About a week before the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in December of 2012, I received word that my sweet cousin had given up her decades-long war against schizophrenia and taken her own life. I saw her a year ago and was humbled to be one of the only people left in her world from whom she would receive a hug.
A couple days later, I am sitting with a group of men who are trying to bring some life and hope into the decimation happening in the Congo. They had spent a day with a group of one hundred women, all of whom needed re-constructive surgery because they had been tied to trees and raped hundreds of times.
Then in our own backyard, at Clackamas Town Center mall here in Oregon, a lone gunman shattered the sound of Silent Night as he fired fear and bullets into the families and friends celebrating the season of grateful hearts.
Then there was Newtown, Connecticut.
I was in London, and was not even able to bear the images as I sat in a puddle on the floor. Part of me didn’t even want to know about it. It wanted to shut down and pretend that we can be kinder to each other than this.
I got back to Portland, Oregon, and found out that a friend of mine had just been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. His wife, only a short time ago, survived the arduous and debilitating process of breast cancer. And now what? They have to do this all over again? His fear leaks out in between the sentences and wry bits of humor.
It’s been barely a few years since our youngest son’s best friend was killed in a dirt bike accident. He was 17 years old; an only child. Another friend’s four-year-old nephew is dying of inoperable liver cancer. For his family, there has been no good news. One of our daughters has been warring against a little brain tumor for several years now.
God sees it all. Somehow, God is inside it all.
God with us.
I did what any sane human being would do: I collected a box full of old apples and drove out to an abandoned barn in the middle of overgrowth. Standing only twenty feet from the dilapidated and eroding stable door, I picked up the first apple. It exploded into the wood as my scream echoed into the woods.
The grief I feel is not formed. It has no word within me that can adequately find expression. It is simple and visceral and full of anguish, the cry of grief and loss and question, the shattering of innocence and ignorance. I am desperately hoping that somewhere inside this place is a manger.
With the twenty-fourth apple the prayers begin to form inside the tears and groans, the fury slowly spent and now focusing.
“Why?” I screamed. “I want to know why! Why do you let us do this to each other? I don’t want you to have this sort of respect for us. Today, I don’t want this freedom. What I want is for you to step in and make our decisions for us. Obviously, we have no idea what we are doing. We are so lost and hell-bent on hurting each other. Why won’t you just take our power away from us and stop us, for our own good? Why do you insist on climbing up on the cross, on taking a towel even in the midst of our agendas and self-important aspirations and eshing each foot, cleaning off carefully and gently the dust of the day and of death?”
“Why do you care when we don’t?”
More apples. More furious prayers.
“Children! The loss of our children! Our hope! Hope for our innocence and future. Nothing shatters our illusions of civility and humanity as when our children are impacted. How soon we forget that we are all children, until we see it in the faces of our losses.”
The fortieth apple breaks on impact. “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. This is all wrong! I want my revenge, but that’s wrong too. I know it somewhere deep beneath all these emotions. I want justice! Not the kind that punishes, but the kind that heals. The fury of fire that burns away all the desperate need for power and control. I want to be an inferno that burns away the power to hurt. I want mercy and life and grace and light and love. But the cost!”
I stand with my arms limp, holding the fiftieth apple, tears running down my face. In front of me is a stable door covered in my best attempts at being human. I am un-done. I feel so irrelevant, so impotent.
And it is now that I know the truth: I am Herod.
I am the boys with their guns and self-hatred.
I am the man tying the woman to the tree, but I am also the other man who unties her and carries her to a place that will begin the healing.
I am the police officer outside the school, collapsing into the arms of another first responder, and together they weep their agony into the embrace.
I am the mother and father who stand with empty hearts and broken arms, hardly daring to glance at the place at the table that should be occupied, but will remain vacant. For now. Until one day…
I am my cousin, who gave up the fight, too tired to try for even another day.
I am my daughter who wars against her own body. My friend who is trying to stay with his wife and children inside the grace of one day.
I sit down in the half-frozen muck of the road. Somewhere in this mess, there are seeds and something is growing. I am looking at a stable door, holding the fiftieth apple, surrounded by the litany of the sorrows of this year, each sadness linked to a person who resides in my heart and will never leave, even as my memory fades.
From somewhere, maybe inside, there arises a breath of warm presence. It holds me for just a second, just enough and I hear the whisper.
“Let’s, you and I, always believe that life is bigger than death.”