Lament for Uvalde
It was once called the Honey Capital of the World.
Its honey festivals celebrate flowering shrubs and blooms that attract pollinators that produce the liquid gold. Honey Mesquite, Black Cherry, and Sugar Berry trees flower in the summer in this Texas town. Beautiful sources of food for honey bees, providing a unique flavor to the regional honey.
This year's honey festival, originally set for June 10-11, 2022, has been cancelled.
Googling images of Uvalde, Texas, yields not lovely images of flowering trees and shrubs, but chaotic scenes of violence. Images of dead children and grieving parents. Police standing in front of the brick Robb Elementary School sign that has Bienvenidos in cursive font under the school's name and Welcome in silver lettering above it.
The Visit Uvalde County website's page says, "Uvalde Honey Festival--Cancelled." What would have been a celebration of community, promoting and preserving bee survival, and economic flourishing based on a product that brings pride, joy, and health to this community and those it touches is now silenced.
In the midst of this silence, the rest of the country and--really--the rest of the world joins in a mix of silence, outrage, demagoguery, and--truth be told--just going about our lives as if nothing has happened.
The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. The comparisons are eerily similar. In Newtown, the shooter shot his mother and then drove to the elementary school where he murdered six adults and 20 children. In Uvalde, it's a grandmother who was shot but is currently alive and undergoing multiple surgeries. The death toll is 19 children and two teachers.
I don't think I realized just how young these kids were. The entire school just included grades 2 through 4. Six, seven, eight, nine, and ten year-olds for the majority of humans in that building. The gunman barricaded himself in a fourth grade classroom. All 19 student victims were fourth graders. Fourth grade is young. Fourth grade is clueless. Fourth grade was the time in my life before the time that I fully became who I was. Fourth grade should have nothing to do with violence and older boys with assault rifles invading the very place that should be a location of hope, promise, and a future.
In 2012, shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, I was in front of a class called Death and Dying that I co-taught with a Social Work professor for many years. Most years, my role in the class was to do what I did best--focus on grief theories, correct various misconceptions about the nature of grief, promote students' understanding of various cultural practices pertaining to grief, and then discuss via a developmental lens how different age groups cope with and process grief. I had increasingly started to include material on how to help each age group with processing loss, figuring that the social work and nursing students that made up the majority of the class would find this information to be useful in their future careers.
This particular year I had a whole week planned on accessing children's literature, fiction and nonfiction, for resources to support children processing their grief. We also reviewed depictions of loss in movies for kids.
We were all raw a few weeks after Newtown. It's one thing to review and critique the depiction of the shooting of Bambi's mother, and another to study it in the shadow of a mass school shooting, one of the deadliest ever in U. S. History at that time.
I'm certain that I wasn't thinking in 2012 of the possibility of this happening again and again. You grieve, you say, "how terrible," you pick your particular political viewpoint, and you move on. Yes, I continued to see the Sandy Hook parents get involved in advocacy. I sometimes supported, sometimes didn't.
Maybe this year I have a better understanding of what it's like when everyone around you has moved on and is all too comfortable with forgetting the pain and difficulty. And thankfully, my family is in a place where the pain is not acute and hope is present. Strong hope. But still, the danger is not gone.
Isn't it evident that this is the case for our school children? The danger is not gone. And while ultimately nothing will stop this madness outside of changed hearts--the kind of hearts that won't shoot their grandmothers, and research mass shootings, and look at a group of fourth graders and then gun them down--that doesn't mean that we can't do anything.
If you've been reading this blog, you've seen that I started a new lament book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament by Mark Vroegop. I'm just finishing the section on the book of Lamentations. Vroegop identifies so well what I've merely stumbled into. The Biblical response to extreme suffering is in fact lament. Giving voice to what has happened and how we feel about it. Lamentations is an entire book on lament, which compliments the many, many similar types of passages throughout Scripture. Judaism gets lament, and Christians do well when we learn from our common ancient Scriptures.
Vroegop also writes that after voicing lament, there is a turn of sorts that occurs in the lament Scriptures. This turn is signified by a but or a yet. For example, Lamentations 3:21 reads,
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this (New Living Translation)
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope (NRSV).
This verse prefaces a passage that we sometimes quote, disembodied from what came before it:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."
