Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Remembering Clem

I wrote the following reflection for the Fall, 2015 volume of the New England Synod publication, Ekklesia. If you would like to read the full version, you can find it here.

(Also, I wrote this prior to the publishing of Harper Lee's book that she didn't want published. I hold that book in no regard.)

Remembering Clem
One of the greatest heroes in American Literature is Atticus Finch, the gentlemanly, southern lawyer from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. What makes Atticus such a unique hero, is that his strength lies not in might, but in the sheer force of his character, composed of thoughtfulness, righteousness, and gentle compassion. In the goodness of Atticus, Harper Lee masterfully puts society, and its penchant for racial inequality, prejudice, fear, and violence, on trial.

I had the great privilege to know someone, who I could best describe, as being the non-fiction version of Atticus Finch. This man was the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, or just Clem, as I and my fellow classmates at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina knew him. Tragically, Clem was murdered, along with eight others, at the church he pastored, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, while leading a Bible Study.

On June 17, when those horrible events happened, it had been just over five years since I’d last seen Clem at our seminary graduation in May, 2010. I hadn’t seen or talked to Clem since then, which was natural, as our friendship wasn’t one that extended beyond the context of the time we spent attending the same seminary. Yet, as the news of the day became more and more real, as Clem was talked about on national news, and as phone calls and Facebook posts made it all more personal, I felt torn apart.

I’ve never felt torn apart before, at least not like this. In the days that have followed Clem’s murder, the painful feeling has been the most precise, most acute emotional pain I’ve ever felt, and it’s because of the violent way Clem died. Whenever I’ve thought about Clem, I have a lasting image in my head of my first conversation with him on a beautiful night in the fall of 2006. I was just starting my first year of seminary, I was a long ways from my home in Minnesota, my wife had recently completed graduate school and was looking for a job, and there were huge Palmetto Bugs everywhere. (Palmetto Bug is a fancy way of saying cockroach.) On that night, after our Theology of Pastoral Care class, Clem and I stood around talking, getting to know each other, and spending time being in no real hurry. I walked away from that conversation, thankful for the companionship, and with great admiration for this beautiful person. 
As I see and hear stories and testimonies about Clem, my memories go back to these images of such a beautiful person, but these same memories are now stained with the reality of the way Clem’s life was violently taken from him. I painfully struggle with how it is even possible for someone to harm this life that simply radiated with joy, hope, and love. If Harper Lee had written a similar tragedy for Atticus in her fictional story, To Kill a Mockingbird, it would be too painful to become such an enduring story. But life isn’t just stranger than fiction, it is also more painful. What’s so sad, is that Clem is only one of nine beautiful people, whose beautiful lives were ended that night, and Charleston, is only a placeholder for the next soul-tearing act of needless death that will come.
So, what do we do, when this Atticus-type hero, and the embodiment of so much that is good in our lives is no longer with us. We go on telling the story, Clem’s story, because the tearing apart of his life, the tearing apart of some of our own, most sacred places, isn’t the end. We go on telling Clem’s story, because Clem’s story was the story of Jesus Christ. In the story of Jesus Christ, the violent death is not the end; the tearing apart of the sacred temple curtain is not a severing from life. Rather, when that curtain is torn it becomes the opening through which the new life God has given to us in Jesus Christ breaks forth upon this sinful world, to raise it up as a new creation of unending, abundant life.

During these past days, as I have thought about Clem, it is a painful experience, and I feel torn apart. It is in these moments, when my own sin sends me messages to try and forget about what a beautiful person Clem was, or to not think about what happened to him, or to shy away from confronting the racist reasons for his death. Thankfully, sin, while a part of my life, is not my story, and even though my life and character aren’t comparable to such a person as Clem, my story is the same as his. My story is the story of Jesus Christ, and in the tearing apart of my own soul, Christ has surely entered in and shown me the power of his love. One way that Christ has done this is through the powerful words of forgiveness that family members of the victims of Charleston, whose pain I can’t imagine, spoke to the one who killed their family members.

For the rest of my life, I will remember Clem and give thanks that my life intersected with someone who possessed the type of character, kindness, and love that only great literary heroes are made with. In my remembrances, I know that the pain of his death will now be a part of his great story, but I know from a greater story, that as we stand in death’s shadow, Christ raises Clem up for us, wounds and all, so that his story, and his life may continue in our lives. Clem’s story will be told many times, by many different people in the days ahead, but to know the part of the story that made Clem’s so beautiful, we begin and end with his favorite Bible passage, Exodus 20:1-3 “Then God spoke all these words, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

He was the most worthy bearer of the title, the Reverend Honorable Clementa Pinckney, but to me, he was just Clem, a most faithful servant of God.