I must confess that I listen to sirens somewhat differently these days. For much of my life, sirens were rare intrusion into otherwise sonically subdued settings. The dairy farm in central Delaware where I was born, the small town in south Arkansas where I grew up, the farming country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I finished high school and went to college, and even the quaint village of Princeton where I went to seminary: for the most part, these were relatively quiet places. Once in a while I’d see a fire truck headed to a fire or a police car headed to an accident or an ambulance headed to a heart attack victim, but not often.
Sirens and I became much better acquainted when I moved to the south side of Chicago to begin my PhD studies at the University of Chicago. Located in Hyde Park, a relatively secure enclave within one of Chicago’s most economically depressed and violent areas, the University of Chicago employs one of the nation’s largest private police forces. During my time in Chicago, I became acutely aware that many deaths on the South Side hadn’t come at the end of life or from natural causes. Sirens had been involved. Even so, they had mostly been silenced by the time they arrived in my neighborhood.
The fact that sirens and I weren’t better acquainted marks me as a child of significant cultural privilege. For people like me, the world has always been relatively safe. Nowadays, however, the sirens are sounding closer to home. Violence is no longer keeping its distance, which is why the killings in San Bernardino have been so unsettling. A husband-and-wife team of ISIS sympathizers killed 14 and wounded 17 of his coworkers at a department of environmental health holiday party. My sense is that lots of people across this nation have felt unsettled by this latest outbreak of violence, including many who never had to give safety much thought.
The poet Yehuda Amichai, who died five years ago, was born in 1924 to Orthodox Jewish parents living in Germany. He went on to become one of the most celebrated Israeli poets of the twentieth century. One of his most compelling poems is titled “The Diameter Of The Bomb.” In it, Amichai writes:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.
The circles of time in which we live and move begin with us, the poet says — with our lives: the places we inhabit, the people we love, and the things we do. But experiences of pain enlarge the circles considerably, eventually expanding to include the entire world. A 12-inch bomb ends up having a diameter of infinite measure and thus a destructive power of infinite magnitude. You and I can feel the impact of a bomb from half a world away and a bullet from a continent away. On these terms, violence will never keep its distance.
The truth is that as long as violence exists in the world, we probably shouldn’t keep our distance from it. Otherwise we would remain oblivious to human suffering and impervious to human pain. In our worship and in our spiritual practice, we seek to move beyond our private concerns to feel connected to something greater than ourselves — the whole of which we are a small, yet vital part. If we could fully feel this experience, we would feel connected to everything: all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible.
This feeling of being connected to everything is what I call the experience of the divine — the experience of God. And everything includes experiences of pain. Feeling the pain of the world is essential to our spiritual practice. If we don’t feel the world’s pain, then it’s not spiritual practice, but rather the practice of denial or delusion. Bearing witness to what’s present, we open our hearts to the pain of the world and wrap our arms around its brokenness. As the poet William Blake once put it, “Every one of every clime that prays in deep distress, prays to the human form divine.”
In addition to the distraught families of the victims in San Bernardino being in deep distress, millions of Muslims who live and worship among us are also in deep distress. Polls consistently show that most Americans know very little about Islam and have no acquaintances that are Muslim. Given the anti-Muslim threats being unleashed today, even among some of our candidates for president, I can understand why Muslims feel afraid.
Especially now, you and I need not to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of those around us. We need to bear witness to the grief of those who suffer loss and the anxiety of those who fear violence. We need to offer comfort.
But that’s only the beginning of our work. As we bear witness to what is present, we also need to bear witness to what’s possible — the potential of the human longing for community and the promise of the human quest for justice. Things will be set right in this world only if we set them right. As Blake insists, mercy has a human heart, love takes human shape, and peace wears human garb. Where these dwell, Blake says, “There God is dwelling too.”
The next time you hear a siren, breathe a prayer for those who are suffering or in pain. Then look around for someone to help. Use the siren as a reminder of your sacred calling. Be kind to others, and take courage from others. Cherish those you love, and treasure all that is good. Embrace all that is possible.
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