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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Columbine:  Six Months Later

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 17, 1999

Why look back?
Especially after so (relatively) brief a time--
not even a full year yet...
Six months from now, I know,
the media will be crammed with retrospectives that begin:
"One year ago today, two high school students,
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, walked into Columbine High School and opened fire..."

Why look back? What does it accomplish?
Is it helpful, useful?
Does it usher in a new world,
or mire us in the pain and sadness and confusion of the past?

For, in a deep and fundamental sense,
life is all about letting go and moving forward...
it's about dreams unrealized and hopes fulfilled
and graduation and commencement
and the start of a new school year
and reclaiming the hallways that once were drenched in blood.

So, why look back?
And why now?
Those of us with access to the public ear
(to a greater, or a lesser, extent)
need to ask ourselves just that;
a bit of discernment about our own motives are in order:
The purpose of remembering a sad and bitter event
like that at Columbine last April
is only as important as the lessons
we can learn from it.
But too often, we read the lessons life teaches
only through the same old lenses we've worn too long already.
(For example:
If we were to bring the Rev. Mr. Jerry Falwell, say, to our church this morning,
and he was to stand at that podium over there, and I at this one,
and we were both to speak about the "lessons" we had garnered from the Littleton tragedy,
you could pretty much guess what we might have to say...
Mr. Falwell would approach things from his right wing political and religious perspective,
and I from my left wing one...
and that pretty much would color the way we saw the events at Columbine.)

Too often, we read the lessons life teaches
through those same old lenses.
To really remember the martyrs of Columbine,
it has to go deeper than that...
If events like Columbine can teach us something new,
can provide new insight,
can guide us, somehow, through our
stumbling, falling march toward progress,
 
they have to touch our hearts
, and if they can do that--
then it is right to take the time
to remember, to take stock, and to make note.

But if remembering serves only to inflame again
past hatred, spite, enmity--
then it's better to forget--
and to leave those parents, siblings, and schoolmates
to their private sorrow.
Then it's time for us to let go, and move on.

But there are lessons to be learned here,
and remembering now, before too long,
before it is too late,
can, perhaps, light at least a small candle
in these confusing, troubling times...

Six months pass
and the hysteria of the moment (blessedly) fades
and we return to our calm and collected, well-tended
suburban routines
while out in the streets of our cities
a war still rages
and death comes more
than once or twice a year...
couple times a day more likely...

But those people are different, we tell ourselves;
that's out there, away from here...
Violence on the street, in the ghetto,
has nothing to do with violence in affluent, white, suburban
American schools.
So we lull ourselves into thinking.

When will we ever learn?
When will we learn
that there is, really, no "us" and "them",
no "here" or "out there";
that we are all in this together
and if we don't start bailing soon
then the whole damn ship's gonna sink?

It's like the pastor and his flock
standing across the street from the memorial service
for Matthew Shepard
(another anniversary we could be remembering this day)
holding signs that read "Death to queers" and "God hates fags"
with no realization in their little, little minds
that their actions--
and those of the goons
who beat Matthew unconscious,
and trussed him up against a fence post like a scarecrow,
and left him to die on the cold, dark, all-alone prairie--
that their actions, and those of Matthew's killers--
and those of Klebold and Harris--
and those of the crack dealer on the streets--
and countless, unnamed other agents of despair and hatred--
are somehow interrelated in a seamless web of life
and an unbounded garment of destiny
that cloaks us all.
But is that garment an angel's robe
or the shroud of death?
That is the question we must answer in our lives.

So, now, just a little way down the road of years,
before all the voices fade away,
and we turn our attention to "more important" matters
(like whether the Patriots can win again
or Pedro's awesome heroics);
before we fall into our sleep of bliss (or boredom)
the alarm clock rings yet again
and we know we have to wake up!

Wake up, and rise, and remember:
that these dead did not die in vain,
and that there is nothing "more important"
than protecting our children (all of them)
from the scourge of violence,
and bringing to birth a new world
where all are cherished,
and all are esteemed,
and all are given the chance to succeed--
not because they're white or black,
not because they're rich or middle class,
not because they're straight or gay,
but because they are, each one of them,
precious, precious Children of God.

