People in my profession are expected to be good with words. We’re expected to come up with the right thing to say in moments of crisis and tragedy. A magic formula that will mend all brokenness and soothe all pain.
Kenneth Clarke is dead. And there’s nothing I can say that will make that okay. There are no words that can erase the fact that this is not how it’s supposed to go. Healthy, enthusiastic, committed, kind, generous, caring young men are not supposed to die tragically, suddenly like this.
This is not how the story is supposed to go, and the feelings we have of shock, disbelief, and anger on top of our grief are testament to the tragic nature of what we’ve experienced together this week.
II. THE WHY
At times like this, there is a tendency to try to make sense out of the senseless, to try to ascribe some cosmic purpose to the tragedy we’re going through, to find some reason that will help us to feel that there is a plan, a purpose for our suffering.
Many in my profession, and many outside of it, are inclined to say trite, well-meaning things like, “It’s all part of God’s plan,” or “God needed another angel,” or “He’s in a better place now.”
There’s a word for those simplistic takes: bull…jive.
Even worse, none of those sentiments really helps. If it is all part of God’s plan, then that plan seems to be poorly constructed. Could not God have effected the divine purpose without such tragedy? Could not God find some other way to recruit for the angelic chorus than to snatch away our Kenneth? Could not God make this place better by allowing Kenneth to remain in it?
The great twentieth century preacher and theologian William Sloan Coffin faced this very issue when his own son died in a tragic car accident. He was confronted with people who kept offering him trite platitudes. He said,
The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
Never do we know enough. And coming up with easy explanations or trite rationales not only doesn’t help, it compounds our suffering.
This is a point made by author and pastor Rob Bell in reflecting on the story of the Book of Job. In that story, as Job and his friends argue over the explanation for the sorrow and suffering that has befallen Job, God appears and rebukes them all for making their great pronouncements without any actual knowledge. In the end, Job admits that he didn’t know what he was talking about and remains silent.
Bell points out that one of the oft-overlooked lessons of this story is that there is the anguish of the thing that’s happening to us, and then there’s the anguish that happens because we think we can understand. That’s a pain that’s self-inflicted.
And so, we are not here to claim to understand. We are not here to compound our anguish in this tragedy. It is enough that we are suffering.
This shouldn’t happen this way; and our anguished cries to God in our pain are powerful and authentic prayers that need to be heard, and not smoothed over with trite sentiment or easy answers.
Today is Easter Sunday in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is the day that Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is the day that hope conquers despair, that life conquers death, that love conquers all.
But it is important to understand that the Easter story itself does exist without context. Prior to that Easter Sunday, there was a lot of suffering. There was betrayal, denial, rejection, suffering, and death. In short, all the brokenness of the world was on display before ever there was the glimmer of something else.
In the story of Easter as found in the Christian scriptures, all four gospels note that it was very early in the morning when the women came to the tomb and found it empty. In John’s gospel, it’s recorded that it was still dark when Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away.
Among all of the possible reflections that one might make about these stories, there is one that comes to mind at this moment: that Resurrection—victory over death, despair, and fear—took place while it was still dark. Easter was not known in the glory of the bright sunshine, but in the darkness.
For us here today, in the darkness of our grief and sense of loss, this is a hopeful word. For it means that even now in our grief the power of newness of life and resurrection is present. It is not in moments of bright lights and glory that God is found in our lives, but here in the darkness God is already at work.
In the Christian tradition of which Kenneth was a part, we understand that the dead are in God’s keeping and will be raised to new life in a Resurrection of the Dead. The Christian proclamation of Jesus’ victory is translated into hope for us all, that we, too, shall share in that new life. In the words of the old funerary rite: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.”
And so, in the Christian tradition, we can trust in God to raise Kenneth to new life, in a glorified body, even as his earthly flesh failed from the consequences of a traumatic injury to brain and body. But there is something else important for us to remember: there is a way that we can participate in Kenneth’s resurrection even now.
For we here can embody Kenneth for the world. Everyone here knows what a special person he was because everyone here was made to feel special by him. The tremendous outpouring of love and affection on display here is not an accident. And it’s not because he had four soccer jerseys he really liked to wear, nor is it because he kept his room in a messy state, nor is it because he would eat almost anything of the Indian food that Raj’s family would send down—even the eggplant.
The love and affection found in this space and on this campus was because of who Kenneth was and what he lived for.
He made so many people feel loved, so many people feel special. So, if we are to give new life to Kenneth, let us embody that love. Let us become Kenneth’s arms reaching out in compassion and comfort to others.
He was enthusiastic about being here at American. He loved this school and this city. He loved what he was studying and dived in to his studies with a passion that was inspiring. So, if we are to give Kenneth new life, let us embody that passion, reclaim the purpose that first set us upon our work and brought us to this place.
And yet, for all his passion, he still attempted to live a life of balance—making sure to have time for his friends, to enjoy life, to experience this city of ours. So, if we are to give Kenneth new life, let us embody that balance, and live lives of wholeness never neglecting the relationships that make our life’s work meaningful.
He was selfless. As his brother Aaron said the other day, Kenneth understood selflessness as the very definition of “goodness.” And so if we would give new life to Kenneth, let us embody that selflessness. Let us give of ourselves as he would have so that in us there will be resurrection.
Kenneth brought people together. Friends and family have remarked that Kenneth had a way of connecting different social circles that would never have found their way together otherwise. He had an insistence on including people from outside our comfort zones. “If you want to be friends with me,” he’d say, “You have to be friends with so-and-so.” He was ever drawing the circle wider. And so, if we would give new life to Kenneth, let us embody that passion for building bridges, for bringing people together, and in us there will be resurrection.
In a few moments, we’re going to hear even more about Kenneth from his family and friends. As we hear those words, we can take the opportunity to reflect once more on who he was, and how we might live that out in our own lives for the sake of Kenneth and the world.
This is going to be hard for a while. Someone who meant so much to our community has been taken from us and it’s not fair. Our hearts are broken. We are hurting.
And all of that is okay. I am not here to tell you that you should be feeling any other way than what is on your heart to feel. That’s where we are. Here in the dark, in the night of our grief.
But it is here in the darkness, in the deep night, that resurrection begins.
It is here in this place, in the dark night of the soul, that we can hold each other, comfort each other, take care of each other, and love each other. In so doing, building the very kind of community that Kenneth sought to build everywhere he went.
It is here in this place, in the shadow of our own grief that we can commit to living out a life that is worthy of Kenneth’s memory. The life that he embodied—a life of compassion, mercy, justice, selflessness, community, and love.
We can live that compassion, mercy, justice, selflessness, community, and love out in our lives. And thus, as we trust his eternal fate to the care of a loving and gracious God, we can ensure that Kenneth continues to live on in our midst, blessing the world and this community in our very own alleluia.
Psalm 130 • Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
Revelation 21: 1–7 • Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. Those who emerge victorious will inherit these things. I will be their God, and they will be my sons and daughters.”
John 14: 1–4, 18–19, 25–27 • [Jesus said,] “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.”
“I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.
“I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.”