In the avalanche of news about yet another mass shooting in our country — this one in a Sikh Temple south of Milwaukee — I find my mind and heart automatically travel back.
For you see, it happened here in my community not that long ago.
A heavily armed gunman entered a classroom leaving lifetimes of grief and suffering in his wake.
I will not ever forget that day turned into night turned into day again.
The call that came saying there had been a shooting. The sound of sirens coming from all directions. Hurrying back to church searching for news online. Rejoicing to hear none of our own had been wounded or worse. Pausing then in the sobering truth that others were not so fortunate. Standing with students by candlelight on a cold February night outside the Lutheran Campus Ministry building. Marveling to listen as a Jewish student voiced his grief in the ancient words of his faith. Traveling late to the hospital and standing with one family huddled together as they received the unimaginable news that their daughter who had survived a tour in Iraq had been murdered in a college classroom in DeKalb, Illinois. Those images, those experiences flood back whenever the headline of another senseless shooting reaches me.
But the story that still touches my heart is this one:
A friend, a member of the congregation I was then serving, is the Director of Emergency Services at our community hospital. While dozens and dozens of courageous people were about saving lives that day, her staff walked into some of the worst of it. It was the end of the day — or actually it was in the early morning hours of the next day. The wounded had been tended and had gone home with families or sent on for surgery or other needed interventions. But there were still six dead young people: five students and the gunman himself who had turned his ammunition on himself. There were families waiting to see them, to make final identifications, to go deeper into the grief that was already gripping them. One may not at first think of these things but Cindy did — knowing that someone would need to clean up their bodies so as to at least ease in some small way the horror that was waiting their families. And so she did. She said she didn’t want her staff to carry those memories and so one by one she went into room after room after room and wiped away the blood from their wounds. She did so for the shooter, too. Later she said he looked like the boy next door…not some monster capable of inflicting such senseless suffering.
The boy next door. As I remember that I find myself also thinking of those who were trying to make sense of who Jesus was in our Gospel lesson today. For they saw him only as the ‘boy next door.’ I expect it would not have occurred to them to look at Jesus and think of him as someone capable of great evil — just as in the same way they looked at him and could not imagine he was somehow so very connected to the gifts of heaven itself. They were inclined to simply dismiss him as just another like all the rest of them. And I expect they were and are not alone… all too often we do still dismiss one another, unable to grasp the great potential and promise lying just beyond reach. Perhaps we do that with Jesus, too … especially in the face of such seemingly insurmountable problems.
For I say this in all truth. I hear news of the kinds of shootings we hear of again in these last days —- at a midnight showing of a movie in Colorado — in a Sikh Temple outside of Milwaukee — and a great sense of helplessness overcomes me. As I have stood with those who grieve such senseless losses before, I find myself aching as I imagine the pain being felt by so many today. And yet it seems to me there must be more than empathy for us to offer. Yes, even more than walking in and picking up the pieces and wiping up the blood to ease the suffering of those left behind in some small way. And while you can probably imagine where I might stand on the whole gun control debate, if I can’t change that, mustn’t our faith, our following Jesus, still make some difference in all of this?
And maybe that difference is simply this. Every one of those who grew up into those who would pack up an armory of weapons and ammunition and inflict such violence — every one of them was someone’s child, confirmation student, team member, student, next door neighbor. So perhaps it simply comes down to this: maybe I need to begin to take a second look at the boy, the girl next door. Maybe I need to begin to see all those I encounter — in my office, at worship, at coffee hour, in the grocery line, at a high school football game, on the bike path, in the car next to mine at the stoplight —maybe I need to see all those I encounter as those who hold all the potential in the world. To SEE them, not with a heart made dull by indifference or quickened by fear but rather with a heart full of wonder, and curiosity and hope. To see us all as bearing the very face of Jesus, for in fact we do. And then to begin to act like this is so.
Now I am not so naive as to believe that my attention or my care alone can alter the path of the sort of insanity which results in the kinds of tragedies we have witnessed of late. Still it might make a difference for one who could bring the gifts necessary to do so. At the same time, I know that the stigma attached to mental illness still leads many families to live with it in heart-breaking silence. Isn’t it finally time to break that silence? Indeed, what difference might it make if all of us made only a little more effort to reach out — especially to those who make themselves distant? Perhaps only one more effort might just lead to the intervention that could make a difference. Or maybe, just maybe, all of our attention and care might together just lead to a whole culture doing what needs to be done so that never again will our neighbors and friends have to clean up the blood of those so senselessly killed. So that never again will families need to live the nightmare of identifying the body of one shot by a stranger in a movie theater, a classroom, a place of worship. And yes, so that never again will another family have to live with the terrible knowledge that their own ‘boy next door’ did the unthinkable.
Indeed, in Jesus today we do encounter ‘the boy next door.’ At least that is how many who first encountered him experienced him. They thought since he was so much like them he could be and do nothing more than what might be expected of a carpenter’s son. As well as they thought they knew him, though, of course they didn’t really know Jesus at all. For as you and I well know this ‘boy next door?’ He was so much more than those gathered that day could have imagined. For Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven itself. His was the flesh that was given for the life of the world. He was not one who would inflict violence, but who would receive it — so that all the world might know life. And you and I who follow him? We are called to be and do the same — to share this bread, this hope, this promise, this life with all the world. To see and care for one by one, those whose hands reach out to us in hunger and in sometimes faltering hope. And to do so starting, it seems to me, right next door…
- What does our faith call us to in response to such events as the shooting at a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee?
- What difference are we called to make in a world where such violence happens all too frequently?
- I am deeply aware that my proposals above appear to be so very small in the face of such huge challenges. To be sure, ‘one at a time’ solutions are not enough. Still, they are something. Can you see how simply encountering one another fully — being in community for and with one another — might make a difference? Why or why not? If not, what more might you suggest?