Earlier this week I received an email from one of our online teachers with the subject “Heavy Weekend Check In”. I took a deep breath before opening it, knowing that it must be regarding the most recent school shooting incident at Saugus High School which took place last week (Nov. 14).
You should know before I go on that I am the “Oaks Online Chaplain,” and as such, I am one of those people who often feels like I’m supposed to know what to say and do when tragedy comes.
Are you also one of those people? A parent, a teacher, an administrator, a counselor, a youth leader, a sibling, a spouse? Do you feel like you should know? Like you should have a good response?
To someone, we are all one of these people. In fact, when I finally did open the email, I found the fleshy heart of a teacher seeking counsel for how to care for a student she has who lives in Santa Clarita. I’m grateful every day that we get to serve students together, even through this.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if in the back of our minds we hear some nagging nervous questions:
How exactly is our faith supposed to inform all of this?
How can I be a Christian in a world where there are regular school shootings?
Over the next several weeks, we’ll inevitably think, talk, and pray together about this very thing. Sometimes people are going to ask us theological questions, and sometimes we’re going to say theological things. We’re going to pass around Bible verses and mention the thing our pastor said last week that’s helping us to understand what’s going on.
We’ll do the beautiful, messy work of fellowship with each other and with our friends at Saugus and find a way to make it tomorrow, and the next day. Still, as we do, let’s agree on something together, if that’s alright:
Let’s agree together that we’re probably going to say the wrong thing. We’re probably going to act out of fear and self-preservation, and we might even say something that makes things worse. Some of us are going to talk about this all the time, and others of us have already stopped talking about it. Let’s accept together as a community that most of us will keep watching TV and cooking dinner and answering emails and doing homework. Others of us are going to spend hours on social media begging for explanations for how this thing could possibly have happened again. Some of us are going to freeze up or get crabby and others of us are going to keep it together.
In short, let’s agree that we’re all going to keep being human. We’re going to reach new levels of empathy and compassion and prayer. We’re also going to continue being ordinary and scared and confused and lost and angry.
Let’s agree most of all that none of us is going to be good at this.
Yes, not even us at the great Christian school down the road from Saugus.
A good friend and colleague at Oaks Online is currently writing his dissertation on how Christian church leaders have and could respond to shootings like this one. Last year after the incident in Thousand Oaks at Borderline, I met with him to see if he could give me some guidance about how to respond. He shared with me that even as he continues to study, he finds no consistent patterns or documentable formula for what is best to say or do. It’s all too different. In fact, he told me, the only thing that all Christian leaders who have faced this have in common is that, when given space to be honest, they admit: we have no idea what to do. Minsters with 35 years of experience, or bright-eyed seminary students, it doesn’t matter. This tragedy comes with no training. His advice for me and for others is that we Christian leaders first must do the internal work of accepting that this time we might not be able to make things better. And after that: we must decide to keep showing up and being around anyway.
This makes me think of an odd movie that I’m not even entirely sure how much I like but I use in one of our online classes (Models of Christian Service in Film), mostly just for this one scene:
The young boy in the film who carries around his childhood pain in such a way that he struggles to tell the difference between what is real and what is not, experiences yet another traumatic event.
There’s a shot of him just lying in bed. He’s not crying or emoting anything really. Just lying there like we do in that moment before we have to face the day, especially a day where all of this is still real.
So he lays there for a while.
Eventually he gets up, and the scene is slow. He shuffles along out his bedroom door and nearly nothing is happening for a full minute at least. He finds himself in the kitchen where three church ladies have brought casseroles. (Of course.) They—the church ladies—in their elastic sweatpants and pale yellow cat sweaters are sitting on the couch waiting: one knitting, one crocheting, and one needlepointing. Awkwardly the boy looks at them before making a plate to eat. He asks some kind of question like “what are you all doing here” or “is there something I should be doing right now” and in response they say this thing that is still working on me even now as I recount it:
The crocheting one says, “We came over to sit.” Then the needlepoint one says, “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes, they come over and sit.” The knitting one says nothing.
