Sandy Hook Elementary School
As a child, and as a young adult, I was taught to shy away from trouble. That was a good lesson for a lad. If there was a schoolyard brawl, teachers said not to get involved. There are Bible lessons about not hanging around bad folks doing bad things and avoiding all appearance of evil. (Psalm 1 and I Thessalonians 5: 22 are examples.) So I shunned playground fights. I never learned to play poker and I didn’t go to pool halls because gambling was involved. I was a good kid.
There’s a difference, however, in innocence and naiveté. And there’s a difference between being ten years old and thirty years old. As a maturing adult, as a pastor, I was much too ignorant for much too long about too much that was a part of our culture.
Sometimes my ignorance was funny: During a children’s sermon, when a little girl said she wanted a Jam Box for Christmas, I was befuddled. I knew what a jelly jar was, but not a jam box.
But my problem was more serious. If someone said a college friend who dropped out of school had been raped, I didn’t want to think about it. If I was told that a couple in the church was having trouble because the husband was having an affair, I resisted the idea: Surely, not him. I secretly hoped the couple would not come to me for counseling. I liked the husband and wife. My fears of the painful and the unknown paralyzed me.
Eventually, I made some decisions to become more aware, to grow up, to listen, to pay attention to what was really going on and not just live within my idealized fantasyland. Others might say I became more “worldly.” But I needed to know stuff I didn’t know. That didn’t mean I needed to smoke pot (I never have) or get in a bar fight (I never have). But I have made an effort to learn about worlds I previously had known little or nothing about.
What does that have to do with Sandy Hook Elementary School? This winter, in Connecticut, I live fairly close to Sandy Hook, where a young man shot his mother, then drove to the local grade school where he murdered twenty boys and girls between six and seven years old, as well as six of the school’s staff members before he committed suicide.
There was a time when I simply put such events out of my mind. Actually, that’s probably impossible. I suspect they go deep into your mind, manifesting themselves in different deep-seated fears, in dreams, in relationships, and in who knows what other ways. At some point in my adult life, I began to embrace the need to pay attention to the full range of human reality. Some people are ghoulish about such horror stories. They are voyeurs, weird and inappropriate. I have no desire to hunker down with the hideous and gruesome, nor do I want to turn my head away from the real pain and suffering in the world and pretend it’s not there. I’ve been to Buchenwald concentration camp. I’ve been to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where a bomb killed four precious girls attending Sunday school. I now try to pay attention to the full reality of our world.
Next month, I turn seventy. I’m glad I’ve learned some things since I was thirty, I no longer tell grieving parents, “It will be okay.”
I drove by Sandy Hook Elementary School this week and was reminded that some things are never okay.