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On that hot July afternoon when United Airlines Flight 232 crashed, my family and I were driving into Sioux City from our home in Le Mars to see the movie Peter Pan. A nostalgic reverie about the television movie Peter Pan, with Mary Martin flying around the stage on wires we could see but chose to ignore, consumed me. The song "I Can Fly" was certainly a kind of theme song for youth, a celebration of the unfettered imagination and unlimited possibilities of childhood.
As we pulled into the Southern Hills Mall, I noticed a plane flying low heading for the nearby airport. Just as we pulled into a space in the mall parking lot, we saw a thick line of black smoke rise from the direction of the airport. As my family got out of the car, I sat in the car, put the key back in the ignition, and turned on the radio, awaiting word in case the worst imaginable thing had actually happened. Immediately the radio announcer said there was an unconfirmed report of a plane crash at the Sioux Gateway Airport.
As soon as I heard that, I felt a crushing sensation in my chest. It was as though that news report suddenly squeezed out of me the plans I had made for that afternoon—and for the rest of my life. Instead of celebrating a flight of imagination in a cool theater, I would face a blunt reality on a hot runway. Instead of relishing the limitless possibilities of youth, I would have to deal with the limited options that tragedy presents to us.
I started the car, told my family to getback in, and we drove the few minutes distance to the airport. Even with that short time between the crash and my arrival, already a long string of cars lined the shoulder of the interstate, the drivers curious to watch what was happening at the airport. When I got to the airport exit, a state trooper was waving everyone on, not allowing anyone to exit. I pulled over and showed him my identification indicating that I was a member of the Air National Guard. I told the officer, "I am a chaplain and need to be at the crash scene." He said, "Mister, I don't care. No one is getting off here." I pulled off about a hundred feet past the exit from 1-29 and got out. I told my wife, Jody, that I would somehow get my own ride back home. As she drove off with our two daughters, I started running toward the entrance to the runway.
After my initial ministry with the injured and those still trapped in the wreckage—which I will speak more about later—I turned my attention to the uninjured survivors. Rescue workers carried these people from the runway to the headquarters building on our Air Guard base so that they would not clog up the hospitals and possibly prevent care from being given to the more seriously hurt. When I got to the headquarters building, survivors filled the dining hall. People sat everywhere, some on chairs, some on blankets. As I started circulating among the survivors, a worker directed me to two small children.
These two children, a brother and sister no more than six or eight years of age, had been traveling with their mother in the plane. Their mother now lay dead on the runway. The little girl, Rachel, and her brother, Peter (not their real names), sat quietly without emotion—no crying, no hysteria. They seemed subdued. I sat down to talk to them, and Rachel perked up a little when I noticed the teddy bear earring in one of her ears, and she gladly showed me both, obviously proud of these special gifts. I asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" They said, "No." Running out of all other alternatives, I asked if they needed to go to the bathroom and Peter said "Yes." I took him down the hall to the men's room. After relieving ourselves, we washed our hands in the same sink. I noticed that I had some blood on my hands, and it went down the drain with the dirt from Peter's hands. We went back to the dining hall, and Peter rejoined his sister on the floor, in silence. Their shocked, silent numbness will forever be for me a symbol of our human response to mystery.
The Reality of Mystery
The popular books and movies that go by the name "mystery" do not best exemplify true mystery. These "mysteries" are more like puzzles that will yield their answers to the clever. A true mystery, though, in the classical theological sense of that term, is not something that the clever person will solve before the dullard. A true mystery is one that will not yield to any explanation. There are some questions that will never receive satisfying answers. Such mysteries bring us to our knees, literally and spiritually. One of the reasons the classical understanding of mystery has become clouded is that there are many persons in academia—that place where we go to learn about life—who do not consciously recognize the reality of mysteries.
Academia, where I was spending my professional energy at the time of the crash, is not a place that breeds humility. Quite often, recipients of the Ph.D. degree see it as granting comprehensive authority, a kind of license for pride. It is, of course, possible for people to inhabit the "ivory tower" with integrity if they do not forget the mud and muck that they left behind them. All too often, though, competitiveness for good professional positions and the gamesmanship of applying for promotions and grant money, squeeze true mystery out of the picture. Academics tend to approach any subject as a problem that will yield its solution to just the right scholar armed with the proper credentials, a sabbatical, and research funding.
