Transforming Pain

This week, once again, we experienced a horrific act of violence on innocent victims enjoying companionship and music.  Drawing from a stock pile of guns, many that were modified to function as an automatic weapon, the shooter intended to harm as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. Perhaps you know someone who was there or who might have been there. Perhaps you, too, are sick and tired of these rampages, of the layers upon layers of violence in our world on both the individual and global levels.

Where do you hold these traumas?  Personally, I hold them in my gut, as if I’ve been physically kicked in the stomach with each event, which in a very real sense I have been.  Harm to anyone harms all of us. The violence begets violence and so the cycle continues throughout time.  There is more to say about violence, the way we glorify it as a culture and perpetuate it by failing to do the work of facing pain and healing the impact of what’s been done, but I want to go a different direction today.  I want to go personal.

Starting with Dale. Dale was my high school English teacher, mentor and advisor. I can remember studying Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in her room at Episcopal High School of Jacksonville on the St. John’s River. She recognized that despite outward success, I was struggling with the unresolved pain of my Dad’s suicide when I was twelve.  She encouraged me to face that pain, to have the courage to allow love to transform it.  We have always connected when I visited Jacksonville, becoming friends along the way.

Dale rose in the school’s leadership over the years, and in the process helped me see first-hand what it meant to be an effective, compassionate leader.  Ultimately, she became head of the school whose heart she embodied. When people came with a problem, she would offer them a river rock, towards the conversation’s end, with a word written on it—words like hope, creativity, inspire, courage, love.  “Hold this until you are ready to let it go, then return it or pass it forward.”

Until March 6, 2012 that is.  On that day Shane, a teacher she had had to dismiss returned to the school, arriving in her office unannounced.  The person with whom she was meeting ran out the door as Shane pulled an assault rifle out of the guitar case he carried, but Dale, my beloved Dale, was shot and killed before he turned the weapon on himself.  She was 63 years old.  I can feel the horror, the disbelief, the kick, still to this day.  Three thousand people, myself included, gathered on the campus to honor her life. And there for the taking were thousands of river rocks, with words of love and hope written on them by teachers and students in the days following her death.

Dale knew darkness, and yet every day she chose—and inspired others to choose—a life dedicated to healing, joy and love.  I believe she did her best to encourage Shane to face whatever demons tormented him. She didn’t get to offer him something solid that day—an ordinary river rock lovingly etched with love and hope—to help provide an anchor in the storm, but she would have.  And her life inspires to this day those of us privileged to be touched by her love and her encouragement.

River rocks may not feel like much with so much pain and suffering.  But we need all the help we can get to choose healing, love and joy in the face of violence and heartbreak, to do the work within the darkness hidden in our own hearts so that we may break the cycle of violence, one person at a time.

As many of you know, we have river rocks around St. Simon’s. They have been quiet, hidden symbols of hope, healing and love all along. But I realize I’d like to have some rocks visible with hope to share as tangible reminders for myself and others to share in this most essential work, as partners with God in being healers in the world. This Sunday, I will have river rocks and markers available if you feel moved to share in this work, either to take one home or to make available St. Simon’s.

Pastor Elizabeth