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When the Words Don't Reach

When Lin-Manuel Miranda sat down to write the song in Hamilton that dealt with the death of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton's eldest son, he found himself unable to come up with any words. What words could describe the pain felt at such a time? It was then he realized that that was the song. And so the lyrics began to flow:

There are moments that the words don't reach/ There is suffering too terrible to name/ You hold your child as tight as you can/ And push away the unimaginable/ The moments when you're in so deep/ It feels easier to just swim down

A lot of us have been feeling that way. There has been so much to deal with, so much to process. These past weeks have been weeks of tragedy and heartbreak-and in a seemingly relentless tide.

The deaths of so many in Orlando. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The shooting of police officers Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, and Brent Thompson in Dallas, and Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerald, Brad Garafola in Baton Rouge.

Weeks of violence and grief in a nation beset by anxiety over its racial relations. And in a world increasingly defined by violence and fear.

For we had already witnessed the spring bombings in Brussels and Lahore. Terrorist attacks in Istanbul and in Baghdad.

And then there was Nice.

And then there was the coup in Turkey.

And then… and then…

All of this coming against the backdrop of instability in Europe and a Britain voting to leave an organization that seemed to represent the triumph of common humanity over tribalism and nationalism and division.

And behind all of that is a national election raising anxiety levels to unprecedented heights.

One thing coming after another in a seemingly relentless tide of sorrow, violence, anxiety, injustice, and heartbreak. And the cumulative effect is an emotional buffeting that renders us dumbstruck, speechless, looking for something, anything to say.

Now, it is my professional inclination to address problems by talking—by speaking words—but it is clear that together these are the moments that the "words don't reach" and it can feel easier to "just swim down."

And so we have not gathered here to use words as a magic elixir, as a salve that can cure the heartbreak we feel, the anxiety that shakes us, the sorrow we bear. There is nothing that I, or any of us, can say that will fix all of it and make it all better.

Nor are we here to use words to provide simple answers, to provide simple explanations for what is happening in our world. Beyond the complex explanations involving societal, sociological, economic, and structural cause-and-effect, there is no simple answer for why the world should be this way. And so we will not insult the memory of those who have died or the grief of those who mourn by attempting to provide simple answers, either theological or ideological.

Instead, we are here to create a space for our grief, our sorrows, and our anxieties to be expressed. In that space, we will use our words—and our silence—simply to express our pain, our sorrow, and our hope. Together. In community.

Some will pray for all those on this campus and elsewhere grieving those who have died. Some will pray for racial reconciliation, for an end to systemic injustice and oppression, for a turn away from violence as the preferred solution to our anger, and for an end to fear of the other, both as a cynical tool of our politics and as the reality in which so many communities encounter each other.

And some will just want to sit with the feeling and just be.

And in this time, as we reflect on what has been, and what we should do, we can also reflect on who we are.

The founders of American University gave us some of our greatest values: service, commitment to openness, justice. One of those values that has helped to make AU such a special place is the rejection of the binary thinking of "either/or" and the embracing of the "both/and." We as a university community are not bound to having to decide whether we support Black Lives Matter activists or police officers. We needn't choose between supporting the Black and minority communities' demands for justice, dignity, and equality and the legitimate aims of law enforcement. For us, it is a both/and.

We needn't buy into the divisions that seem to be tearing at our societal fabric. Or the divisions that are used to carve up the world into warring tribes and factions. We are a both/and people.

Our former University Chaplain, the Rev. Joe Eldridge, points out that in any movement for social action and change, anger can get you going, but it cannot sustain you. Only love can do that. In the present case, love of both white police officer and Black teenager. Love of the immigrant and of the factory worker feeling lost in the global economy. Love of the Syrian refugee and the one frightened by the terror she reads in the news every day. Love of the LGBT activist calling for justice and dignity and of the person of traditionalist faith struggling to make sense of a rapidly changing world.

It is only in our willingness to adopt the ethic of love-not a "soft" love that ignores the calls for justice, but a bold love that embodies that justice-that any real progress can be made. Without this ethic—an ethic at the heart of our university character—no meaningful change can occur.

We here, you here gathered together, this beloved American University community is, on this day, love embodied. Because you have come here to bear this pain together. Black,White, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian and Pacific Islander. Religious and non-religious. Believer and skeptic. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, cisgender, and straight. Liberal and conservative. Democrat and Republican. You are here. Together. In community. And that in itself is a powerful statement of the both/and, a powerful statement of love that can be the foundation of how it is that this community participates in the healing of the world.

So in a few moments we will create a space for your words and your silence. We may still be in a moment that the "words don't reach" but note well: that by coming here in all our diversity, in all our pain, in all our brokenness, in all our differences, we have already spoken loudly and clearly. And made a statement of beloved community that is capable of bringing a measure of healing to our broken hearts and of transforming the very world itself.

—Rev. Mark Schaefer
Interim University Chaplain

Word cloud of sermon text

Chapel Service Meditations

This meditation was delivered by our interim University Chaplain at an Interfaith Service of Reflection and Prayer on July 22, 2016. (Image courtesy

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Words of Sacred Tradition

Texts Used in the Interfaith Chapel Service

Qur'an, Surah 23, vv. 49-53 • And We verily gave Moses the Scripture, that haply they might go aright. And We made the son of Mary and his mother a portent, and We gave them refuge on a height, a place of flocks and watersprings. O ye messengers! Eat of the good things, and do right. Lo! I am Aware of what ye do. And lo! this your religion is one religion and I am your Lord, so keep your duty unto Me. But they (mankind) have broken their religion among them into sects, each group rejoicing in its tenets.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11 • We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again,as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. "