A school bus stop is located on the corner in front of our house. For years we have watched the daily ritual of children and teenagers leaving for school and returning home. Since our 11-year-old twin grandchildren live only doors away, we get a glimpse of them each day. Both with backpacks, one carrying a violin case, the other a clarinet case. One is in the school orchestra, the other in the school band. What a marvelous picture!
On the first day of school parents come to the corner with their excited children, but in time the little ones prefer walking alone to the bus. And of course, it seems too quickly, they grow up and are driving themselves to school.
In our country, the bus stop has a culture all its own. It is an early place of community. Children learn the dynamics of interrelationships. My grandson and the little boy who lives next door to us compete to see who will be first in line!
School, children and learning have been so much a part of our lives. With five children of our own and my wife Kim having been an elementary school teacher, so many hours have been devoted to kids. School has almost been sanctuary to our family. A place of safety, security and maturation.
I watch children get on the bus as parents give a hug, kiss or wave, and the older ones step on board with confidence. I imagine their day ahead, filled with learning, laughter and new experiences. No thought of harm coming to them ever occurs to me. After all, they’ll be in school.
Likewise, I am sure parents in the little town of Newtown, Connecticut, watched their children board a school bus on Friday, December 14, or dropped them off at the school with no sense of danger in their minds. They probably reasoned, as I do: After all, they’ll be in school.
But in only a few hours, the state’s governor had to tell shocked and unbelieving citizens and and media reporters: “Evil visited this community today.” In a matter of some 10 minutes, 20 children had been shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, along with six adults in whose care they were entrusted. The alleged shooter then shot and killed himself. The school was “sanctuary” no more.
The children ranged in age from 6 to 7, 12 girls and eight boys. This means they were just beginning their education and of course, life itself. Like my wife, the faculty and staff at Sandy Hook were dedicated to giving those children a foundation for the future.
It’s been several days now, and millions across this nation and even the world are struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible. Leaders are asking what can be done to prevent such a horrific event being repeated in some other community. Parents, I suspect, only ask “Why?” We all have a myriad of questions, some profound and theological, others practical and social. Still others ask a combination, realizing we live in a world where both sociology and theology impact our lives.
Such events challenge people of faith. The tragedy devastates parents, family and friends—especially those who have seen children they know taken from them so quickly and violently. Nothing prepares us for this. The personal horror, the inconsolable grief and unending pain.
Those of us who live so far away from Newtown feel our hearts drawn there by a sense of common humanity and the knowledge that it could so easily be our town, our school and, yes, our children. A town weeps and a nation weeps with it. And God weeps, indeed, for every soul whose life ended that day.
I called the pastor of the United Methodist church in Newtown, just wanting to let him know my heart is breaking like so many throughout the church and the world. I wanted to remind him that he, his congregation and community are in our prayers. He was not in the office and the secretary indicated that when he returned, he had to make preparations for the funeral of one of those killed. Thank God for pastors, who walk with grieving families at such difficult times. Thanks for their gentle leading, counsel and tender care.
As this year comes to an end and a new one begins, we are reminded of the unpredictableness of life. So much is uncertain, despite our plans and forecasts to the contrary. I am not sure of all that awaits us in the coming year.
But of this I am certain: The promise of God to be with us—in every season of life in every circumstance, however difficult, appalling or impossible to explain—is not conditional or situational. Our Lord simply says, “. . . I am with you always. . . .”
That is enough on which to begin a New Year!
Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta. On Dec. 31 he will finish a four-year term as the denomination’s Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries.