpse of that as a number of courageous women and men have begun to speak publicly about sexual harassment and rape, about assault and abuse and misconduct. In many cases years have gone by since the abuse occurred, and some people wonder why did it take so long for the victims to speak up?

Because deep emotional work can take a long time. It can take a long time for healing, for understanding, for clarification to arise. None of these processes follow a straight forward path.

There are twists and turns and setbacks, new beginnings, and getting stuck, and starting again, and needing to rest, and needing a break, and then sometimes being jolted back into the work. Or being triggered by a new incident, or being inspired by the courage of others, or being enraged by someone else’s victimization. The path is rarely straightforward. It goes back and forth in fits and starts, until one day the time is right to speak. So, that is part of what I mean by the deep and long emotional work that is needed for change to happen.

But that is only part of it. The by-standers have some work to do as well. The by-standers have to do some deep inner work to become receptive and willing to listen. So many victims have spoken out over the years and were not listened to. What is required on the part of the community is to become receptive and open, and willing to listen. It is a willingness not to run from that which is painful, not to offer quick fixes but instead to be present, truly present with all our heart. To be present the way the women were present when Jesus was nailed on the cross. It was an unbearable act of violence to witness, and most disciples could not do it, most disciples ran away. But there were some women who remained standing under the cross. The women just stayed and remained, and in this way they were bearing witness.

Bearing witness is a sacred act. We watch, we take in the suffering to its fullest extent, the sounds, the sights, the cries, we take it all in. We take it in without distracting ourselves, without explaining it away, without rushing into action. We take it in, we let it affect us, we let it touch us in our hearts in our bones.

Bearing witness is about being present, truly present, and paying attention. It is a way to honor the suffering of another human being, be it a loved one, or a stranger, or the victim of a mass shooting, or the victim of an act of war or violence or disaster.

The suffering of the world is brought to us now through all kinds of media. With television the broadcasts quickly move on to something else, something trivial, or else we click a button or tap a key and engage with different content. But bearing witness means to stay with what happened, perhaps to turn off the television, and step in the garden or onto the balcony or take a walk, and be truly present to what has just transpired.

This is how we begin the deep emotional work from which change can arise. It means that we give ourselves time to process our thoughts and feelings and emotions. More than that, we take time to get to know those thoughts and feelings in the first place – to become acquainted with them on a deep level, to become acquainted with our fears, our triggers, and also our capacity for courage.

Today in our gospel reading we heard how the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, right after his baptism. He remained there for 40 days among angels and demons and wild animals, and temptations. What are the angels and demons? Certainly not creatures with wings and horns. But rather they are aspects of ourselves. They present our best selves and our worst selves.

But do we know what brings out our best selves? Do we know what brings out our worst selves? Going into the desert is one way to find out. That does not mean we have to go to a literal desert, but we need time and space away from our daily routines, so that we can know what is up for us, and struggle with our temptations. What are our temptations?

One of my favorite writers, Steve Garnaas-Holmes puts it very beautifully when he says:

What are your temptations?
Not sex and chocolate, OK?
Not beauty, not pleasure.

I mean the things that ruin you,
things that get in your way,
that lead you away from deep life.

What gets in the way of your perfect love?
What distorts your wisdom and vision?
What inhibits your kindness and courage?

(From: Steve Garnaas Holmes, The Unfolding Light )

The time in the desert is a time of coming to terms with the deepest parts of our soul, the things that ruin us, and the things that bring out the best in us.

And also our animal nature. The beast in us. And here again, let me offer some searing observations from the same writer, Steve Garnaas Holmes.

Wild beasts

They are in me—
wolves of appetite,
snakes of deceit,
scorpions of anger and will,
vultures of regret,
the lion of my unworthiness
that stalks me unseen.
In this wilderness
I will be with them.
We will see each other.
We will talk.
We will learn to live with each other,
each with our foods and habits,
and none about to go extinct.
They will remain wild,
but I will learn their ways
and become more humbly savvy,
no longer afraid,
never their victim,
free to walk about.
For God, too, is a wild beast.

(From: Steve Garnaas Holmes, The Unfolding Light )

So, this is the slow deep work required so that change can emerge. And there is still more. It is not enough to bear witness to the suffering of the victims. It is not enough to become acquainted with our angels and demons, and temptations because the next step is to return from the desert and re-enter the world with an open and compassionate heart. Then we respond to the hurts of the world from this place of openness and compassion.

Because, of course, a response is needed. The tragedy of the mass shooting requires a thoughtful and prayerful response. One place to start, perhaps, is a deep inquiry into our culture of violence. Why are there so many guns in this country, more than anywhere else in the world? Americans represent 4% of the world population and own 43% of guns in the world. How have we ended up here? Saying that this is just the work of interest groups and lobbying tactics is not convincing to me. There are deeper issues at play here.

Now that we have taken time to get to know our own angels and demons, our fears and our courage, what about the fears of our neighbors? What about those who say they want to own a gun, because they are afraid? What about those who say that the ownership of a gun makes them feel safer?

We can respond with statistics, but that is not a response from the heart. It is not a response that takes the fear of others seriously. The debate over gun control has been going round and round and round for so many years, never getting much anywhere, because it is not just a matter of strong lobbying efforts, although that is happening. I think we have yet to learn to listen and respond from our hearts.

If the #MeToo movement is anything we can learn from, then we can see that progress might not be made until we do the work of deep emotional processing. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be free? How have these questions become related to gun ownership? Because, yes, they are related.

What about those who shoot, those who lash out, and commit act of violence? Are these action not also an expression of extreme pain, of anger and rage, of a despair so huge, so unmitigated that it produces uncontrollable aggression, the desire to attack, to hurt, to kill, and a willingness to be killed? Can we for a moment perhaps also pay attention to the pain and rage of the killer?

These are uncomfortable questions, questions we don’t really want to ask. It is already difficult enough to stay with the pain of the victims. But then to also stay with the pain of the perpetrator is a stretch for most of us. It is hard work, but it is work that can lead to great blessings.

When Jesus completed his time in the wilderness, he returned to Galilee with a great and shining gift. He returned with a clear and compelling vision of the Kingdom of God, and the kind of life that is possible as one participates in this kingdom. This vision was so clear and strong, that he returned with the ability to heal and make whole.

I believe we too have been called to such a ministry of healing and of making whole. It is a healing which the world desperately needs, a healing which cannot be learned in medical school, but only in the wilderness and in the time of quiet listening.

As we enter into the season of Lent, may God bless us with the courage to enter the wilderness for the healing of the world.