Monday, April 18, 2016

April 17, 2016
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
If you can, try to remember how you felt when you heard the news about each of the following events:

• The massacre of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado by two students in April 1999.
• 2,996 deaths from the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in September 2001.

• The killing of five young girls and the wounding of five others in an Amish school by a lone gunman in Pennsylvania in October 2006.

• The slaying of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech by a deranged student in April 2007.

• July 2015 Chattanooga shootings: 24-year-old Kuwaiti-born American opened fire on a U.S. military recruitment center and a U.S. Navy Reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing 4 U.S. Marines and a sailor, and wounding a Marine and a Chattanooga police officer.

• December 2015 San Bernardino attack: a married couple stormed a county health department's holiday banquet in San Bernardino, California, fatally shooting 14 people and injuring 22 others while leaving a failed pipe bomb at the scene.
• March 2016 Suicide Bombers attack a Metro station and an Airport in Belgium killing 32 people.
• Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, a 27-year-old field artilleryman from Temecula, CA. with Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, was killed at about 9 a.m. Saturday when Islamic State group militants launched a rocket attack on a coalition base in Makhmur. Eight other Marines were injured in the attack on the newly established base, which is roughly 60 miles outside of Mosul.

If you’re like most people, you experienced a sense of deep shock and dismay on hearing the news of the first of those events. But unless you were personally connected to a victim of one of the subsequent tragedies, it’s likely that each one had progressively less emotional impact on you. In fact, by the time the last of these was reported, your reaction may have been little more than a sad shake of the head and a weary utterance of, “Not again! When will it end?” And you probably turned your attention away from the news much more quickly than you did after Columbine.

That isn’t surprising. We’ve lived through 9/11. We frequently hear body counts from terrorist activity. By way of television and the Internet or the newspaper for those who still read them, we’ve witnessed such awful stuff that our shock threshold has been raised. Now when we hear of such tragedies as the most recent slaughter of innocents, our reaction is more controlled.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings, columnist Daniel Henninger, writing in the Wall Street Journal, commented on this growing numbness to bad news. He said that “it may be that as a nation we’ve reached tilt with tragedy. ‘Tilt’ is the famous metaphor drawn from the old pinball machines, which shut down if one banged on them too hard. Pinballs could survive plenty of random shocks to the system. But there were limits. Of late, we have been banged on hard.” Later in the same column, he wrote, “Our capacity for shock at genuine violence has been recalibrated.”

I offer none of this as criticism. When tragedies become commonplace, it just isn’t humanly possible for us who are at a distance from them to experience the same level of emotional distress as those who are close at hand. And our lessened reaction has nothing to do with not caring or a lack of empathy. It’s that we have a survival function that causes us to become protective of our emotional energy. We cannot continue to dump it out day after day on extreme events and have any left for daily living.

And so a kind of numbness creeps in, and to some degree, it needs to. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us from reaching our personal tilt point.

That said, such numbness also gives us a jaded view of life, a pervasive pessimism that whispers to us that the cards really are stacked against us, and that no matter how much we think we’ve organized our lives, the forces of chaos and destruction will ultimately prevail.

We hear some of those whispers after almost every one of these shootings. Some commentator says the incident should reignite the debate about gun control, but those of us who’ve been around awhile find ourselves thinking something such as, “Yeah, Right! This latest tragedy might cause some debate, but even if politicians actually get off their, you know what’s, and some changes are made, it won’t make the kind of difference we need. People who are determined to kill others will always find a way to do so.” But do you hear in that admission deep pessimism — that nothing could have prevented it, or something like it — that neither arming everybody nor disarming everybody would make much difference?

That’s a fatalism we don’t wish to surrender to, but it nibbles at the edge of our minds when we contemplate awful things. Fully developed, it can cause us to doubt God’s existence, or at least his goodness.

In 1983, singer Anne Murray had a hit song called “A Little Good News.” It topped the country chart and even crossed over to the pop chart. The lyrics told of the sort of standard bad news that made up TV news shows and newspaper reports back then: fighting in the Middle East, the bad economy, a robbery, a hostage-taking, damage to the environment, killings and so on. But then the song says,

Just once how I’d like to see the headline say,

“Not much to print today, can’t find nothin’ bad to say,” because

Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town

Nobody OD’ed, nobody burned a single buildin’ down

Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain

We sure could use a little good news today.

... How I wanna hear the anchorman talk about a county fair

And how we cleaned up the air, how everybody learned to care

... Nobody was assassinated in the whole Third World today

And in the streets of Ireland, all the children had to do was play

And everybody loves everybody in the good old U.S.A.

We sure could use a little good news today

What made the song so popular when it came out was that it voiced a sentiment a lot of people held: that the proliferation of bad news weighs down on us, and we need some relief. The song is a bit dated now because of some of the specific trouble spots it mentions, but clearly, we could simply update the specifics and the song would be as timely now as it was back then. It’s timely because it recognizes the underlying pessimism about this life of ours.

In one of the places online where you can find the song lyrics, there’s a field at the bottom of the page where viewers can add comments. One of those comments posted, acknowledged that the song came out in the ’80s but then added, “It still brings tears to my eyes. What a great sentiment. Wish it could come true.”

Do you hear the pessimism? “Wish it could come true,” which implies, “but it won’t.” Brings tears to my eyes that so many of us have given up hope.

