Disaster, Easter 4C, Good Shepherd Sunday

Things We Cannot Unsee

I’ll admit it. I’m a news junkie when disaster strikes. I don’t watch a lot of TV at other times, and not when younger children are around. But when the coast is clear, I cannot turn it off. On the evening of 9/11, my then-15-year-old insisted on it. “Why are you watching this? They just show the same things over and over.”

There’s something compels me. I suspect I’m looking for a crumb of reason in the unreasonable, a word of sense in the insensible, a thread of comprehension in the incomprehensible.

I had been watching for just a few minutes when I said aloud, “Oh, whoever did this timed it for the ordinary runners to be coming by.” When FBI profiler Clint van Zandt said exactly the same thing on MSNBC an hour later, did I feel better? No. I felt sadder. But I kept listening.

I’m trying to understand. It’s a coping technique for a crisis. It makes the time go by until the shock passes. It might be better to turn off the TV and cry, I realize that. But that feels dangerous and helpless, and I want to be informed and useful. I’m actually not watching most of the time. I’m listening to the talking, not looking at the images.

Last night, I got in bed, alone because kathrynzj is on a mission trip being actually useful, and instead of closing my eyes, I kept reading the Twitter feed and the Facebook newsfeed, and the live blogs for the Boston Globe and the New York Times (Boston Marathon stories free from both, now! for a limited time!). Real journalists are pretty good about warning readers away from  graphic images, but self-described social media stars don’t have rules, and tweets only have 140 characters, and who knows why people do what they do, but I clicked on a link, and I cannot unsee what I saw when the next window opened.

I expected a story, because I was looking for a story. I think words will solve something.

I knew better than to click on anything that labeled itself twitpic or anything  similar.

But there it was, on a screen held close to my face, an image I cannot unsee.

a puzzlement
a puzzlement

Now, seeing it is nothing compared to living it. In parts of the world where these things happen more often, average folks are looking at the gruesome pictures and not holding back, because they’ve seen horror in the street, maybe in the front yard, and they are hardened to it. I don’t want to see these things. I actually can’t take them in very well. I’m a word person. I was looking for words, but I realize that all my efforts to gain some intellectual understanding of the events of yesterday, all the theories and the family stories and the eventual solution to the puzzle we will someday hear will do nothing to change them.

Tonight’s news featured a mother talking about how wonderful her daughter was, her daughter who is now dead.  I find this excruciating, the testimony of grieving mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. Maybe it makes things real for them in a way that nothing else can? Maybe the attention of the world makes them feel they are not alone. I don’t know. I do know I cannot unsee them, unfeel them. They make me look at the giant jigsaw puzzle of currently indistinguishable pieces. They make me feel what happened instead of trying to listen to it gingerly.

I wonder what drives the people who do these things, what words are in their heads, what images are in their minds. What is it they cannot unfeel, what is it they cannot unsee that drives them to destruction?

This is the place where I should preach, isn’t it, where the essay turns to God, where I refer you to Revelation and the wiping away of every tear, or to John and the notion that sheep who actually hear Jesus’ voice would never do such things, but I’m not there yet. It’s trustworthy that I will be, at some point, in that Revelation place, or walking through the valley of shadow fearing no evil in Psalm 23, and yes, these are the texts this week.

But I always have to try and solve it myself first.

I don’t recommend this strategy.

Good Shepherd
Adé Béthune’s Good Shepherd

Better to turn to the other words, to murmur the version you remember from your grandmother’s funeral, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shalt fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

Actually, just typing them comforted me, so much that I’m not going to check and be sure I got the King James Version exactly right. There is some comfort in knowing them, in an illogical sense of connection to uncounted women and men and children who have done their crying out to the same incomprehensible God who we try to size down to a shepherd, knowing that somewhere, someone else felt comforted, too.

I want to think it helps more than telling a story on TV. But maybe television testimonials are the Psalms of Lament for the 21st century, the rite of mourning that makes us part of the community.

The one I loved was kind and lovely and thoughtful and fun. 

Why, Lord, why?

The end of her life came too soon.

Why, Lord, why?

He never did a thing to hurt anyone.

Why, Lord, why?

I cannot understand what’s happened here.

Lord, where are You? 

Why is Your world so terrible and so beautiful, 

all at the same time? 

Where are You?

Have we done too many things You cannot unsee?

Disaster, Living in This World

Still in Recovery

You would think, wouldn’t you, that after two years and four months things on the Gulf Coast would be back to normal, but they are not.

I spent a good bit of today in the car with St. Casserole, touring many of the places I saw two years ago and last year, and while there is a good bit of progress, there are many places where it’s hard to believe so much time has gone by with so little change. Sometimes those contrasts exist right next to each other: the huge new casino hotel next door to the cleared lots that used to hold houses, the devastated town of Pass Christian as the gateway to the new Bay St. Louis Bridge, the shiny car dealership on one side of the I-1o and the still-empty ruined apartment complex just on the other side.

We’ve talked a lot today about why it works out so differently for some people than others. Some people are better-resourced or more skillful at working the system. Some people are just plain lucky. They got their insurance money, or didn’t need to wait for it. Others, meanwhile, fill out one more form for the SBA and wonder if there will ever be an end to the post-Katrina waiting.

This kind of recovery ought not have to be for a lifetime.

The friend we had lunch with yesterday seemed to feel people were healing now, finally. She reported a post-Katrina baby boom, the kind of thing usually seen nine months after a tropical storm with its attendant power outages. This time it did not come, she told us, until people got out of their FEMA trailers and back into their homes.

But of course there are still a minority living in the trailers. And again they are the least-resourced people, and I can only imagine how hopeless it feels to be living in one of the FEMA trailer parks, a good arm-stretch from the neighbors.

At a party tonight, I met local folk, volunteers and a woman who relocated here to work for the Red Cross. That woman expressed concern that by March the money will run out for some agencies, and those agencies will close. She told us that she feels she has done little, and that the need is still so great. But I said to her, "In the grand scheme of things, it may feel that way. But I doubt the individuals you have helped would say that."

It’s nearly 2008. I want to live in a better world, in a place where the money we give goes to the places we mean for it to be sent, in a place where people can hold a thought for others and continue to pray, give and volunteer. The waves that washed through these towns contained countless drops of water. No one drop could have done all this damage, and no one act will make things right. Like the Red Cross worker, I feel my contributions are small, but I
know that it is through the combined efforts of many, many people that
the recovery will end some day.

Have you been to the Gulf Coast since the hurricane? Have you found a
way to give in support of those who are still in recovery? I hope you
will. I hope you will.