For the last several days, I’ve been haunted by the news of the seven children who died in a Brooklyn house fire. And then yesterday came news of the plane crash in the French Alps, which killed 150 people. Tragedy in the news is such a constant that, like many others, I have developed a kind of emotional distance, and while a story might evoke a brief pang or gasp of horror, I move on–quickly and soon–to the normal routines of my daily life. Realistically, this is a necessity. If we were to react with the level of empathy we ought to for every event we hear about, we would all be incapacitated. But something about the Brooklyn fire story has staked a place in my heart, and I have found myself repeating–over and over–a short, simple prayer for the remaining family members and the community around them, whose pain I can only begin to imagine–Lord, have mercy. Kyrie eleison! For what else is there to say in a situation like this.
Another thing that’s been swirling around in my mind these days is something a friend wrote to me recently in an e-mail. We were discussing a piece he’d written for Good Friday that he realized had the potential to be controversial or upsetting for some readers. It prompted a thought-provoking discussion about what place boundary-pushing art and discussion might have in the church community, and in discussing his piece, my friend said, “Part of why I’m grateful for the Good Friday service is that for one night only, we allow ourselves to sit in the chaos and the pain and the hopelessness. We let Good Friday be what it was: a confusing swirl of horror, all drag and no lift.”
Seven children dying in a fire, 150 travelers crashing into the side of a mountain is all of those things. One of the ways we tend to respond to this is to try to make some type of order out of it, to frame it some way. Some of the responses I’ve already seen online are to proclaim the fire the result of blind adherence to religious orthodoxy or as a tragedy out of which God can strengthen faith. One of the first details reported in the article I read about the plane crash is how no one could understand the sudden descent of the plane to low altitudes but that a black box had been recovered and hopefully will provide some answers. We seek to explain, to understand, or to blame, and while that’s a natural impulse, it doesn’t do anything to diminish any of the pain or loss. It doesn’t offer any real protection against future tragedy. If anything, it is simply an exercise in creating a false sense of control and is an affront to the magnitude of “chaos and pain” afflicting those affected.
We are taught that the role of those of us who follow Christ is to be a light to the world and, in our own flawed and often clumsy ways, to bring life and hope to those around us. But we can’t really do that if we don’t fully acknowledge and accept that some situations are just incomprehensibly awful. Good Friday, with all its ugliness and despair, is a reminder of this.
The title of this post comes from Job, whose sufferings include his own friends’ attempts to make sense of all the tragedy and hardship that has befallen him. They start off as good friends, sitting next to Job in the ashes for seven days and seven nights in silence, weeping with him and rending their clothes. It’s only when they start to speak, to chastise Job or attempt to explain God’s ways to Job, that they shift from friend to further affliction. I am all too often the talking friend–the one who wants to advise, clarify, make meaning, or provide direction for someone who is suffering. And sometimes there are times for that and it is genuinely helpful. But there are also times to sit silent in the ashes, and this is one of them.