In Christian books and in other places, we call this work of “showing up anyway” or “sitting with people” the ministry of presence. It’s where we let people be around us and we put ourselves around them. Uncomfortable as it may be, we shed the things we think we’re supposed to do and say and simply exist next to the suffering.
In one story from the gospels, Jesus enters Peter’s mother-in-law’s house to find her ill. Wanting to heal her, Luke says that Jesus “stood very close to her” and she was healed.
This is the ministry of presence.
It’s something God always seems to extend to us in times of trouble.
For example, In the book of Job (that book that we go to when the worst happens), it’s kind of cosmically unsettling how quiet God is. Job’s friends have tons to say, and Job has tons to say, but God? God spends 34 long chapters saying nothing. A lot has been written about why this might be, but, for me, I like to imagine that God is wearing cat sweaters and bringing casserole dishes, content to wait a while with us.
We humans have to pour out all this stuff that goes on inside us as we try to reconcile the goodness of God with the obscene acts of violence that surround us not only this week but all weeks. We simply must do it. We must write books about why bad things happen to good people and build defenses and construct laws so that when bad things are done, we can take action. We must wrap our children in blankets and tell them “this could never happen to you,” knowing that of course, God forbid it, but it could.
We need to ask God things like, “How long Lord, will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1).
Because it really has been too long now, hasn’t it? Twenty first century student to student violence has been going on for much, much, too long already. Enough is enough; I don’t want even one more day of it.
How long God?
Other times, we must run out of energy and find ourselves being impatient or careless in unexpected ways—a sharp tongue with a co-worker, a hasty comment on a paper we’re grading. We’re going to be thoughtless in our cadences and words about or to God in this time. We’re going to catch ourselves, saying, “I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. I was foolish and ignorant…” (Psalm 73:21-22a)
I’ll give you one of mine for this one. Earlier this week in class, I was trying to explain something theologically complicated and on the way I had to come up with a quick example off the cuff of something everyone would agree is a sin, and I actually, I literally said, right there in front of them this week: “killing people.”
I don’t know if my students caught it, but I did.
I was foolish and ignorant.
I’m also forgiven, like you.
I wish that I wished that God had more to say about all of this, but I think deep down I really don’t. It seems that in great suffering God sees best to just keep saying over and over again: “I am with you.” And he’s probably right about that. Like the church ladies.
Even Jesus, our perfect suffering Son of God, on the cross didn’t have a lot to say—except to forgive, tell folks he’s thirsty, and then eventually place his spirit into God’s hands.
To be received into God’s presence.
And then after, God is so determined to get back with us that even death couldn’t hold him back.
(That’s still true now by the way.)
In the resurrection Jesus comes back into our presence. Jesus sits down and eats some fish with the disciples before ascending and leaving us with the assurance that he is with us always (Matthew 28:20) and so is the Spirit (John 14:26).
Over and over, the base drum of scripture beats with the ministry of God’s presence to us saying:
“I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
“Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will gather you and your children from east and west.” (Isaiah 43:5)
“I am with you, and I will take care of you. I, the Lord, have spoken” (Jeremiah 1:19)
When it comes to absurd acts of violence, we don’t know what will happen, and we don’t know how to explain what has happened. God knows, I guess, but he does not seem in a hurry to let us in on it. Instead, God extends something greater than answers and deeper than explanations; God extends to us God.
I hope that as these days ahead turn into weeks that you will be present to those around you bringing food and sitting on couches and sometimes being with people “in spirit only” if that seems right. I hope that as Christian leaders in our community that we will admit what we don’t know and be brave enough to recognize when we are responding to this suffering out of our own fears. And as educators I hope we’ll go on instructing students about peace, so that one day, this kind of week will feel like a distant memory from long ago, bearing no resemblance to our new shared reality.
But most of all I pray that you will hear the gentle voice of God saying to you and to those in Saugus and everywhere where there are senseless acts of violence:
Remember, I am with you always.
Yes, even now.
Author Samantha Farinacci