But whether or not academia wants to recognize it, all of humanity is in fact thrust into the middle of huge mysteries, and the mystery of tragedy is perhaps the deepest of them all. Tragedy comes into our lives in many ways, such as the death of a loved one, crippling and terminal diseases, rape, abuse, floods, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, auto accidents, or plane crashes. The outward circumstances of tragedy can be widely different. All tragedies, however, have at least one thing in common. This element shared by all tragedies is a strong sense that such an event should not have happened.
In a tragedy, we think that somehow, somewhere, something went wrong, a mistake has been made. Whether it is on a microscopic level (as in cancer), a mechanical level (such as when a failing part causes a crash), a willful, human level (when criminal acts are deliberately undertaken), or on a cosmic level (such as when people are killed by a tornado), something has gone terribly wrong. If we call something a tragedy, we think it should not have happened.
When we finally confront the baffling depth and shocking darkness of true mystery, whether our initial reaction is wildly emotional or not, there is a part of all of us that goes numb, a part of us that stares into the abyss and comes away with pupils fixed and dilated. I saw this in the faces of Rachel and Peter, sitting alone among strangers and in the strong absence of their mother. Stunned. Silent. Covered from head to toe with a body stocking of thick emotional goose down, submerged up to the mouth in a vat of thick oil, able to breathe, but not much else.
True mystery shatters the illusion that we have total control over our lives. Things are not as we would have them be and there is no changing that. When we are in the midst of mystery, our mouths are stopped. We have to retreat to the childlike impotence that we were born into. We can behold, but we cannot comprehend.
The encounter with true mystery is not so much a new or radically intense kind of "experience" or "feeling": it is more a lack of feeling or numbness. It is a kind of electroshock therapy where all of the previous signals transmitted by the brain through the nervous system become temporarily jumbled into meaningless static. To try to describe the static is useless, for what has happened is a disruption of the very signal-making process that is necessary to describe anything. All that you are aware of is numbness.
Such numbness does not leave easily. Some of it, perhaps, never goes away. After we find ourselves in a mystery, a part of us will always remember that unmistakable feeling of having a window open in our house that we cannot close, no matter how hard we try. For most of us at least, though, we do not remain forever in that stage of numbness. We start "coming to" and begin the frustrating but necessary task of finding our way around in the mystery that has engulfed us.
The Mystery of Tragedy
The particular mystery that those recovering from the plane crash had to deal with is the mystery of tragic death. Why did Rachel and Peter's mother die while they survived? The question of why the plane crashed was not a mystery, but merely a problem to be solved by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and other agencies. In fact, the answer was quite clear: an engine part disintegrated and severed all of the plane's hydraulic lines. Problem solved. But now the real mystery only looms larger: Why must we live in a world where such things can happen? Why do we live in a world where cancer takes the lives of children? Why do we live in a world where the high school dropout gets drunk and ends up crashing into and killing the class valedictorian? Why does a loving God allow such a world to be?
Why? The FAA, the whole government, even the pooled insight of religious professionals, no one can give an answer that takes away the pain. This is mystery, true mystery. There can be no solutions to mystery, only different ways of dealing with it. After the stunned silence—or after failing to fill up the infinite void of silence with hysteria—we begin to see something. We start to see that we at least have choices about how we describe these mysteries and how we respond to them. Life is, in fact, really a matter in which we "choose our mystery."
Choose your Mystery
When mystery is discussed, some will scoff and turn away. These people, who often think of themselves as "hard-headed realists," avoid religion because religion openly acknowledges—and even proclaims—mysteries, mysteries such as the mystery of the incarnation of God in Christ, the mystery of our salvation purchased by Jesus on the cross, and the mystery of evil. They prefer life "straight," without any "nonsense" about mystery.
The problem with such folks is that they will not acknowledge the mysteries that they themselves live in. A completely secularized person might think that real "honest" life is nothing but seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, but they have often never considered the shape of the mystery of their own reality as they themselves describe it. For instance, "Why is pleasure so fleeting and pain so common? Why are some more able than others to achieve safety, satisfaction, and comfort? If the goal of life is to have a big weekend, why must we slog through the challenges of the work week first?" Since we cannot avoid all mystery, these questions lead to the reality of mystery. They lead us to two bottom-line questions of life: Which mystery will I call my own? How will I deal with it?
