Aurora, Earthquakes and Emotional Paralysis

The shooting in Aurora has brought up feelings of grief, sadness, horror, and wondering how to respond when such terrible things happen to people far away.  This post was written in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster. 
I am reposting because, while we add anger, politicizing about guns, and a single person to blame to the mix, in many respects, this post deals with the same feelings and questions that arise in every distant tragedy.

My sister had to take a break from Facebook. She was feeling so overwhelmed by the situation in Japan, the conflict in Libya, the high school friend whose daughter died, that she was finding herself only half-present with her own kids, only partly engaged in her own life.  
The horror can be paralyzing.  And yet we cannot turn away.  Turning away would feel like abandoning them – not that we are actually WITH them anyway. We’re just watching their nightmare from afar, glued to every news story, every image, every facebook link, drunk on a stomach-churning cocktail of fascination and pity.  What are we to do?

The other day a pastor friend of mine shared with me that on 9/11, while the rest of the world shut down – neighborhood Starbucks closed, nobody outside, everyone glued to their TV screens, grieving, dismayed, afraid - the AA groups at his church still met. People still pulled up to the church building in their cars and filed inside to sit on folding chairs and share their struggle. They still came to offer one another support, to stand together in their common need.  My friend still marveled at what an impact that made on him.

We could use a little of that. 
Yesterday another friend sent an email asking for prayers for an upcoming job interview, but followed her request by immediately saying that her little need was nothing compared to all the suffering in Japan and the struggles in the Middle East, and so please, of course pray for those places first, but if we didn’t mind tacking on a prayer for her too, she’d appreciate it.  And I know she meant well – we all feel, in one way or another, so overwhelmed by the tragedy that we don’t know where we fit. Any needs we have pale in comparison. Anything happening in our neighborhood or home is nothing next to the sadness and horror of losing everything. 
We don’t want their tragedy to touch us-  West Coast pharmacies sell out of iodine pills because our fear-marinated society has people clamoring for protection against some effects of radiation, 5000 impossible miles away. We hold these tragedies at arm’s length with our prayers too, not intentionally, but it’s too much to take in.  We pray for the people in Japan. For Libya. For New Zealand and Egypt and Iraq and Haiti and Tunisia and the Gulf Coast of the United States and the homeless people in our own town. We pray for those people over there.  And we watch them like a movie.  Our lives colored by their suffering, but our sympathy making no impact on their situation whatsoever.  Soon it becomes something we say to placate our discomfort. We pray for them over there. Amen.  And if it goes on for too long, we become numb. We shut it off. They cease to exist and the next movie star scandal edges out their suffering on CNN.

So how do we live faithfully? How do we pray? How do we balance our own lives and needs and celebrations and struggles with what is happening in the world? 

 1- We live our lives. 
We are people grounded in time and space. We are embodied, in flesh and blood and experiences; we live in one place, and exist in one time.  And our lives are a gift. We are given to each other – family, friends, communities, to share life with one another.  We are called to do that faithfully. To be faithful friends, parents, brothers and sisters, faithful members of our communities and responsible for the place we’ve been planted for this time in life.  I cannot save anyone in Japan. Not even if I watch the news every second of every day.  Truth be told, I can’t even save the very people I love most on earth from suffering.  But I can be with them. I can stand by them and share their suffering. I can share joy and life with them, and that is being faithful.  Everywhere in the world right now, Japan included, there are people standing with other people, sharing suffering and joy, and that is the place God is present.  We are called to live faithfully where we are.

I sent some money to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for Japan. But I also got an email yesterday from the owner of a little shop in our neighborhood that I frequent. The store, which was her dream for years, and then became reality, has been a source of joy and fun for my daughter and me.  It is now in financial trouble and may have to close if they don’t increase their business soon.  My mom loves their necklaces and I plan to go down there tomorrow and buy one for her.  I am here and need to live where I am.

2- We can pray from our reality.  
That God in Jesus Christ came into a specific time and place, embodied in flesh and blood and experiences means something.  And we meet Christ who shared life with us and bore death for us, when we share life and bear death with one another, in our concrete time and place.  We are called to live fully with the people to whom we’ve been given, the people who are given to us.

I cannot do that with people in Japan. I don’t know anyone there. I have never been there.  It might as well be a bad disaster movie, looping in the background of my life, for as much as it impacts my own world.  But my son has a friend in his kindergarten class who is from Japan. His dad is still over there. Out of harm’s way, he tells my son, but in Japan.  He must be afraid. And worried.  And how painful to be separated from your family when such a thing is going on?  Together my son and I can pray for his friend, and his dad, and the people they know and love who are impacted by the tragedy. That’s my human connection, my embodiment, my experience.

If you have no human connection to any of those places, you might find a single story, or a handful of stories, to follow. Something that connects to your own experience, that touches your life. The young mother your own age who lost both of her children, searching now on the Red Cross Lists for news of her own mother. Pray for her for a few weeks.  Or for the guy whose story gripped you because left his home to go help others and returned to find his home and family washed away.  Or the Red Cross team your niece's college roommate is working with. Pick one person or group and pray for them.

Or maybe give yourself 5 minutes a day to pray for these faraway places and people. Name the places of need, or write them down in a list. Hold them up to God. For 5 minutes give yourself over to the sadness and even pleading, that God would do something there. Haiti. Libya. Japan. Darfur. Afghanistan.  For five minutes pray for all the things you would otherwise carry around feeling heavy about. Then set it down. Leave it with God – who is there, with them, as they are bearing this with each other. You are here. Be here, with the ones you’ve been given to.

3 - We can notice beauty and speak hope.
Finally, as followers of Christ, as people with “eschatological imagination,” resurrection faith, hope in the God of eternity who is not bound by time and place, we are called to live from God’s promises and not from our fear. To notice what God is doing in the world and talk about it when we see it. We are called to join and participate in what God is doing in and around us.  
So another thing I can do is notice the stories of hope coming from these tragedies and share them. Against the cacophonic backdrop of incessant minute-by-minute reporting of horror and calamity, I can listen for and repeat the stories where people are sharing each other’s suffering. Stories of hope and solidarity; stories of life out of death and hope from despair.  Stories of beauty and of the presence of God.  For that matter, I can do that wherever I hear them, from whatever circumstances, communities or lives they arise.  I can practice seeing and saying hope.

A friend sent me this poem yesterday:
If you ignore beauty, 
you will soon find
yourself without it.

But if you invest in beauty,
it will remain with you
All the days of your life.
-Frank Lloyd Wright-

This is my stab at a faithful response: Turn off the never-ending news and live your life.  It's not very long. Invest in beauty and point out hope.  Love those around you. Bear their suffering.  Share their joy. Notice the connections - between people and people and people - that reach often into these situations of crisis so far away, and certainly into the ones right nearby. Be gentle with those connections and nurture them, you never know where they might lead.  Pray for the world from your own reality, and live faithfully in the time and place you have been planted.

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