Long after the winter rains had disappeared and the ground had turned pale and dusty from baking in the desert sun, there was a spot not far from my house that remained dark and moist. Sinking the blade of my shovel into the earth, I discovered wet soil well below the surface. Not good news. I knew the water line to the house ran deep right along this very path, and I knew what I would find once I dug it up: a leak.
So I shut off the water and started excavating, not quite as carefully as an archaeologist unearthing ruins, but with all the same curiosity. It had been 33 years since I had laid this pipe in the ground, and I had only the vaguest of recollections about what I would find.
The problem was a stress crack along the inside of a 90 degree joint, a crack so small that it was hard to spot, but under 60 pounds of pressure sprayed like a geyser.
A stress crack — mix time, pressure, slight movements of the earth, perhaps some manufacturing defects, and eventually the PVC becomes stressed beyond what it can withstand. Under the relentless pressure of the water within the pipe a crack forms, water escapes, and a trickle becomes an artesian well.
I think of Adam Lanza, the mentally disturbed young man who killed children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary school, as suffering from a stress crack. At one time, he was probably a sweet kid, though challenged in ways we can’t imagine by his autism. Autism doesn’t make you murderous. Some other pressures built up in Adam’s life — his parents’ divorce, his mom’s overprotectiveness, burying himself in the world of violent video games. The sum of these somehow shattered his human decency and pushed him into an inexplicable, callous rage towards innocent school children.
We would like to think that we can prevent such horrors by stricter gun laws or increased access to mental health services — and yes, it’s likely that these sorts of legal and medical interventions would reduce the number of blowouts.
But as quickly as we might stop people like Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Eric Harris, Dillon Klebold and Seung-Hui Cho, along come a couple of demented individuals ready to park pressure cookers filled with ball bearings and explosives in the middle of a crowd.
What moves people to such unthinkable disregard for life? What produces such blinding anger and rage that murdering strangers seems a reasonable solution to the fury building up within?
The fact that evil persists despite all our efforts to eradicate it tells me that better laws and more generous social services are only dealing with the surface issues, while missing the deep internal flaws that are at the heart of these murderous outbursts, not to mention all manner of lesser rages and daily insults that we shrug off. The problem is not inadequate laws, but a growing spiritual vacuum at the heart of our modern societies, a vacuum crying out for the God Who Loves Us, a vacuum that we fill instead with modern skepticism and childish platitudes.
Some of Jesus’ best-known but least-considered words are found in the beatitudes from his Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5:3-12, NIV
We can, and should, read these words as a prophetic call to live rooted and driven by God’s love, God’s mercy, and the real hope that God himself and God’s kingdom is present, right now, today, not just in the by and by in heaven someday.
But we should also read Jesus’ words as a prophetic caution that something has gone terribly and irreparably wrong in the world. We are all too often not “poor in spirit” or “meek” but proud, arrogant, self-aggrandizing and narcissistic. Too many of us mourn because friends and loved ones have been maimed or murdered, wounded both in body and spirit by all manner of hurtful acts and words. Think of the young woman who took her own life after being publicly humiliated by the boys who sexually assaulted her.
In God’s abundantly fruitful world millions are hungry because of poverty or war or corrupt governments bent on enriching the privileged at the expense of the powerless. Too many are not “pure in heart” but scheming, deceptive, and manipulative. Too many reject peace in favor of war, whether the small-scale wars of inner city gangs and drug kings whose bullets kill innocent bystanders, or wars fought for political or religious ends.
These things were true in the world that Jesus lived as much as in ours today. History keeps repeating itself, but we keep on blindly putting our hopes in smarter laws, better government programs, a more just society, the eradication of prejudice and inequality, improved job and educational opportunities, more effective medicine and greener technologies, an appeal to our better angels…
Jesus might say that we are trying to fix the world’s ills by wrapping duct tape around a pipe that has sprung ten thousand leaks. What is needed instead is a transformation of who and what we are — through the healing work of Christ in our hearts, making it possible to live out Jesus’ challenge to love one another.
The beatitudes are a call to realism. They urge us to face the fact that without God, everything cracks, crumbles, and leaks.
The beatitudes are also a call to hope, to a promise that life can be better than this, much better. They are a promise that depends not on some ambitious but doomed design to remake society, but on the difficult recognition of our own failings, and the realization that society will only be remade as each one of us confesses our need for God and turns towards him.
The infrastructure is crumbling all around us and we are crumbling with it. The risen Jesus, the healing Son of God, calls us each to himself, promising abundant living in a time of decay; peace, hope, and strength in the midst of the battering stresses of life.
Photo credit: Chris Klugman Photography, Visual Palate