The other night when I was invited to lead prayers at a Chuukese wake, I thought I knew what to expect. First of all, the viewing was not for a single person, but for two young men–first cousins, as it happens, who died violent deaths. The two youths, one of them just 18 and the other in his early 20s, died of gunshot wounds to the head, after another young man, who was hit in the face with a slingshot, caught up with them and killed them both. Who started the trouble? The shooter said that one of the Chuukese did. Who knows? Maybe the court will clarify all this in the course of time. But that evening my job was not to determine responsibility for the crime; it was to comfort the families of these two young men.
The family and friends assembled in the chapel did the obligatory opening hymn, and then sang another between the two readings. The first reading grappled with the question of why some die at such a tender age, while the second explained that the day of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is definitively past. I tried to explore both themes in my extempore homily. The service usually ends with a blessing, but when I asked that the coffins be opened, the crying began. Not the distinctive wailing that we hear at some of these funerals, but quiet sobbing–from children and adults who knew that they would never see these two young men grow to a ripe old age.
I’ll never forget the words of the mother during a private talk a few months earlier: “What God has given, he can take back again,” she said. “But he will give even more in the end.” Her faith was inspirational for me.
You see what I mean, then, when I said in my Christmas letter that so often we can only stand by helplessly in the face of tragedy? And that’s not to mention the three others who died in the prime of life over the past few days. Or the older woman who felt that her family had abandoned her in her illness. Or the young girl, a victim of abuse from her step-father, who often considers taking her life.
It’s a new year, but some things never change. There are plenty of people in this part of the world waiting for the light to shine.