Mourning and the Gospel

At this moment The Netherlands, like many other countries, are in deep mourning, shocked by the terrible news of the downing of MZ17 in the East of Ukraine. Each of us has somewhere in his or her network people who were in that flight; my faculty lost a whole family, the dean of Liberal Arts with his wife who worked in Communication Studies, and one daughter, a brilliant student who was in my Liberal Arts class last year. At this moment the news is completely dominated by images of a charred field with wreckage, masked soldiers trying to shut off the area, and especially of a long train of cooling-wagons carrying off some of the 298 remains to a safer area, in West Ukraine. At this very moment the whole of Holland is waiting for two airplanes to land at Eindhoven airport, with whatever is left of those dear corpses. A day of nation-wide mourning, this day, a day when all of us ponder on what so suddenly happened, on the losses of that many people, unimaginable, unthinkable, unexplainable. As I am writing I glance to the right where the TV shows the planes landing. At four o’clock all church bells will ring in the country, the trains stop, the airspace is closed, the highways quiet. The Netherlands mourn. There both planes come, I will stop writing.
Our king and queen, the prime minister and the whole cabinet, together with the Belgian king, the Malaysian ambassador, the Australian consul-general, and many others representing the countries with victims inside that flight MZ17, they all stood silent with the rest of us, during the sounding of the Last Post that welcomed our beloved dead back home. Now the caskets are transferred by air force personnel into the long line of patiently waiting hearses, soon on the road to the Dutch Forensic Institute.
Next will be the painstaking, laborious process of identification, a grisly job that we seem to have turned into a theme for TV series. At the crash site in the East of the Ukraine experts are trying to get access, and people talk of police enforcement to create a safe working environment; those separatists have very valid reasons not to let the truth come to the surface. It is a desolate area at any time, also when I visited there a decade ago (for a sports tournament), a piece of our European Wild East that has had more than its share of strife, rebellions and war.
The bells fall silent now, those wonderful huge bronze bells that have sounded over our city for the last 600 years, exhorting to prayer, sounding for disasters such as floods and storms, and proclaiming the coming of the enemies – a long list in our long history: Spain, France, England, Germany. I am, for a moment, glad that we are not all Mormons here, if only for those bells. The city of Utrecht, an old bishop city in the Middle Ages, is full of churches, all with their bells, each one their own tone and timbre, the great soundscape of mourning, a wonderful punctuation to the silence of distress.
After the grief come the questions, the persisting, ever-present, unanswerable questions, the questions that will continue to haunt us. Why? How could this happen? What can we do to prevent this from happening again? Can we find the culprits and bring them to justice? This is not an unfortunate traffic accident, it has to do with a war as the plane was shot down, so what are the implications of this tragedy for the geopolitical situation, the separatism in the Ukraine, the role of Russia or the challenge to the European Union.
Yes, the Netherlands, with their 188 victims in that doomed plane, has now joined the ever expanding group of ‘9/11 countries’, the afflicted ones, the nations that are deeply hurt, mourn and ask questions. Ours is a quite complacent country, with its almost 70 years of uninterrupted peace after WWII – still our icon of national struggle – but it has been shaken to its core. We will have to think, to ponder, to reflect. Those questions will have to wait for the moment, but I know that we have to turn inwards to find any answer, not to the outside. Inwards into ourselves, inwards into the core of the gospel; if anywhere, the eternal questions have to resonate with the deep history of people and nations that mourn a great loss. I know that in the deepest of despair we may find the most profound truths of the gospel, experiences we can find, more than anything else in the Old Testament, in the Psalms of David, in the Book of Job, in the wonderful prophecies of Isaiah, the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
That is for tomorrow, that is for another day. Thank God, the whole ceremony has been done without anyone speaking, great. For, as my Kapsiki friends in Cameroon say, in real mourning we just ‘sit and look with our eyes’. Let silence reign for a while.

14 comments for “Mourning and the Gospel

  1. Craig H.
    July 23, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Very nice Walter, especially about the no speaking….

  2. DQ
    July 23, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    I can’t imagine the level of grief many are feeling, and will continue to feel. I’ve thought of myself on that plane (or others) and what those last moments would be like, and more heart wrenching what the aftermath would be like for my family for the rest of their lives (and how that hurt could potentially affect generations based on my children’s subsequent response).