It is indeed beautiful. But before it is uttered, we have two and a half long, long chapters of lament. Chapter 3 even opens with the passage likely referenced in the film, O Brother Where Art Thou: "I am the man who has seen affliction..." This gets transformed into the American folksong, Farewell Song, as "I am a man of constant sorrows. " Great song, by the way, and great soundtrack when it was re-recorded for the film.
As I've been writing about all year, it is important to give voice to this lament. To allow this moment and space for it.
And that's what we need to allow for the people of Uvalde. Unimaginable lament. I know how much I lamented this year with my daughter's illness, and she is still with me. I know how much people lamented and raged against the lockdown restrictions of COVID, and they still have their children. I know how much we all get up in arms about the stupidest, littlest things. But for dozens of families in Uvalde, and really, the entire community, their lives are forever impacted by something truly lamentable. And now is not the time to defend a particular political frame. Now is the time to weep and lament and acknowledge that a terrible thing has happened, a shameful thing. An irreparable thing.
After that, a turn. A "but." A "yet." I hope and pray that the Uvalde families can indeed turn to the Lord and have solace on this. We should do the same. But we can also take action. Because, while many do not acknowledge it these days because it smacks of political activism, the Bible is chock full of recommendations to take action. We can sing and love Lamentations 3:21 and enjoy its beauty. But, just a few verses later, we are given this:
Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven. We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.
Um, that doesn't sound like mere thoughts and prayers. In fact, Jeremiah (the traditionally-held author) is advocating for a particular kind of prayer, followed by action.
The prayer is the prayer of examen, described by Richard Foster as a type of prayer that has two parts:
The first is an examen of consciousness through which we discover how God has been present to us throughout the day and how we have responded to his loving presence. The second aspect is an examen of conscience in which we uncover those areas that need cleansing, purifying, and healing. (From Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home)
Jeremiah then says to return to the Lord. And, in a passage I love, love love, he says to lift up our hearts as well as our hands to the Lord. Contemplation and action. It's not good enough to lift up our hearts and leave our hands in inaction. And it's unwise to lift up our hands without having examined the way of wisdom on what to even do with them.
Has God forgiven this nation for its violence? Every political side decries the murder of children and each side has chosen which children to care about and protect. Bottom line is, we are ancient Rome or ancient Canaan in our bottomless capacity for hatred and violence. Who among us will stand in the gap as Jeremiah did and beg for forgiveness for our collective violence? And mean it--not by pointing the fingers across the political divide and say "we" when we really mean "those people" who need to repent. Those of us who live in a nation where 19 kids and two teachers were just shot ALL need to repent.
Forgive us, O Lord, that we by our own inaction and negligence have allowed these deaths to occur. Forgive us, Holy Father, that we have retreated into our own echo chambers instead of seeking commonality to save lives. Forgive us, Jesus, when we rejoiced that it was not our children who were murdered, not our children who were affected. Lord have mercy on our hard hearts.
And, Lord, please guide our hands. Lead us in the way of wisdom. As our Jewish friends and leaders tells us, if we can save even one life, we save the world. So, Lord, guide our hands to save even one life, even 19 lives, even a thousand lives.
Open our ears to wisdom.
David Wheeler, the father of a six-year-old who was shot at Sandy Hook Elementary offered this advice for helping the Uvalde families:
“If we're talking about people who are in the area, and can help, even friends and family members, the first thing you can do is just show up. Just be there. Don't make any demands. Don't even ask what you can do. Just be there and open your eyes and open your ears and pay attention to what people may clue you into what they need and when they need it. It may take a few phone calls, it may take a few web searches. But believe me, it is so, so important."
And Jaclyn Corin, who was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, where 17 people were shot and killed in 2018 said this this week:
I'm devastated for all Americans who see this happen time and time again, and feel frustrated that nothing has changed. A lot of people just think it's either ban all guns or not, but there are so many nuanced policies. There's implementing universal background checks, there's expanding licensing laws, there's banning high-capacity magazines that make it hard to shoot a lot of bullets at once. There's implementing extreme risk protection orders, which allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from a person if they show warning signs of wanting to hurt themselves or others. There are so many policies that exist out there, and it makes the issue not so black and white. (Both quotes are from https://www.npr.org/live-updates/uvalde-texas-school-shooting-05-25-2022)
We weep and lament with Uvalde. Let us repent from our violent ways. And lift our hearts and hands to the Lord. As Asaph says in Psalm 81, which is another passage decrying those who turned away from the Lord, we have this promise if we turn to God:
With honey from the rock, I would satisfy you.