By Donna Smith
It was 19 years ago on Christmas Eve that I heard the sermon message I thought was the most relevant of the many I’ve heard in my life. And again this year it seems fitting to recall it. It doesn’t really matter for purposes of this message whether you believe in Christ, as I do, or in another higher power or even if you choose not to have such a faith. Sometimes the world seems harsh for all of us, and sometimes we know great joy.
Those many years ago, in 1993, we took our two sons who were still living at home to Christmas Eve services at the invitation of our dear friend, the late Carolyn Davis, who was the pastor of her church in Lakewood, Colorado. The season had been a rough one as our son, Russell, narrowly escaped being one of the victims of a mass murder at his workplace that claimed the lives of four of his co-workers and left one other seriously injured.
No one really wanted to “ruin” their own holiday seasons by being with us and spending time chatting about a mass murder – one family member even noted that they hoped we wouldn’t mention anything “unpleasant” during dinner. We didn’t. And our boys didn’t really want to go to church where they felt they would hear some sort of lame message of little comfort or explanation for such horrific acts. We were in kind of a no-man’s land of Christmas season emotional limbo.
Mother Carolyn, as her parishioners called her, did offer a prayer for those killed, the injured man, for the wider community, and even for the killer and his family. That was expected. My faith teaches forgiveness even – perhaps most especially – when it is difficult. After what seemed an overly long service for a midnight gathering, Carolyn offered the brief, powerful message that has often sustained me in the years since when human cruelties seem too awful and when I feel powerless to change the conditions around me that are causing such suffering.
“Into this mess,” Carolyn said, “God sent his perfect love.” She repeated those first three words over and over again as she prefaced her remarks and framed the issues facing us both in the immediate sense and in the longer term human condition. We do not love each other or try to build peace or look for compassion in a perfect world without strife and without pain. We try to love one another in the midst of messy goings on around us – through wars and crimes and disasters and the actions of those who would hurt us. Into this mess, we bring whatever measure of justice and hope we can muster.
Though I have often struggled to understand why so many people have so much difficulty extending kindness to others or even lifting up those who are in need of help, it is when the horribly deadly and destructive – and manmade – moments of suffering come that I am left most confused. While Carolyn’s message did not answer all the questions I had then or the ones I’ve added to the list in the years since, it has provided me with a powerful grounding in why it matters that I keep trying to love and to care.
Can I explain why some believe it’s acceptable to allow others to suffer and die simply because they lack access to healthcare in the U.S.? No, I cannot. If I do the math based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates of uninsured and the estimates that 45,000 die every year without access to needed healthcare, roughly 800,000 Americans have died in the years since 1993 simply because they couldn’t afford care. Their injuries and diseases did not kill them. A healthcare system built on greed and selfishness killed them. Almost a million people dead just as surely as they had been gunned down in front of us, yet we protect the system that murdered them. That is certainly a mess. If we had a Medicare for all for life system in the U.S., not all of those lives would have been spared, but many thousands of them would have been.
Could I explain to my son back in 1993 why anyone would think it all right to walk into a pizza parlor and kill people? No. Could I explain why after scores more mass murders in America we still don’t address systemic violence or gun violence more appropriately? No. Do I understand myself why we have a culture so hell-bent on protecting the freedom of the powerful to squash the rest of us? No. Could I ever explain the loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Absolutely not.
There is so much I do not get about this world and this life. But I take heart in what my friend, Mother Carolyn, said to those of us gathered on December 24, 1993. Into this mess we bring whatever love and comfort to one another we can – and we fight on to make this world more tender and compassionate. Merry Christmas.