The story starts in a church, with a minister trying to figure out how to step into the pulpit and tell his congregation about a great, and seemingly senseless, tragedy in the congregation. Four people were dead and the worshippers were going to ask, "Why?" That wasn't the half of it. Here is the top of this Baltimore Sun feature story by Abigail Tucker, Justin Fenton and Scott Calvert:
Minutes before services started, the Rev. Bill Brown still didn't know what on earth he would say.
There has been a tragedy, he finally told the 100 or so people in the pews of Epworth United Methodist Church. And the victims were church members -- John and Tammy Browning and their two youngest boys, all found dead in their Cockeysville home.
At this news, the congregation collectively gasped.
Brown made no mention of 15-year-old Nicholas, the Brownings' oldest son and a Sunday school regular, who had confessed to the killings. The teenager told the police, a source said, that one by one he had executed members of his family with his father's handgun while they slept and then returned to a friend's home to play Xbox.
As if that were not enough, there was one more symbol left to haunt this particular congregation after this particular horror story.
Before the minister continued with his sermon, built on the theological issues linked to that "Why?" question, the worshippers stood to sing Hymn 314, an old evangelical favorite:
It was called "In the Garden":
I'd stay in the garden with Him 'Tho the night around me be falling
Not far away, on the edge of the church property, was the prayer garden that Nick Browning had created in the fall as his Eagle Scout project. Nothing blooms there, though. The earth is covered with gravel. The cross -- built into the ground -- is made of concrete.
Powerful stuff. And the story of the murders and the mysteries surrounding why this young man appears to have done what he did is powerful. It is hard to write a story that is much darker than this one. It does not appear that the father was all that strict, when it comes to discipline, at least not as far as one can tell. Was that enough to ignite a teen-ager's rage to the point of murdering the rest of this family, including his mother and two younger brothers?
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why indeed?
And, believe it or not, the story -- after leading with this ultimate theological question -- simply drops it and never really returns to the question of evil in the real world and the mysteries of human choice.
Yes, it is a murder story -- a crime story. But the reporters start in the pulpit and raised the big question. Should there have been some kind of follow-up? Perhaps a sidebar on "theodicy" as a discipline in Christian theology?
True, there is this at the end:
"I don't know why," Brown concluded in his sermon last Sunday. "I just know that we follow a God who walks through the darkest valley with us."
Brown, who said he has visited Nick several times in the Baltimore County Detention Center, has said the congregation may one day plant trees and bushes around Nick's prayer garden of stone, but that the garden itself will always be barren.
For whatever reason, that's the way Nick planned it.
Big questions and big symbols, leaving a big, big hole in this haunted story.