The Hard Questions

In the last three days, there have been thousands of blog posts and news items about the tragic and horrifying events at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. I think every parent I know has spent at least some time imagining themselves in the place of the parents who lost their beautiful children, and reflecting on the bravery of the teachers and administrators who fought to protect them.

It’s tempting to start pressing for answers and solutions, tempting to think that we can – by sheer force of will – prevent the darkness from touching our babies again. I was so frustrated by people on both sides of the gun control argument who immediately waded into the grief and horror and began swinging their political agendas around. Worse were the Christians who weren’t sensitive enough to recognize an Ecclesiastes moment – this was a time for weeping and mourning, not blunt evangelism and not judgment. In an e-mail letter to his congregation, my friend Jason Powers said it this way:

I know that no words can bring life back to Connecticut, or begin to explain how such tragedy and hatred can reside in the hearts of people created in the image of God.

Trying to tie tragedy into nice little theological bows, even the most rightly divided theological bows, often does little else but cheapen and diminish the legitimate experiences of grief and mourning.

When the Church responds with canned Truth in a vulnerable moment, she appears trite, calloused, and utterly disconnected from the present emotional reality she is supposed to be uniquely equipped to address.

The truth is that the world is a broken place. We can pass another law, but legislation would not have solved the problems this young man faced or shed cleansing light over the dark desperation in his heart. Restricting his mother’s access to the guns she legally acquired would not have helped her deal with the struggles and demands of a mentally and emotionally challenged son. I have been unable to stop thinking about Nancy Lanza and the battles she may have fought on behalf of her troubled son. We went through some troubled times with our own child – not to this degree, but hard for us and unutterably painful. I remember the helplessness, the desperation, the grief over what our daughter was going through, and a fear that we wouldn’t get through those years intact. One mother wrote very poignantly on Friday about her battle with her son’s mental illness – it’s a hard and painful read, but worth it.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. (http://www.hrw.org/news/2006/09/05/us-number-mentally-ill-prisons-quadrupled)

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail, and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011 (http://www.npr.org/2011/09/04/140167676/nations-jails-struggle-with-mentally-ill-prisoners)

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

Yes, something must be done. But we cannot rely on guns or laws or teachers or police officers or mental health professionals to protect us from the darkness and horrors of the world. We like to pretend that we can control these outcomes; we’ve constructed a false reality that says we can shield ourselves from the anomaly of a troubled young man with a gun or a truck filled with fertilizer or angry religious fanatics who fly planes into buildings. If we try hard enough, we can live in denial of the fact that the world is a dark and dangerous place.

But the world is dark and dangerous, and the battle we fight isn’t against the next troubled young man with access to firepower. I long for a conversation about what factor or factors contribute to one in every 88 kids being diagnosed with autism; about why suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people age 15 to 24 – more than cancer, AIDS, and other factors combined; about what it means that we entertain ourselves with increasingly violent, bloody and misogynistic movies, music and games; about why human trafficking has skyrocketed to its highest point in history. We could pass another gun law – we have hundreds of them on the books already – but it would do little to help the next  Adam Lanza and Nancy Lanza.

Something must be done. And as Christians, I think it falls to us to step out of our comfort zones, to be the light and salt God creates us to be, to really love one another enough to step out of our churches and into the streets, to meet people where they are and serve them, help them, comfort them.

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:13 – 16 (The Message)

My friend Jason put it this way:

4. There will be a time for answers, but that time may not be right now. I’m not ready for answers today. Today is for weeping (see #3 above). Grief and sorrow doesn’t diminish my faith in God or His providence, it diminishes the fragile humanity that reflects the image of God in us. Our emotions – anger and despair as well as hope and joy – are real and legitimate expressions of our experience. Honest tears often precede honest longing for honest answers. Allowing the one prepares us to receive the other.

5. Hope does not disappoint. There is nothing valorous or noble in hopelessness. Hoping that there is something bigger at work than the darkness we see around us has inspired great souls with names we know and names we don’t. God’s word promises that all things work together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28), and when we are ready to move beyond the tears and grief, this good message will bring great hope, so hang on.

Is that the message we’re sharing with our neighbors today? Are we really living out a belief that there is something more for us than what we can see? I am convicted of my longing for the comfort of my home and my familiar church, and I want to do more than just bemoan the world’s current state of affairs. As I prepare for our Christmas celebrations and the start of another year, I want a renewed sense of passion and purpose in bringing good news to people who need it, to fight the good fight for those among us who are victimized and hopeless, to see the needs around me and do whatever I am able and gifted to do to meet them. I want – I badly, badly want – to be the salt and light God created me to be, and as I pray and grieve and mourn with and for the families of Newton, Connecticut, I won’t be looking to politicians and government for the answers. I’ll be looking to my Father and asking him the hard questions and praying for the privilege that in some small way, I can be part of the answer.

Because we can’t legislate the condition of our hearts.

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