Seven of us guys were sitting around the table on Tuesday night. We don’t really know what to call ourselves. A ‘men’s group’ is about as glib and accurate as you can get. We chat about everything under the sun. The first 30 minutes usually involves jabs and jokes and foolishness. Tales of visits to the doctor and plumbing that doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.
We’re men. What would you expect?
Then we open the Book and challenge each other about our perspectives on life for about an hour or so.
The other night turned a little more somber than usual. After a short period of chit-chat, the only octogenarian member of the group spoke up. A ball cap covering his thinning hair. His chair pushed back from the table. Head down. Elbows on his knees with his hands clasped together.
“I’m heartbroken about those kids out in Texas,” he said.
The silence hung in the air for a few moments. The weight of tragedy borne by others in West Texas settled over a misfit gathering of men in a church fellowship hall in Georgia.
By the time you read this, the news of this shooting will be days old, but the wounds left behind among the families will still be fresh. Unimaginable pain. Tear-stained pillows. Sleepless nights. No words can undo this awful day in May for them.
None of us can help but be heartbroken. Any senseless killing is unfathomable, but the killing of children is especially grievous. This kind of heinous act pulls at you because it all is so meaningless and horrific.
I know that I have no business writing about these events, but here I am. Searching, like you, for some way to make sense out of a world that feels like it’s coming apart at the seams.
A time to weep and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
Ancient words. One man’s prelude to an attempt at making sense of a messy and troubling life.
My mind goes back to a little one-room schoolhouse in the heart of Amish country, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A lone gunman, a young husband and father, took hostages. Even though he let all the boys go along with several women and infants, 5 little girls died that day, and 5 others were hospitalized. One of the five surviving never fully recovered. The physical wounds may heal, but the heart is a different matter.
What we all remember most from this horrific act is the response of the Amish community to the family of the shooter. A grandfather of one of the murdered girls spoke to the other families about how hurtful it would be to hate. “We must not think evil of this man,” he said.
Almost everyone who was a member of the Nickel Mines village visited with the shooter’s family at their home. They comforted the grieving mother and wife. One of the Amish men held the gunman’s father in an embrace for almost a solid hour as he wept over what his son had done. They were there to make forgiveness mean something.
Marie Roberts, the mother of the shooter, wrote an open letter to the Amish. In it she thanked them for the kindness they had shown to her family and the much-needed healing that came out of that. “Your compassion,” she wrote, “is changing our world.”
As you can imagine, there were many who chastised the Amish. They couldn’t understand how forgiveness could play any part in this tragedy. Some called them old-fashioned. Some railed against their offering of mercy with words of bitterness and hate. The outsiders just didn’t get it.
I recall being in complete awe of their reaction. Wondering if I could possibly respond with that kind of grace if it were my child who died that day.
One writer, who had a better understanding of the Amish spirit than most, wrote about it this way. “The Amish willingness to forego vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.”
One week after this mournful day in October 2006, the West Nickel Mines School was torn down and discarded. There was no memorial erected on that spot other than the collective memory of the people. Where once blood was spilled there is nothing but a quiet pasture and the distant voices of children playing.
A new one-room schoolhouse was built not far down the road. Six months to the day after the shooting, they opened the doors. Children sitting in rows at new wooden desks. They made everything about it new, including the direction in which the floorboards ran across the room. Nothing was like the old school.
They named it New Hope.
I wish that Marie Roberts had been right. That this incredible act of grace from one small Amish community had changed our world. I wish that the embrace of one unnamed old-order man could gather up all the families of Uvalde, Texas and hold them for as long as it takes through all their tears. We all wish our world could be different.
The irony of good and evil is that good is always stronger than evil. It doesn’t seem that way if you watch the 24-hour news cycle. And it is not stronger in the way we sometimes want it to be. What we want is a world where children do not die; where marriages last for 75 years; where cancer doesn’t exist; where hate doesn’t divide us; where senseless acts of murder just don’t happen.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but we might as well wish that pigs could fly.
The strength of good is in the wonder of seeing it at work in the midst of something evil. A hug that embraces forgiveness rather than revenge. A word of hope and not hate. An act of compassion in a sea of violence. One small kindness that turns away anger. The good in us offers to help pick up the pieces so that others can live on.
The seven of us shuffled around the table for a moment. We read a few scriptures. Mostly, we felt the uneasy weight of a faceless town in Texas. Powerless to do anything that would make any difference. Unable to take away their pain.
The superintendent of education in Uvalde, Texas has called school off for the few short days left. He said, “My heart was broken today. We need your prayers to get us through this.”
That, sir, we know how to do.
Lord, let this be their time to heal.