Last year Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day, and the day was marked by a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I wrote this reflection the next day… or maybe late that night. I wanted to share it again because it still rings true to me on this Ash Wednesday a year later.
(Image Credit: AP/Joel Auerbach)
I can’t get her face out of my mind. Sobs wracking her body as she stands outside her child’s school, clutching a friend as though they have discovered the only truth there is to know: The only way through this war zone is if we carry one another. Her head is smeared with ashes. From dust you came, to dust you return.
I saw the picture when the ashes were still fresh on my own skin. And I thought about the moment my pastor drew his thumb across my head – reminding me of my mortality and my security in the no-matter-whatness of God. Despite the somber words, I certainly didn’t consider – as little specks of ash fluttered down and brushed my eyelashes – that I might leave the church and end up in the ER or in an accident or getting a phone call that takes me to my knees. And this mama, with her pretty white-flowered shirt and silver heart necklace, certainly didn’t consider that she might leave the church and end up on the front lawn of her child’s school with her heart broken apart, begging God for one more day with her baby… for more life out of this dust.
We need a savior, and as we start the long march of Lent that leads us to the cross, we know Jesus is coming to break the shackles and the bonds and restore all that’s broken. But you don’t need a savior if nothing is shackled, bound or broken. So Lent starts in repentance – humbly acknowledging our finitude and need for a savior. Did the shooter know the day he chose? Did he choose Valentine’s Day for a reason? Was his heart so broken that he felt like the only way through the war zone was to take others out? Oh God, we need to repent… for not recognizing our own part in this tragedy.
Talking heads are already starting to argue. Is it mental health or gun control? Hurry, pick your side. But either/or debates don’t help us find our way in times like this; everything complex is usually both/and… and the truth is, I think deep down most of us know somehow we need to meet in the middle. But we don’t know how to find the middle, so we retreat into corners and start pointing fingers. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ sound hollow when these shootings have become so commonplace that they are just another blip on a relentless cycle of terrible news. We wring our hands and sigh and then we forget. It doesn’t even come up at dinner. Ashes. It’s all ashes. We’re going down in flames. Screaming louder and louder at one another as if we think the only way through this war zone is to pull someone else down so we can climb on top. Oh God, we need to repent… for being so afraid that we won’t be heard that we can’t even listen.
As bullets ricocheted off classroom doors and lockers in Florida yesterday, I walked down the locker-lined halls of my daughter’s school. A first grade Valentine’s Party is pure sweetness and light and sugar. We had the kids do an activity where they each drew the name of a classmate and listed out some of their favorite things about that child. As they exchanged cards, I saw eyes light up and broad smiles spread across frosting-smeared faces. One little girl said reading the card she was given made her feel happy and bubbly inside. I looked around the room and wanted to freeze time. To keep these little kids little – tender and eager and open-hearted and bubbly. In 10 years, which one will be the loner? The misfit? The outcast? The popular one who uses his or her platform to push someone else down? Oh God, we need to repent… for letting kids fall through the cracks.
I returned from the party to our church which is positioned across the street from one of our city’s high schools. The day before, the same high school was on lockdown because someone brought a gun to school. A trigger away from a tragedy. Each day after school, hundreds of students – maybe even the one who brought a weapon to school – traipse through our building to the free soda fountains. A ministry of carbonated beverages. I sat down at a table and played UNO with some kids whose stories brim with sadness and mistakes and bad choices and loss, covered in a veneer of bravado and toughness. How close have I been to a kid who is screaming to be seen and known and loved and valued and is a hair-trigger away from exploding their grief outwards and propelling us to the national headlines? For all their toughness, I can’t help but wonder if anyone gave them a card when they were seven that listed out all the best things about them? Oh God, we need to repent… for being too busy to engage the hurting and the lonely.
We may be mere dust, but we are each dust formed into the image of a living, breathing God. We may be returning to dust, but we each know this life is precious and deserves protection. God forgive us for forgetting our own worth. Forgive us for forgetting the worth of those around us. Forgive us for failing to see your reflection in the eyes of the stiff-shouldered, clouded-eye high school kid whose hoodie is pulled up, guarding him from the world but not containing the pain-metastasizing-into-anger that is seeping out of his soul. Forgive us for giving into polarization and assuming that since “they” aren’t doing anything to solve the problem, we can’t do anything either.
Father, forgive us.
And help us remember: The only way through this war zone is to carry one another.
Originally written February 15, 2018