Against all that, there’s the vision that St. John of Patmos had of the eternal age to come, where a multitude of people — so great it cannot be counted — with representatives from every nation, tribe, peoples and language group, stand worshiping before the throne of the Lamb of God. And they cry out good news: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” When John seeks to know who these people of this multitude are, he is told, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In the context of John’s time, the “great ordeal” likely referred to the bitter experiences — the bad news — that befell the followers of Jesus at the onset of the Jerusalem war in A.D. 66. But we can read it in our own context and apply it to the bad-news ordeals of our own time. In contrast to the pessimism that first-century ordeal might have engendered, however, this Revelation passage sees the brightness, the good news, beyond it. These people, who have come through that great ordeal faithfully, “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life .... ”. They are the ones who were numbed by the battering of bad news in their day, but in the realm to come, they are “un-numbed.” In fact, they have no need for defensive numbing, because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”.

But what about us? If this passage is to fit into our existence somewhere, it has to be read as belonging to some future that we cannot see and can only, like St. John, envision. And then we can only hold on to that vision with the most slender of threads, those of promise and hope, and maybe even wish.

We should note, however, that the multitude in Revelation sees this brightness because they are gathered around the throne of God in worship together. Maybe, in that time to come, that throne is the place where they get their questions about life answered. But what John’s vision shows us is that in that place of worship, they jointly perceive what they need to know, that the Lamb is their shepherd

As we live on this side of eternity, what we need to know is that God is still here in this life, that He hasn’t left us, that He is our shepherd, too. And corporate worship, such as here and now in this chapel, can bring us that assurance; it can give us a glimpse of the divine perspective.

It’s significant that we don’t go to church for private devotions. We go there as part of a congregation, as part of a group, and we get some of the uplift we need from fellow worshipers.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings, the university reacted by holding a convocation, by creating a place for people to come together and talk about God. In an essay on about the tragedy, religion correspondent Lauren Green wrote, “So where is God? He is in the prayer vigils. He is in the rivers of tears flowing from everyone affected. He is in the community coming together to offer support to the families. He is at work in the love and strength people are offering each other. God is with us.”

We shouldn’t discount the power of corporate worship to help us when numbing news bombards us. A recent study by a Harvard researcher, in conjunction with a UC San Diego researcher, gives us some evidence in that direction. In 2003, this pair gained access to some old papers found in a storeroom in Framingham, Massachusetts. They were the handwritten records of 5,124 male and female subjects from a heart study done in that community in 1948, looking for risk factors for heart trouble. It wasn’t so much the heart information that caught the attention of the latter-day researchers, but rather some clerical information on the forms. The original Framingham researchers had noted each participant’s close friends, colleagues and family members simply so that if the participant moved away, the researchers could contact the friends to locate the participant.

Looking at that information, the 2003 researchers realized it could be transformed into a detailed map of the human relationships of those folks. Two-thirds of the adults in Framingham had been included in the first phase of the study, and their children and grandchildren had participated in subsequent phases. Thus, almost the entire social network of the community was chronicled in these old records. It took nearly five years to input all that data into a computer format, but once that was done; the current researchers were able to construct detailed diagrams of the social networks of the Framingham residents. As they began tracking those people as an interconnected network rather than as a mass of individuals, they discovered that the social networks influenced the behavior of the people involved, even as the participants spread out over a larger geographic area.

Because the study had kept track of the subjects’ weight, the current researchers first analyzed obesity trends. They found that in 1948, fewer than 10 percent of the residents were obese. By 1985, 18 percent were, and today, 40 percent are. That equates with national trends, but looking at it from the social-network angle, the researchers realized that while the whole group discovered fast food at the same time, the social-network effect was what caused obesity to begin to spread, almost like a virus. In other words, when your friends change their eating habits, it’s likely that you will, too.

They found a similar trajectory with smoking. In the early ’70s, 65 percent of Framingham residents between the ages of 40 and 49 smoked regularly. But by 2001, only 22 percent did. The researchers found that friends and family had a positive influence, and that people quit together.

Both eating habits and smoking are behaviors, but the researchers went further and found that such things as happiness are also influenced by our social networks. Because the original study asked people to describe their moods, the latter research showed that essentially, happy people have happy friends and unhappy people have unhappy friends. In other words, gloom is contagious, but so is joy.

It doesn’t take much thought to apply that same dynamic to people who worship together. One thing that helps us maintain hope when soul-numbing bad news is all around us is that we’re coming before God in company with others who share that hope.

So it’s no wonder that in the eternal age to come, those gathered around God’s throne aren’t described one by one but as an uncountable multitude. They grew to be so many because they were already following Jesus in company with each other when they were on this side of eternity.

There have been enough awful tragedies caused by somebody with a grudge, or paranoia or evil in his heart, or a desire to get even or whatever, that we assume similar things will continue to happen from time to time in some place in our society. Evil is real, sin rages in people’s hearts, madness descends, despair begets chaos.

Further, there’s no guarantee that we or our loved ones might not someday be among the victims.

But standing here among the people of God, in the place of worship, we can sense the truth: that good is stronger than evil, that there is something — something — that cannot be taken from us because God has given it to us. And furthermore, we together know that nothing — nothing — can separate us from the love of God.

It’s that knowledge that helps us not tilt when bad things happen.
Let us pray.
O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech You for all sorts and conditions of mankind; that You would be pleased to make Your ways known to them, Your saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for Your holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by the Holy Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.
Finally, we commend to Your fatherly goodness all those who are in any way afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; [especially N.]; that it may please You to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. We all this, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.