Newtown, Two Days Out

The days following the shooting and killing of twenty first graders and six teachers and administrators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, were an emotionally tender and fragile time. It didn’t take much to bring me, and plenty of people around me, to tears, not only the heart-wrenching pictures of the first graders who were killed, but children everywhere and anywhere, infants in their mothers’ arms, toddlers walking hand in hand with their fathers down Michigan Avenue, school choirs singing in the lobby of the hospital, memories of my own little ones as babies and now their children, my grandchildren. And it is Christmas, and beneath all the noisy commercialism it is about a child, a newborn, as fragile and vulnerable as any human infant, totally dependent on his parents, for sustenance, nurture and protection. They are so fragile, young children are, utterly defenseless, utterly reliant on adults, their parents and adult society for their lives.

That is what is so dreadful about what happened. Somehow adult society failed the children. The secure sanctuary of a school turned out not to be safe at all for them.

We are all parents of our society’s children. The late John Fry used to say that social and political policy ought always to be made from the perspective of an infant child of a single, minority, unemployed mother living in an urban slum. So now it is time to think about what happened from the perspective of the children who were so terribly vulnerable.

President Obama appears to be committed to gun control and it is about time. Mass shootings of young people and now little children are a new and deeply disturbing phenomenon. It is clear that one of the reasons it has happened repeatedly is that people who plan and then carry out the killings have access to brutally efficient firearms. I grew up in a hunting culture. All my neighbors and most of my relatives owned guns. I am in no way anti gun or anti gun ownership.. But, for the life of me, I cannot understand why a military style, semi automatic rifle, with the capacity to to fire multiple rounds, a weapon designed specifically to kill quickly and efficiently, should be in the hands of anyone not in uniform. For the life of me, I cannot understand why armor piercing bullets should be available to anyone except the military. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, public and political sentiment appears to be changing. The will to craft and pass meaningful gun control legislation will require resolve and courage on the part of Congress. My hope is that religious leaders, and pastors who address congregations on Sunday morning, among them gun owners, will speak to the urgency of this matter and urge people of good will, of all political persuasions, to contact public officials and demand action in the form of a ban on assault type weapons at the very least.

Two days after the shooting I went to church with my daughter. A heavy sense of loss was in the air. As it happened, the pastor had just announced to her congregation that she had been diagnosed with ALS, was resigning for health reasons and this would be her last Sunday and sermon. So, there we were, on the Third Sunday of Advent, a full sanctuary of people with the events of Friday very much on our minds and this dear , brave, 48 year old woman, confronting and revealing her own fragility and mortality. It was an extraordinary moment, loaded with emotion.

When it came time for the Children’s Sermon, I wondered what in the world could possibly be meaningfully said to little ones in light of what had happened to children their age two days before, and with their critically ill pastor sitting directly in front of them. My discomfort was also amplified by by memories of my own experience trying to present children’s sermons most of which didn’t work and fell flat. Well, what happened was very good and, I thought, the church being the church at its very best.

There were a lot of children present that morning, maybe 40 or 50. The Minister for Christian Education sat down in the midst of the children and began by asking them to tell some of the things that make them sad. The children responded so softly that I could barely hear but most of their answers were about loss, about losing a pet or favorite toy. With gentle skill the minister talked simply about how loss makes everyone feel sad, how we all lose favorite things and sometimes we lose favorite people, and we all feel very sad. Then she handed each child a cut-out blue paper heart. She told them it was to remind them that their parents loved them very much and would always love and protect them, and that God will always, always love them and all of us, and come close to us, particularly when we feel sad and afraid, and particularly when something bad happens and we lose something or someone.

It was as eloquent an articulation of the Gospel of Christmas I have ever heard. I was glad to be there, in church, on that Third Sunday of Advent, two days after the terrible tragedy of Newtown.

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