When we deal with the mystery of evil, suffering, and tragedy, there are three classic options which offer themselves to us. One option, the one taken by many Eastern religions, is to deny the ultimate reality of suffering, to say that it is an illusion. Most Westerners do not pay much regard to this option. The second option, sometimes cloaked under the name "existentialism," looks at tragedy and says "that is all life is." Those who choose this option adopt either a stoical attitude of courageously facing the apparent meaninglessness of life or else throw themselves into an attempt to forget their plight through work, substance addiction, or perhaps suicide. They have decided that either malevolent or totally indifferent forces guide life. The third option is that seen in the classical Christian understanding of life.
Christian Responses to Tragedy
The believer, formed in the biblical faith, also experiences—and owns—the numbness and pain of the mystery as well. To pretend otherwise, to deny it, as some misguided Christians do, is nothing but sad folly, and such repression can lead to problems. But the believer, after acknowledging and naming this mystery, is lovingly and patiently called back to trusting that this mystery called life—with all of its emotional blind alleys and spiritual dead ends—is finally a gift, and that the gift is good.
The Christian who has read and understood the book of Job, the Christian who has read the passion narratives of Christ and has understood and embodied them, will know that the faithful one is no stranger to mystery, and specifically to the mystery of tragedy. Tragedy is, in fact, a true mystery only for those who have a faith that creation does somehow make sense, those who have a faith in a higher being, those who believe in God.
If you start with the premise that we are all random atoms colliding with each other, then why should anything make any sense? Why should planes not crash, families be torn apart, or children die of cancer? If that were the case, then why should individual life be nothing but mindless self-centeredness and self-absorbed pleasure-seeking, where the stomach and the groin are the true masters? As we unfortunately can see in our culture, many have (consciously or not) opted for this view of life.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, stood in the midst of the mystery of human life and death and neither repressed this mystery nor pretended to answer it. As seen in Luke 13, where Jesus is asked to "explain" a tragedy, he responds by asking, "Were those who had the temple of Siloam fall on them any worse than anyone else?" He dismisses such hateful speculation about the victims of tragedies by simply saying, "No," and then goes on to call for repentance among all those who hear him. Jesus Christ acknowledged the reality of tragedy and went on with life. Tragedy neither drove him to despair nor did it elicit a long "explanation." Jesus simply lived the mystery of a grace-filled loving life in the midst of tragedy and called his followers to do the same.
Some Christians are not comfortable with this evil-as-mystery approach and immediately assert that while evil is a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. This undoubtedly is true, but it is also true that such a statement does nothing to take away the stinging fact that it is a mystery to us! A related strategy for some Christians is to explain evil by the story of the Fall in Genesis. But the Genesis story, like Jesus' parrying of the question about those who died in Siloam, simply acknowledges the reality of evil. The story does not explain it. After all, why was there a snake in the garden of Eden in the first place? The Genesis account does not explain this. It eloquently asserts that there are elements of creation that can inhibit our flourishing as human beings. So we are stuck with a mystery, but we are still free to choose how to interpret this mystery.
The fact that we have the freedom to choose how to interpret our mysteries is part of the larger mystery itself. The Christian story, however, tells us that we are not left alone with the choice. God's grace comes to us and whispers words of direction. We can hear them if, as the Bible says, we have "ears to hear." Sooner or later, we are beckoned out of our numbness. In my work after the plane crash I was reminded that for Christians, it is gratitude and joy that often do the beckoning.
The Mystery of Death
Meets the Mystery of Life
In the building where the survivors were taken after the plane crash, two of the plane's flight attendants stood in the hallway. I began speaking to one named Susan who still had on her blood-spattered service apron. As we spoke, she started crying and we hugged. I led her into an office down the hall where we sat opposite each other and cried together. After we sat for a while in tears, I asked her if she would like to call someone.
At this point, the telephone lines were not yet in use (though shortly they would be tied up by the press seeking information). I got an outside line, and Susan said that she wanted to try to call her father. She asked me to dial. As she told me the numbers, I punched each one, and within one ring an anxious male voice answered the phone. Even though he just said "Hello," concern and worry were clearly evident in his voice. I said, "Is this Mr. White?" He said "Yes." I said, "There is someone here who wants to speak to you," and I handed the phone to Susan.
She took the phone, and I was standing next to her when she spoke the words, "Dad? ... I'm alive!"
