My part of the country has been in the news as early-March tornadoes tore across the southern Midwest. I live north of all the storm damage, but parts of southern Indiana—in my diocese—are reeling from the destruction of the storm, and our interim rector is from the Diocese of Kentucky, which is also dealing with storm damage. These storms left trails of death and destruction across states. (For readers interested in helping with disaster relief efforts, there’s some information on the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis’s Facebook page, and the American Red Cross is active in relief efforts).
Facing news like this is always difficult for me. I can drop food or clothing at a donation site, or send a check to ERD. God knows I pray. When it comes down to it, though, I’m faced with a distinct inability to do anything that will make much of a difference. Even if I emptied the measly contents of my checking account, even if I packed up and drove to Henryville to find some way to help, people still lost belongings, homes, and loved ones. I can’t change that. And there will be another disaster to reckon with next month, next week, tomorrow.
Don’t worry: I’m not going to try to tackle the problem of evil in a single blog post. I’ll save that for another day. Lent, though, is a fitting time to think about death, pain, and the bad things that happen. What does it mean to be a Christian in a world where bad things happen?
It’s difficult to be with people in pain, as my priest reminded in her homily yesterday morning. It’s difficult because sometimes things are not okay. Sometimes bad things happen to really great people and there is no silver lining, escape hatch, or happy ending. Sometimes everything shatters, and we have to believe—“hoping against hope” in the word of yesterday’s Romans reading—that God will be there to pick up the pieces, and to put them together into something even more beautiful.
Where I sit in the choir—on the Epistle side, in the chancel (how’s that for fancy Episcopalian vocab?)—when I’m looking straight ahead I’m not looking at the altar, but at the organ, the pulpit, and the West-facing windows. My church building is old, and has some really beautiful stained glass. The jeweled rainbow of glass pieces—cobalt, violet, gold, scarlet—fit together to create light-catching pictures—St. Cecilia with her organ, the Spirit-as-dove descending, flowers and hands and intricate patterns.
Sometimes, things come together at just the right moment. As I sat listening to that homily and letting my gaze wash over the familiar patterns of glass pieces, I thought—the glass has to be broken.
Stained glass, in its un-windowed form, comes in panes like any other glass. It has to be cut—broken—to be leaded into a patterned window like those that dapple my church with rainbow-colored sunlight. In other words, all those magnificent windows are really just shattered glass, masterfully arranged.
Panes of colored glass may seem nice enough as they are (in fact, the “stained glass” in my childhood church consists of nothing more than large squares and rectangles of pastel-tinted glass), but when they’re broken into pieces and soldered together they’re transformed into works of art. This is a violent process—cutting and soldering. The artist, too, experiences the violence. Glass doesn’t cut neatly; it splinters into shards that cut and pierce and burrow into unprotected hands. Lead, the traditional metal for soldering, is poisonous. The creation of stained glass is messy, painful work, but the results are stunning.
There are no platitudes to give those who lost everything in last week’s tornadoes—or to anyone else reeling from loss or disappointment—and it’s hard to imagine anything beautiful rising out of the ruins, out of the ashes. With Abraham, though, I will try to hope against hope for something like stained glass.
Will you join me?