The Turtleness of Turtles
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | October 5, 2017Hi friends, we awoke on Monday morning to news of a mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas. These days we hear too frequently reports of violence of one kind or another. A knife attack at a train station in Marseille, a van driver deliberately steering towards pedestrians outside a London mosque, the horrible spectacle at Charlottesville, VA in August in which a woman lost her life.
Even amongst bloody events like these, the Las Vegas shooting stands out in my mind, not only because of the sheer numbers of people killed and wounded, but because all the details point towards a great deal of forethought on the part of the perpetrator, a man named Stephen Paddock. A stockpile of weapons, an event in which thousands of people would be close together for an open air concert, and a vantage point far above them on the 32nd floor of a hotel.
This last detail bothers me most: the shooter was above everyone. “Up” is supposed to be good. Above us are the heavens, the work of God’s fingers. The rain falls from above. The sun and moon and stars journey above us across the vast expanse of the Texas sky. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends from above. Just Sunday night Lucy and I went to Lantern Fest out in Paige, TX, and once the sun went down thousands of us lit paper lanterns with prayers and the names of loved ones written on them, and we sent them into the sky with love and gratitude, as though offering back to God some of the light of His own blessing.
As human beings, we carry within us a subconscious awareness that “up” is a metaphor for good. As James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17). The fact that Mr. Paddock fired from the 32nd floor of a hotel above everyone added an extra layer of perversity to what was already atrocious.
When I read the news Monday morning, I was still warm with the memory of our Blessing of the Animals at the gazebo the day before, how we had gathered together as a community of God’s diverse creatures to pet and sniff and neigh and bark and pray together. The simple holiness of that gathering, the stillness of soul that comes with being surrounded by animals’ utter lack of duplicity, the fingerprints of God manifest in the goofy dogness of dogs and the giant horseness of a horse—all of it was still with me when I read the news of just how inhuman things had gotten in Las Vegas.
Lucy and I live less than a mile walk from the UT bell tower in Austin. Some of you will remember that in 1966 a young man climbed into that bell tower with a rifle and did to the folks around UT’s campus the exact thing Mr. Paddock did in Las Vegas this week. I decided Zooby and I would go there for our walk Monday morning, not because of the tower’s violent past, but because at the base of the tower there’s a turtle pond dedicated to the memories of those who were victims of the attack. Zooby needed a walk, and I needed the turtleness of the turtles, “the peace of wild things” as Wendell Berry puts it.
Most of the turtle pond is tall grass and logs and other swampy things turtles like, but one side is plain concrete where people like me can stand and watch the turtles go about their business. When Zooby and I arrived, several red-eared sliders paddled over, expecting a snack.
I looked up at the tower, imagining how terrifying it would’ve been at that very spot back when the shooting happened. Not blessing, not rain, not starlight, but bullets striking down from the sky. That’s not how the world is supposed to work.
Turtles are the perfect animal to live beneath that tower. In a place where a man with a rifle once shot people down, a pond of hard-shelled creatures carries on, blessing the place with the safety and security of turtleness. Turtles carry their protective shell around with them everywhere, keeping them safe from whatever may fall. Indeed, turtles don’t just carry their shells around with them because the very essence of turtleness is to have a shell. Turtles are made of protection, of the quality of being safe.
The natural order of things is for rain and light and blessing to fall upon God’s creatures from on high. But because the world is broken, and because we human beings are the creatures most prone to enacting that brokenness, sometimes we upend the natural order, and bloodshed rather than blessing rains down. When that happens, Christians must remember that we are the turtles.
I do not mean that we should pull our heads and legs and arms inside and hide, waiting it out. Rather, I mean that we should carry on with spirits that exude the quality of being safe in the presence of God. Here’s what I mean: just as nothing derails a turtle from going about the business of being a turtle, Christians cannot let violence derail us from going about the business of being Christians. Christian communities are little ecosystems called to be so secure in our identity as God’s creatures that nothing, not even a mass shooting from above, alters our in-Christness. As people, we are made in the image of a loving God, and as Christians, we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. This baptism is our “armor of light,” as Romans says, our spiritual turtle shell (13:12). In baptism, God remakes us out of this spiritual armor: not only are we made in God’s image, but in baptism that image—our very personness—is remade wholly and securely within the Body of God’s Son. The essence of turtleness is being made out of a shell, being made out of security. The essence of Christianness is being a person remade in Christ, being positively made out of in-Christness. That’s a shell nothing, not even our physical deaths, can break through.