The tears came again for Susan, for me, and for her father. This time, however, somehow the tears were transmuted, transposed into a different key compared to the tears we cried together before the telephone call. Now the tears we were crying were not just the tears of emptiness, shock, grief, and disbelief. Now the tears had an element, a small but unmistakable element, of joy.
"Dad? ... I'm alive!"
We were standing in the midst of death, but were now looking out at life. Susan did not choose to say anything other than that most basic affirmation that a living person could make—"I'm alive!"—but the words had unspeakable power. I am alive in the midst of death. Breath has been breathed into me.
Susan did not say "I'm alive!" She was not making a comparative statement; she was not making a judgment about the superiority of one person over another. Nor was it a statement of pride, of "look at me, I made it and others didn't." Susan said "I'm alive!" It was the simple and naked utterance that life makes—that fully awake, fully aware life must make. "I'm alive."
The element of joy in that cry from the heart was the element of joy that is inherent in life. This joy proclaims that life is a gift. She spoke the words to one who in a human sense helped give her this gift of life, her father.
In one sense the words are silly and can be easily mocked—if she were speaking on the phone, of course she would be alive. Who in their right mind would ever say such a thing? Yet, truer words, more profound words, more important words, have never been spoken. She was in her right mind, and her mind perceived, and her heart perceived, and her lips spoke of that ultimate mystery. "I'm alive."
Susan's naming of this truth, through tears of gratitude, in the midst of the broken mystery of life, was as genuine an act of worship as I have ever witnessed. Through those words she invoked the awe-filled presence of God which turned that office into a holy place. The holiness that filled the office was more intense than that invoked by the most beautiful landscape or the most majestic cathedral. It was, in fact, filled with the holiness of Eden. "I'm alive."
This joy that Susan named, the grateful joy that celebrates the sheer fact of life—the joy that leads to worship—must be put into dialogue with the numbness of Rachel and Peter. In due time, this joy must confront not only the numbness of mystery, but all of the very real anger, sorrow, grief and broken-heartedness of life. Only when this very real joy is put together with the very real sorrow can the Christian view of the mystery of life be complete.
When we do not deny either of these two sides of our mysterious reality, then we can, like Job before us, look straight into the deepest mysteries of life and confess that there are "things too wonderful for me to know" (Job 42:3, NIV). Knowing that life is supposed to be a mystery, and that it is not just our personal intellectual or spiritual shortcomings that make it seem so, can help revive us and equip us for the next installment of the mystery. When we realize that life is both a mystery and a gift, then we can once again push our boat back into the swift currents of lived experience with hope. The route may be uncharted, but with God's divine wind in our sails, we can trust enough to take the rudder that is offered.
Questions for Reflection and Meditation
If the idea of living in the midst of mysteries seems foreign to you, consider some of the central stories of the Bible. Read the stories of the first few chapters of Genesis (both the Creation and Fall), the story of Job, and the Passion accounts of Jesus. Reflect on how each of these describes mystery far more than they explain mystery. How can these stories that describe great mysteries shape our own response to mystery?
Consider whether it is easier in your own life to live in a pretense of comfort and certainty rather than to face the reality of mystery. How can naming the truth about the reality of mystery in our lives be a comforting resource for facing tragedy? How can putting an end to denial free our energies for more creative use?
How can you name the reality of mystery in your own life? Can you see it manifesting itself both in things that you fear and things that you love?
If you are facing the mystery of tragedy, try to put the tragedy into your own words. What particularly is tragic? What happened that you sense should not have happened? Honestly name your responses to the tragedy. These might include fear, grief, sorrow, anger, and other unpleasant emotions. While these reactions can be extremely troubling, they are normal responses to tragedy, even for a Christian. Try to place these emotions in a larger context of the mystery of life. Consciously choose and name the mystery that you want to define your life.
How does the mystery of life-as-a-gift interact with the mystery of tragedy in your own life? Does one cancel out the other, or is the interplay more subtle? Can you see the possibility of holding on to both mysteries as a dramatic and life-giving challenge, or must one or the other finally prevail?
|CHAPTER ONE The Mystery of Tragedy||13|
|CHAPTER TWO Tears||31|
|CHAPTER THREE Humility||43|
|CHAPTER FOUR Gentleness||59|
|CHAPTER FIVE Hope||73|
|CHAPTER SIX The Presence of God||87|