The Common Good

Stale Words in Fresh Tragedies

Something happened last week and I still can’t shake the funk of it off me. It happened in Boston and Texas; I saw it in Chicago as well, and the week before in Afghanistan. Last Sunday I tried to be a dutiful pastor and make sense of it from the pulpit, but ended up saying that I couldn’t make any sense of it. It wasn’t in what happened but the response. Not that they were making too much out of it — no, these tragedies were tragedies — but that maybe we weren’t making enough of it.

We support and grieve with Boston, but where is our new language? Photo courtesy FLASHFLOOD®/flickr.com

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When the smoke of the bombs rescinded, we did what national pride dictates — we put “Boston Strong” all over everything and took up pledges to run the Boston Marathon (the first 10-miler will cause significant reassessment of this showing of national pride) — but we also began a collective process of national mourning and deep reflection, of asking, “How could this have happened?” When we knew nothing of the perpetrators, we asked instead about terrorism and mental illness — root causes (?). We expanded our search, into new territory that resembled 9/11 in some ways, back when we knew nothing and all parties were guilty parties. Accountability was spread wide, including home. This was not a search for a scapegoat but a search for the soul of a nation.

Then we caught them … and realized they weren’t Arab terrorists (which we immediately thought because, culturally, prejudice is still something we do too well), but instead regular kids, who have sponge-like minds and read the Internet too much. We caught them, and families disavowed them, and people celebrated with American flags they had just bought.

It all ended — the reflection, the pause, the humility, the I don’t knows — all in a collective sigh of relief. Now we can get back to what we were. West was an accident? Okay, business as usual. And what irked me then in my inarticulateness now seems lucid as I reflect back: there were no prophets. As far as I could see (waiting to be shown otherwise), there was no national voice to say, “Stay here. These conversations are still worth having.” The prophets of ancient spoke a new word into the consciousness of the people, or at least an old word that had been lost and needed remembering. They righted the conscience of rulers and citizens.

But in these moments, there were no fresh words from religion, just plain ones. Just people saying, “We’ll get stronger through this,” and, “There’s a reason for everything:” words that make the very definition of “cardstock,” “boiler plate,” and “vanilla.” On CBS This Morning, this past Tuesday, Joel Osteen said, “We’re stronger when we’re together.” And some other stuff. And when the anchorwoman pushed back — as she should have — and said, “What about people who don’t want to hear, ‘God knows what He is doing.’ What then?” he flustered a bit. There was nothing in the tradition to answer quickly because this was not a question that begged for platitudes. It begged for prophecy. (In Joel’s defense, I’ve been made the fool on live TV before; it is way more than a notion, kudos to him). There are times when we are backed into a corner and retreat to what we know — tradition, an old habit, stale words  when it is clear that the moment begs for something fresh.

This is what most religious folk mean by, “led by the Holy Spirit.” To be faithfully led into the fresh. This is what has been missing from Boston and Texas, and the young diplomat killed in Afghanistan, and the slayings in Chicago. Or any community displaced, by abandoned factories and closing schools, and wanting to make meaning — new meaning, from what is happening now — and leaders who have nothing more to say than what grandfathers have already uttered. Please, yes, do tell me what was spoken then, instead of what God is saying now. Is not God still speaking?

Or has our religion become stale, coopting plain language while standing in front of caskets and holding candles?

I’m afraid we’ve given Boston stale words and too few words for West at all. I’m afraid that tragedy is part of the human condition and we’ve forgotten how to faithfully address that. I’m afraid that, like the prophets of Baal, our gods of tradition have failed us.

When Peter — the first pope — encounters the Spirit of God, the traditions of clean and unclean are eviscerated; everything he says and does is now in light of the new. Nothing is ordinary anymore. The book of common phrases is proven necessary but insufficient.

The song says, “Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me,” because the stale words of practiced pastors suffocate me. Our retreat into clichés has been uncritical at best, and at worst has caused people to lose faith in any divine at all. We must now, in tragedy, have the courage to mourn silently and say the truth, or even, “I don’t know,” and do it faithfully, instead of ambling along with hackneyed phrases. The people are begging to hear from God again, to use religion for what it does best – to make meaning of the inexplicable – and some of the words of religious leaders may be getting in God’s way.

Peter asks in Acts, “Who am I to hinder God?” Who are we to fall on tradition when a new, fresh word needs utterance? Who are we? It’s a good question Peter asks.

Julian DeShazier has served as the Senior Minister of University Church in Chicago. A native of the city, he graduated from Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to his current position, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Education. He is also an award-winning musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.”

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