In a few minutes, I will sound the bells at our church twenty-eight times, in memory of the people who died in Newtown, CT last week in an incident which has filled our country with grief, horror and sorrow.
Over the past couple of days, it has come to my attention that there has been some debate about how many times to toll the bell. I am comforted by the fact that several people at this church thanked me after service on Sunday for including the gunman in our prayers along with his other victims; Jesus taught us to pray for all people, including those who are our enemies, those who persecute us, and this is part of following that call.
A friend and colleague, the Rev Peter Faass, posted on facebook, in part, “Despite our wanting to condemn and judge and separate what we believe to be the wheat from the chafe, that is God’s responsibility and not ours. 28 people, all children of a loving God, despite how broken their lives may have been here on earth, lost their lives tragically in Newtown. If we see it any other way than this, than there can be no healing and no new life for us.”
There is another, more personal reason that I have for including the final toll, and I share this story with you as one of hope, and one which finds its hope in the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption.
I know that it is not the same thing; it is nowhere near the same thing. But here it is:
For a decade or two, I believed that it was not unreasonable to expect that the end for our family would be a murder-suicide of the kind one reads in the papers, sees on the television news. It is not as though I worried that each day would be our last, but a violent end did seem inevitable for a long time, and this the most likely way that it would fall out.
After I left home, it became clear that were this indeed to happen, I would be the survivor who would need to work out how appropriately to mourn the dead. I wondered, not morbidly but simply because the possibility was present, how I would handle it. Would the family be mourned together, even the one who perpetrated the act? I decided, yes. I decided that it would be my responsibility to initiate the healing, the putting back together of our family, to work towards forgiveness, even if it angered others. I knew this in advance, so that I might have a chance of putting it into practice should the occasion arise.
The danger is now in our past. The person who suffered from un- and under-diagnosed mental illness for all of his pre-adult and adult life is now in a situation where he is no longer a danger to himself or to others. He has also almost entirely recreated the past and most of the present in his own mind. In his memory, he is a gentle soul, a loving son, brother, father. He would not hurt a fly. This is the person he imagines himself to be, and the one he would have liked to have been, had his illness allowed him the freedom to live that way. His self-image affirms my decision made long ago to redeem his memory, should the worst happen, should I be called upon so to do.
I know that it is not the same thing; it is nowhere near the same thing. The people who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not know their killer, did not owe him like family.
Still, as I ring these bells this morning, as I reach the twenty-eighth toll, I will think of my brother, and after those children, their teachers, and his mother, I will pray for the other one all the same.