“I Got Nothing”: Narrative Wreckage and Charleston

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 21:  Parishioners embrace as they attend the first church service four days after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Chruch elders decided to hold the regularly scheduled Sunday school and worship service as they continue to grieve the shooting death of nine of its members including its pastor earlier this week.  (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

Photo courtesy of CBS New York. (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

By Joe LaGuardia

In the wake of last week’s domestic terrorist attack against Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show delivered an extemporaneous monologue.

Stewart said that he was unable to focus on prepping for his show all day, and he did not have any jokes to tell.

“I got nothing,” Stewart repeated, alluding to his speechlessness over the loss of nine lives in one of Charleston’s oldest black churches.

As I combed through social media thereafter, I noticed other people echoing Stewart’s mantra.  One person on Facebook said the event rendered her speechless.  Another person quipped that no words could communicate his grief.

I only posted a news article and a prayer released by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because I know speechlessness well: In the aftermath of my own father’s death, the result of a mass shooting in a Pennsylvania town hall meeting, I too plummeted into what Elisabeth Gold calls “narrative wreckage.”

“Narrative wreckage” happens when a person’s or a community’s grief is so unbearable and helpless that no speech, utterance, or proclamation fits the situation.  Nothing makes sense, and the logic we apply to life no longer holds water.

The stories that make meaning in the world come to a screeching halt and are dismantled.  As Stewart said, “I got nothing.”

Certainly, initial reactions to tragedy, mostly resulting in yelling across political aisles pertaining to racism, gun control, or other cultural factors, arise but are far from helpful.  In fact, they are so distracting, the long road of reconciliation gets ignored entirely–and our conversation only hobbles from one tragedy to the next with no real solutions in sight.

But if we take our time, words will eventually start to reform in our mouths.  Yes, there will always be words of protest, anger, cliche, acceptance, among others.  For victims of the Charleston shootings, words of forgiveness were the only ones that erupted on the scene.

Some people simply expressed prayers of lament, supplying clergy with the appropriate verbiage used to describe their own feelings the best they knew how.

But lament does not find a comfortable home in a prose world.  It is the language of poetry and prophetic preaching, the theme of biblical books such as Lamentations, Isaiah, and post-traumatic stress-laden Ezekiel.  It is the narrow road less traveled because it doesn’t place blame–it rips us from the very disillusionment in which blame enshrouds us.

Musical verse (sometimes in the form of dirges), metrical units, and oddly paired phrases that do not fit any narrative framework are the only ones available for those prophets who lived in war-torn, exiled Israel under Babylonian, terrorist rule.

Truth is, I–and folks at Trinity–did not do much of anything in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel.  A few leaders from our worship team decided against a formal moment of silence during Sunday service.  I did not attend any  prayer vigils held in our county.

This is not because we don’t care.  Quite the opposite:  Trinity did not lament like other churches because lament has become a part of our community for the past few years.

The loss of my father was not only my loss, but the entire church’s loss.  And we have faced loss of various kinds.

Frankly, we are sick of the violence that has erupted since a semi-automatic wielding terrorist took my father’s life on 5 August 2013.

And we are sick of death wrought by war, cancer, accidents, domestic abuse, stillbirth, and addiction.  We are sick of death despite the geography: be it in beautiful Charleston, across amber waves of grain in our nation, or not five minutes from us at a local liquor store.

We only stand as a silent witness that enough is enough.

Yet, we are humble enough to admit that we don’t have all of the answers.  When we are in pain, we pray honest prayers to God.  When we discuss politics, sometimes we leave the table without any compromises.  When we cry together, our eyes fill with resignation more than they ought.

And although lament is our second language, it is hope that is our native tongue: We know that the Christ story doesn’t end at the cross, but at the victory of an empty tomb.

We know that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our resurrection to come.  But until then, its narrative wreckage for us once again.  We still feel the warm blood stains on the cross more than the soft, white linens Jesus left behind on Easter morning.

Like Stewart, our hurt runs deep.  So, sorry folks, for now, “We got nothing.”


Advent is a season of anticipation and hope

Churches following the lectionary (a group of Scripture lessons determined by the Christian calendar) may take note of the odd fact that the scriptures in Advent focus not on the birth narratives of Jesus but on his second coming, what Jeremiah calls the coming “day of the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:14).

This Sunday’s epistle lesson (the second Sunday in Advent), for instance, includes 2 Peter 3:10, which reminds readers that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”  The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 40 challenges heralds of good news to proclaim the coming of God and of God’s glory.

While our society is consumed by holiday shopping, busy family schedules, and dinner planning, these lessons remind us that Jesus will come again and reclaim us as his own.  If we forget to prepare for that day or fail to meditate on the Lord, we may be caught off-guard, knocked off balance by that very thief in the night.

There are few phrases in the Bible that excite the imagination, ignite hope, and challenge the heart as, “The day is coming, thus saith the Lord.”

It excites the imagination because when God is the focus of what we know about the future, we realize that an era will dawn in which earth and heaven will dissolve like melting snow and all things will be made right (2 Peter 3:10).

It ignites hope because it launches us on a movement towards fulfillment as it overwhelms despair, promises justice and righteousness, and ushers in the life of God’s redeeming love.

It challenges the heart as we are called to anticipate the return of King David’s descendant, King Jesus, who will come to judge all people.

Advent encourages anticipation and hope.  It poses the idea that the past, present, and future collapse in on itself in that climactic moment when God came to earth in the flesh and promised to come back again to make a new heaven and a new earth where all tears will be wiped away and death itself will come to an end.

Advent is a protest that the current situations in which we struggle and wrestle do not have the final say.

Last week, when all the protests and media punditry surrounding the death of Michael Brown created a tornado of anxiety, I couldn’t help but grieve the deep injustice that continues to create fear in so many hearts.

Then I heard about the story of Maria Fernandes, a 32-year old who had to work three jobs in order to make ends meet and pay for healthcare benefits because no one job paid a living wage.  She took a nap in her car between shifts, letting the car run for the sake of getting some heat.  She died from exhaust.

These stories of uncertainty, grief, injustice–times in which violence has reached its height and minimum wage jobs perpetuate a working-class poverty level–remind us just how meaningful Advent is in our current milieu.

Advent assumes that when Jesus returns he will find us disciples doing the Lord’s work as being agents of grace and healing in this season of turmoil, economic oppression, and grief.  He will find us not fueling the flames of war and conflict, but meeting the needs of victims of violence with a resolve that rests on the fact that God’s future will call all creation to account.

We are to bring light in these dark days because the day of God’s coming draws us ever closer to His kingdom.

In the words of scholar, Jennifer Ryan Ayers, Advent, “points to the importance of waiting, anticipating, and trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current circumstances.”*  It is a time to “lean into God’s future” and share the good news that God’s reign of making all things right begins now.

This Advent season, don’t be caught off guard by the “day of the Lord.”  Embrace it, and let it drive your message of hope to others who face despair, disease, and dysfunction.

*Source: Jennifer Ryan Ayers, Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion eds. Barleett, Taylor, and Long (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), pp. 7-8.