It’s been a trying week for Blackburn’s Chapel. While we mourned with the rest of the world over the Boston Marathon explosions, we’ve also encountered sickness and death in our own church family.
I’ve watched as people on social media and in the Boston Community have struggled to figure out how to respond to tragedy. And specifically for us, how does the church respond to tragedy? It seems to me that our response is the same as our usual work: we look for Christ.
I’ve come across this Mr. Rogers quote frequently the past couple of days. He says, “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Now, we should never confuse, “look for the helpers” with “look on the bright side.” Look-on-the-bright-side is a lie. It tells us that our fear and grief and pain are bad and that we should try to will ourselves out of suffering. This is not only impossible, it just puts another exhausting task on those whose energy is already spent grieving. But “look for the helpers” means something different. “Look for the helpers” means the same thing as “look for Christ.”
There are two things I look for when I’m looking for the helpers, or for Christ: Prayer and food. These are not exhaustive. Other ways we help are by being silent, by lamenting, by joining in the grief of others. There are also specific tasks that come along with specific tragedies such as giving blood during the Boston Marathon explosions (This is my blood, poured out for you and for many). But two ways that the church should always respond is through prayer and food.
Prayer is fairly self-explanatory. When we look for Christ-when we cry out for Christ in the midst of panic or pain, even when we cry, “My God, why have you forsaken us?”-we are praying. We are looking for Christ.
But food is often overlooked or undervalued. It is no accident that one of two Methodist sacraments (Baptism and Communion) revolves around a meal. In the Jewish tradition, when there is a death, the family sits shiva for a week, together in one place. The community is in charge of supplying the first meal after the funeral and often will organize in order to supply the meals for the family for the week.
This isn’t unheard of in the Christian tradition, either. There are whole websites dedicated to helping organize a meal schedule for a family that just had a death (also births). But meals are significant ways to be in solidarity with those mourning.
Food reminds us of our humanity. It reminds us of our bodies. When we cook food for someone else we are saying to them, we remember together that we are all human, that we must be sustained by food, that we must be sustained by the earth. That we rely on something outside of ourselves for our life. When we cook for each other we say to each other, rely on me for a little while. Rest and allow me to help nourish your body. It is a way of connecting our bodies to the earth and to each other. In times of sickness and death, we need to be reminded that we stand in solidarity with each other through our bodies, even when they betray us.
But it also reminds us what Augustine said about communion: “Receive what you are;” the body and blood of Christ. Food connects us with God. Christ invites us to share a meal together in communion; to take and eat so that we might be knit together as the body of Christ. This meal orients us not only toward Christ, but toward each other. And when we share in a meal with those who are suffering, we are echoing the meal Christ shared with his beloved disciples. We are saying, take, eat, this is my solidarity with you and this is my love for you.
So when you are asked to “look for the helpers,” you are not being asked to look on the bright side. You are being asked to look for those who are throwing themselves into the midst of the mess. The ones who are saying, I am here in solidarity with you, I am here offering my body and blood (sometimes literally) in solidarity with you. If we teach ourselves and our communities to look for the helpers in national tragedies, then we’ll have a good idea of what to do when they happen to those next door to us or sitting in the pew next to us. Maybe then, when we are called not only to “look” for the helpers, but to “be” the helpers, we can remember what our sacred meal teaches us: we who are many are one body, for we all partake together.