Sunday, May 7, 2023 | Julie Stuckey
As I write this, the story of a senseless killing in Cleveland, Texas dominates the local news. By the time you read this, it may have faded from the never relenting stream of tragedy that is the modern news cycle, but for whatever reason, this one hit me harder than most. Maybe, it’s the needless brutality – a noise complaint transformed into the execution style murder of five. Maybe, it’s that a child close in age to my son met his untimely end with a two year old sibling wondering where her brother and mother went. Maybe, I’m reflecting the emotion of the Houston Chronicle reporters assigned to cover the story, who concluded their front page article from today (Tuesday, May 2, 2023) with a poignant sadness.
Sonia settled in Cleveland because the greenery reminded her of her hometown of La Misión, in the Comoyagua region of Honduras, her brother, Ramiro, said.
She loved the peace and quiet. Her home was an oasis.
She just wanted to get her newborn back to sleep.
(John Wayne Ferguson, Matt deGrood, Claire Partain and Sarah Smith, “Mass shooter still at large; police response questioned.” Houston Chronicle. May 2, 2023.)
Sonia and four others, including a 9 year old boy died solely for the crime of requesting a neighbor to cease firing his rifle at 11:30pm, while an baby tried to sleep. I’ve been obsessed with following the news; since, I was a child. You learn to harden your heart, but it doesn’t always work. Our broken world contains a lot of pain. It’s enough, sometimes, to make one wish for a heavenly home, where all of that ends.
This passage from John 14 played a big role in inspiring an entire genre of music. This picture of a house with many rooms, in the hands of the writers of Gospel Music, got transformed into a mansion just over the hilltop with streets made of gold. Dr. Sandra Richter, in her first session of the Epic of Eden study, quickly points out that this image has little to do with what Jesus intended to communicate, at least visually. Personally, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage in mocking the Gospel standards. “I’ll Fly Away,” “Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “Victory in Jesus,” “Sweet Belluah Land,” and their ilk project an image of the faith that communicates a specific of obsession with how much better life will be in Heaven, when we’re dead. They’re not wrong. However, they leave little room for the goodness of God that we can know in the here and now. Also, I didn’t grow up with the music, have no nostalgia for it, and often had it force fed on me in church Hymn Sings that stretched on for hours and, as pastor, from which I couldn’t escape.
These songs come from a version of Christianity forged on the American frontier. The communities who gave birth to these songs and their authors dealt with unimaginable hardship. More than a hundred years on from this, with a rural landscape dotted with chain restaurants, Walmarts, and truck stops, we cannot conceptualize how difficult clawing an existence from the wilderness must have been – to only have to eat what you can grow, hunt, or trade for, to live in constant fear of attack from animals, fellow humans, or severe weather, to know the randomness of death in a world with no hospitals, no antibiotics, few doctors, and an abundance for risks. They looked around, saw little comfort in this life, expected little to change, struggled through working the land season after season, and focused in on the part of the faith where things get better in the next plane of existence, that “sweet by and by,” that “one glad morning,” that “mansion just over the hilltop.” You can’t blame them, and as I sit here, reflecting on the randomness of tragedy, perhaps, this is me writing my own version of “I’ll Fly Away.”
John 14:1-14 lands square in the middle of Jesus preparing his friends for tragedy. The Last Supper, in John, goes on for many chapters, John 13-17. It forms a farewell discourse. Jesus knows that the sand in his hourglass will quickly run out, and on the night before his death, he tries help his friends cram for the upcoming test of faith. Into this context, he speaks of forging room in his father’s house.
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ (John 14:1-14 NRSV)
In tragedy, we find comfort in this image because that’s Christ original intent for these words. In a world of random tragedy, in a hard scrabble existence of frontier life, in a modernity of pain streamed into our eyeballs 24/7/365, we someday will have a different existence entirely, at peace in the house of our divine creator.