Hope for shattered pieces

Quincy Worthington, pastor at Highland Park Presbyterian Church north of Chicago, shares an honest reflection after the 2022 mass shooting at the Highland Park July 4 parade. Is there hope for life when we feel like shards of glass?

broken glass

Photo by Paul Kapischka on Unsplash

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
Cain said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?”
The Lord said, “What did you do? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” — Genesis 4:9-11

“Illinois has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation and still these things happen. I just don’t know what the answer is…” I told my mom from across the kitchen table. I had no idea that 20 minutes later my youngest daughter would text me saying not to worry. She’s safe. A shooting happened at the parade, but they were safe.

A shooting? Did she mistake fireworks? Maybe a blank from a parade drill team? A car backfire?

Immediately, texts began to flood my phone. Another shooting. This time just blocks from my house. Seven dead. 48 injured.

I began to hear words from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s “Pedagogy of Conflict” in my heart:

“When I was a child, I learnt to count: one, two, three, four, five. But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count

One life
One life
One life
One life
One life.

Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.”

When things like cleaning a room seem overwhelming, I’ve heard people say to break it into smaller chunks. Eat an elephant one bite at a time. So I tried that on the drive home from my parents — to break this unspeakable tragedy down into smaller bits. The pain was overwhelming.

Instead of some abstract number like six or a half-dozen, it became the faces of individuals I probably didn’t know but have most likely seen around. One person just like me with people who love them, things they care about, callings to fulfill, plans to live out. But visualizing the loss of one unique, individual, child of God seven times felt so much more painful. It cuts so much deeper than what could be just some nameless, faceless small crowd of people.

I’m told the shooter went to preschool in our church when he was younger. There was a time when he was just a little boy like my son once was. I could speculate and make up all sorts of stories of what happened or why he did what he did on July 4. They’d all be guesses based on little to no information. I don’t find that particularly helpful at these times. But I do find myself wondering.

As he looked down from his perch, do you think God whispered in his ear, like he did to Cain, “What did you do? The voice of your kin’s blood is crying me from the ground” (Genesis 4). Do those who dehumanize others to the point of targets ever have a moment of clarity and realize what they’ve just done? Is that pain so great that they go mad, or do they just bury it to the point of never seeing? Everything just seems so broken when I look at it. The shooter. The victims. The families. My community. Our society. Me.

In the wake of it, in the quiet of this evening, it all feels so horribly broken and shattered. I wonder if there are no longer any pieces to put back together or if they’ve just been ground to dust.

It’s usually at this point that religious folk like me will say less than helpful things based on very flimsy theology. You know, things like: “Everything happens for a reason even if we don’t understand it,” “God just needed a new angel,” or, my personal favorite line of utter bullshit: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” If we could handle it, we wouldn’t need God or Christ or grace or each other. And to be perfectly honest, I can’t handle it anymore. It’s all so broken to me — ground to dust.

As all those texts came in, my mom, who’s facing a health crisis that may cut her life tragically short, looked at me from across the table. She saw how hard I was trying to hold together all this fear, all this brokenness – fear of losing her, fear for my family, fear for my community, fear for our country, fear for my own heart – and she walked over to me, put her arms around me and simply said, “God is there. God is with those people helping them through the struggle.” And somehow it seemed so honest, so sincere from her that I didn’t doubt it.

She told me a friend had told her the same thing when her uncle was murdered, and it was the only thing that seemed to bring her comfort. I don’t think I would have believed it if anyone else would have told me this. But she was right. Her words slightly dulled the sharp edges of the broken parts.

As I remember what my mom said on the morning of July 4, I remember I’ve never believed that God protects us from suffering. It’s an integral part of life that I must accept. God doesn’t protect us from these evils. God doesn’t shield us from brokenness. But God does support us through it. God does help through our hands and hearts. God does somehow hear our prayers — maybe especially those prayers that come from our blood crying out from the ground.

I have to believe that right now. And I do believe that right now; in my heart-of-hearts, I do. Because it seems clear to me that God’s love and grace come pouring out in our moments of greatest brokenness. The bread is broken in communion for more grace. Seeds are broken for new life. Christ was broken for resurrection.

And so I cling to that truth — that just when it seems as though everything is broken so badly that it turns to dust, God shows up to do something beyond expectation and belief. Somehow in brokenness, God brings healing. And I believe that God does that through ordinary people like you and me.

God takes the pieces of our broken hearts, no matter how small, and fits them together to make things whole. So maybe we let down our walls, and we show each other the jagged and sharp edges of our brokenness — the really painful parts. Maybe we see if our shards of glass can fit together in a way that brings about the world, the life, the kingdom that God intends for us all. Maybe we pray, we lament, and we get to work.

I think if we do that, we will find that our brokenness isn’t our weakness, and it isn’t something to hide. Rather, our brokenness can be our greatest source of strength if we share it with each other. Because when we do that, God somehow mends those pieces together for our healing and wholeness in ways that can only come about if we’re together.