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Today marks a month since the school shooting in Newtown. The media have moved on, of course, and discussions continue about what changes can or should be made to our gun laws. Meanwhile, we try to “process” what happened and our thoughts drift back to those at the epicenter of the tragedy who have embarked on the long, slow journey of grief.
I want to pick up where I left off a month ago:
“May the God who meets us in our fear and sorrow take us by the hand and lead us out in love.”
I wanted to share those words that Monday, but I also deeply needed to hear them myself. My own sorrow and fear felt overwhelming. From my work in recent years I know all too well what the immediate aftermath of a child’s death can look like for parents and siblings and communities. I can picture all too easily the raw expressions of grief when it seems the future has been snatched away forever, and the bewilderment of those who must somehow go on living in the aftermath of such tragic and premature loss.
Comfort emerges in different ways for different people, of course, and there’s no unilateral prescription for when and how healing might unfold. Over and over again, though, I’ve been moved by the way in which children themselves often have a sense of what to do or say in order to face heavy tomorrows. For as much as we adults fret about what to tell the children about grownup-sized tragedies, we also witness the mysterious ways in which their youth gives them access to deep knowing, the kind of knowing we have often become too jaded to recall. We worry about what to tell them; sometimes we just need to listen to what they are telling us.
Maybe that’s why we can hear truth when a child utters something that, were it to come from the lips of an adult, would sound like an empty platitude. When I listened to a 9 year old boy, a surviving Sandy Hook student, tell the evening news reporter that Sunday, “Well, we already made it through one day, two days, three days….I think it’s going to be okay,” I wanted to believe him (help my unbelief!) in a way that no grownup could convince me.
Children, while causing our hearts to fill with fear at the thought of something happening to them, can also surprise us as the bearers of pure hope and love. I’m not talking about cutesy ‘kids say the darndest things’ entertainment; I’m talking about the real wisdom embodied in their wonder, curiosity, and trust.
I’m sure many of us can recount times when “the God who meets us in our fear and sorrow and takes us by the hand to lead us out in love” has appeared to us in the form of a child–not just the Christ-child, but any child.
I’m remembering the huge stack of Christmas and holiday cards I distributed a year ago on Christmas eve as I roamed the halls of the children’s hospital where I was a chaplain. Made and donated by local elementary school students, they carried messages of cheer to kids and families who would be spending Christmas in a hospital room. Some were awkwardly funny (“Hi! I’m so sorry for you that you’re in the hospital. That’s terrible.”) and others were just poignant and honest, like this one (which I take the editorial license of translating as “I want you to feel better”):
I left handfuls of cards with various families, dropping them on bedside tables as anxious parents dozed or looked for ways to pass the time. The recipient I remember most, though, was the 19 year old boy who was all alone, his home life not much better than life in the hospital, whose incurable cancer would take his life just a few months later. On what would be his last Christmas eve, this young man who had so often bitterly expressed his anger and sadness was able to laugh and smile without restraint as he leafed through these crayon-scribbled notes. I watched as the honest well-wishes of those anonymous children touched his heart in ways that no one else could.
I think, too, of the 13 year old boy who unwittingly ministered to me recently, two days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, as I felt weighed down not only with Newtown, but with the pager I was carrying as the weekend on-call chaplain for two local hospitals. My mind and heart were heavy, and even my trusty “Be Not Afraid” reminder above the door in my kitchen could not forestall the sensation that the world is just teeming with brokenness and pain, that all we can do is wait for the other shoe to drop. Well, it was early Sunday morning, and I encountered the boy and his uncle in the hospital chapel; the boy’s 10 year old sister, his only sibling, had died during the night after a lifelong struggle with chronic illness. We sat, talked, lit a candle, and prayed, and then he picked up a Bible and suggested that we read his sister’s favorite Bible passage. Great idea, I said, what is it? “The ten plagues,” he replied, and proceeded to read aloud, about eight chapters of Exodus in their entirety. He calmly read, clearly comforted by the familiarity of the story and the feeling of connection to his sister.
And I, I who was worried about finding the right thing to say or do, I who was burdened by the thought of my Connecticut clergy friends who were facing their congregations that morning, I who felt helpless to change a culture of rampant violence and media circuses, I was given the gift of sitting and listening. Just listening, for nearly an hour, as this dear teenager read to me and to his weeping uncle. Just listening, reminded of how long and drawn-out those terrible plagues were, how long those Hebrews waited for deliverance, how long Pharaoh’s oppression was allowed to persist. Just listening, and letting my prayer align with the ageless cry to God: How long must we endure this pestilence?!
Are we really listening to kids? What are they saying? What are they really asking for?
How great would it be if the conflicting parties around the gun control debate could take a few cues from children. First do some playing, take a nap, and have a snack, and then let’s talk about assault weapons. We forget how adult-centric is the very notion of the right to bear arms. Enough votive candles and teddy bears–if we really want to honor the youngest victims of Newtown, let’s ask children their age whether 300 million guns in this nation make them feel more protected or more imperiled.
We have a long way to go until the wolf dwells peacefully with the lamb, but we get glimpses now and then of the little children who will lead us on that day when Isaiah’s vision becomes reality. Lead on, kiddos.