What’s left to say after the Virginia Tech massacre?
Classmates of killer Cho Seung-Hui, who massacred 32 Virginia Tech University students and faculty, remember how stony-faced he looked on the first day of a British literature class last year. With an icy, Sphinx-like stare, he wouldn’t say a word during student introductions. Cho placed a question mark on a sign-in sheet where classmates had written their names.We feel uneasy about question marks, especially in the wake of terrible events. Our minds want answers. Questions left up in the air bother us. When entangled in loose ends, our minds rush to tie the knot. We avoid frayed opinions and messy outcomes. Our agitated minds get riled when a killer uses a question mark for identity. That’s incomplete. It makes us nervous, sad, angry and even more inquisitive to find out what compelled Cho to kill indiscriminately. We like to complete the crossword puzzle, cinch the argument, correct life’s question-mark grammar with certain exclamation points. We demand knowing what secret, evil rage pushed a murderer to massacre innocent people on an otherwise idyllic university campus.The poet and preacher John Donne (1573-1631) described the terrifying power death wields over us. It makes us skittish, anxious and restive. “Death is a bloody conflict and no victory at last; a tempestuous sea, and no harbor at last; a slippery height and no footing; a desperate fall and no bottom.” But we are driven to get to the bottom of why a student went on a killing rampage.When death comes uninvited, we cook up answers.Two Presbyterian clergymen facing the deaths of their spouses listed hurried answers well-meaning people offer. These pastors realize how easily such answers come too soon, are too slick, and too often are justified with biblical texts. Such tidy replies to knotty reality cut the nerve of grieving. They block our tears. Have you caught yourself saying: – God took him because he needs him more than you do.- God never gives you more than you can handle.- God’s taking him home.- Misery loves company and I know exactly how you feel. My dog recently died.- You wouldn’t want him to live in the tough shape he is in, would you?- You think what you’re enduring is bad! You should have lived through World War II.We blurt out what’s insufficiently true when death crushes us.At my dad’s funeral in 1973, the preacher read the Apostle Paul’s response to death. Usually, Paul has a ready answer to most any question. But in the face of death and suffering, the Apostle is reticent. “What is there left to say?” he inquires in Romans 8: 31.At my boyhood church, I remember a worship service a car wreck’s carnage shaped. My classmate’s folks and sister were enjoying a Sunday afternoon ride when another driver slammed into them, killing all three. A few hours after this horrible accident, the regular evening church service began. It usually had a recitation of the Ten Commandments, long prayers, an even longer sermon, ample Bible readings and hymns sung. The service took nearly two hours, if you counted the prelude. Our pastor mounted the high pulpit. With wavering voice, he asked, “What is there to say?” We shared a short prayer. He read Martin Luther’s favorite, Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” Then the church family recited what Calvinist Hollanders regard as their spiritual national anthem, the initial question and answer to the 16th-century affirmation of Christian faith, the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s recited in a question-and-answer format. Question No. 1: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Answer: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and death – not to myself, but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.” Then the service ended after 20 minutes, not the customary two hours. What more could be said?A few years ago, my father-in-law faced a nasty death. For more than a decade, he wrestled with a variant of Lou Gehrig’s disease that baffled physicians at the University of Michigan Medical Center and Mayo Clinic. My father-in-law’s retired pastor visited him. Pastor Clarence, serving four decades in the same church, preached sermons that helped me answer questions when I was a collegian. He presented the “mind of Christ” to me.Pastor Clarence’s opening sentences to my father-in-law were: “Gene, riding here in the car, I wondered what I really could say to help you. I still don’t know.” But Pastor Clarence came. He cared. What more is there to say?If I were asked to lead a memorial service at Virginia Tech, I’d temper my remarks with the Apostle Paul’s prudent caution:”I have never been shattered by the crushing blow these deaths have dealt you. None of us can make sense of it. Even a right-sounding explanation wouldn’t bring the deceased back into our arms. It helps when we turn to the core of our faith. God is like Jesus. He shares our pain, is big enough to absorb our raw anger and hugs us as we grieve.”Life isn’t fair, is it? Suffering and death strike unawares, at any time. We do not, and cannot, tell why. What, then, can we say? Nothing can separate us from God’s love, says Romans 8:39, even murderous death. God has tears streaming down his face, too. He knows what it feels like to lose a precious child.” Then I’d shut up. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.