    All because of unrest in the world reaching out and touching the lives of people thousands of miles away who are increasingly influenced at home by the realities of a global economy. It would seem there are no happy (realistic) solutions to prevent unrest in the world from forever altering some of our lives at random; no solutions that is, other than the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  3. Roger
    July 23, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Your narrative captures the pathos of the tragedy. So many innocent lives lost. May those burdened by sorrow find comfort.

  4. Kristine
    July 23, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    “The city of Utrecht, an old bishop city in the Middle Ages, is full of churches, all with their bells, each one their own tone and timbre, the great soundscape of mourning”

    Perfect. Thank you.

  5. July 23, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    We must speak Christ and His gospel into all these episodes of tragedy.

    Otherwise, the folks who need to hear it (the gospel)…may never hear it. And we know that “faith comes by hearing and the Word of God.”

    These folks are ripe to hear the gospel, as the law (death) has just had it’s way with their loved ones…and them.

  6. Armand Mauss
    July 24, 2014 at 12:08 am

    Thanks, Walter, for sharing your feelings so eloquently. I count myself among your many friends who will be sharing your grief at this time. If there is either solace or satisfaction to be found in identifying the culprits in this tragedy, such will be found inside the gospel and inside our own thoughts and prayers, as you have said. God bless you and yours, dear brother!

  7. Geoff -Aus
    July 24, 2014 at 5:09 am

    Appreciate your blog Walter. Latest figure on Australians on board is 36, In the ward I attended last Sunday not even mentioned, was in my home ward. Not having the old cathederals in close proximity like you do, we don’t have many bells.

    On an American note, there has been some discussion (not from the gov) comparing the shooting down of the plane with weapons supplied by Russia, and the Israeli attack on Gaza using mostly US supplied weapons and at least as cold blooded.

    Could the US threaten to remove aid to end this, and get a palestininian state?

    Not sure what can be done about Russia or Putin?

  8. Walter van Beek
    July 24, 2014 at 5:18 am

    Thanks for the support. After my posting the most moving moments in fact came when the 40 hearses travelled a main highway; though normally shut off from pedestrians, it was completely lined with people, greeting the deceased. The country had joined the long procession over the 150 kilometers of its journey right up till the military camp where the identifications will take place. The police picked up from the highway score of flowers thrown down by the people from bridges and overpasses, and made flower arrangements all along the route. All internal divisions are petty now.

  9. Walter van Beek
    July 24, 2014 at 5:29 am

    Geoff #7 We tend to just follow the program in the church and react little to external happenings. Our ward meeting was about nothing else, and the members were grateful. Maybe the bishops have to feel more agency in this matter, to arrange for an impromptu memorial service.
    In the cold terminology of war, MZ17 is collateral damage, Gaza is a brother-war (the Israëli are killing people with the same DNA), and all are using weapons bought elsewhere, USA, Russia, Britain.
    There in fact is already a Palestinian state, to some degree, but Gaza will remain a problem, as will be Hamas (and Jerusalem).
    Russia has been severely compromised, which might be a good thing, but time will tell.

  10. July 24, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Thank you for sharing this, Walter. My thoughts have been very much with the people of the Netherlands this week. The world is mourning with you. May peace and solace come as you honor your dead and their legacy.

  11. July 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you, Walter.

  12. July 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Thank you, Walter, and I would echo Armand Mauss here, for your eloquence and sharing of feeling. You have drawn us in, to stand beside you in our silence, even if we must use the written word to let you know.

  13. Geoff -Aus
    July 26, 2014 at 2:59 am

    One of my sons in law who is an Australian federal police officer, and also a victim identification specialist, is at present on the plane heading for the Ukrane to search the crash site, and the surrounding 50 square killometers.

    After they have done that they may end up in The Netherlands helping to identify bodies.

  14. Wilfried
    July 26, 2014 at 5:16 am

    Dank je wel, Walter. Our college in Antwerp lost one of our foreign doctoral students on that flight. Belgians too were among the victims. As the “Low Lands” our neighboring countries share the same past and present. Tragedies become terribly real when they strike people you know. Thanks for focusing here on mourning and the meaning of the gospel. Political discussion is for later.

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