When tragedy strikes
(as in Littleton, or on the plains of Wyoming)
there is always this great burst
of righteous energy, which ushers forth from us,
finds its voice, and demands to know:
"What shall we do about it?"

I'm sure that in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine
there were many worthwhile projects that arose,
and that many are functioning still:
providing solace to those afflicted;
new ways of meditating disputes;
alternatives to violence,
and pleas for tolerance:
worthwhile projects all, so worthy of our support...

But as deeply moved as we were by those events of six months ago;
as much as the faces of those victims, and the perpetrators,
haunted both our waking and sleeping hours,
it is also true
that when the klieg lights cooled down,
and page one ceded place of priority to the next crisis du jour,
and CNN moved on elsewhere,
most of us went back to our previous priorities
and did precious little
about really changing anything...

So maybe we need an anniversary like this one--
only six months out--
before too much time has passed
(and the age lies unredeemable);
 
before it happens again
(and God knows where);
--It could be right up the hill from here at Stoughton High.
Who knows?--
We need an anniversary or two
to wake us up
again;
and remind us
that we're not in the Promised Land yet
(and probably not much closer than we were six months ago);
that so many deeds cry out to be done
and always urgently;
and that this hour
(a later hour than it was,
and maybe our last hour-- who knows?)
cries out to be seized
and minded and mended
and cared for and tended
and transformed
from hatred to love,
from violence to peace,
from apathy to action.

We need to look back and find some meaning,
for it is meaning that there lies the birthplace of hope
and armed with hope there is nothing that we can't do;
nothing that is impossible.

The eyes of youth are cast upon
our well-meaning indifference
and their voices cry out:--
Not:
What have you said?
What have you preached?
What have you pontificated about?

But:
What have you done?
What are you going to do?
What shall we do about it?

It's a harsh judgment to hear sometimes
(though no harsher, in truth, than that
which our own consciences levels against us).

But it is a judgment which reminds us
that we are not powerless,
that we aren't just faceless victims,
dragged helplessly into the morass of violence
and injustice and despair.

It is our weakness that reminds us of our strength,
and our powerless of our power.
It is our abiding sense of how much more we could be
that reminds us
that when we join hearts and souls, minds and hands,
with kindred spirits of goodwill and compassion,
that we can unleash a spiritual atomic bomb of infinite power
which can lay waste powers and principalities
of hatred and oppression.

We can build a bridge between the races
and between the generations
over which we walk together
to the Promised Land That Can Be.

But we can't just talk about it.
We can't just preach about it.
We can't just pontificate about it.
We shall (if we really heed the call)
have to do something about it.

And the first thing we can do
(and perhaps the most important thing)
is to reclaim those small, daily victories we have won:
those times when we reached out to one another in love, and not in mindless anger;
when we said "Enough!" to this mad culture of materialist consumption,
and searched for gentler ways of living upon our Mother Earth;

those times when we stopped listening to those voices of "You're not good enough... You're not good enough..."
and lived from the center of our beings, the persons we truly are,
and each saw that that person was "good enough" to model, to mentor
what it means to be a functioning, productive (if imperfect) adult man or woman in this world;

when we shared openly and freely the particular skills and insights and wisdom and character traits that we are,
with young and old alike,
with all our brothers and sisters, comrades and friends,
all around us.

And when we let ourselves be open to who they are as well;
when we removed the blinders that our generation, or our race, or our class, or our lifestyle place upon us,
and moved beyond society's little boxes,
and moved beyond categorical thinking,
and listened to what others have to say,
without first putting on the filter
of "He's too young" (or "too old"), or "She's not educated enough"
or "They're just black" or "They're just gay" (or, "just straight").

When we really listened to the ideas of others
without judging them first,
and learned in them a lesson,
and saw in them the clear reflection of our humanity
and our experience,
then (just in that instant perhaps)
the guns of the violent ones were silenced,
and the hatred in our own souls was snuffed out,
and the world was changed,
and those blessed souls of Columbine,
and Matthew Shepard, and James Byrd,
and countless other martyred souls
smiled down on us from heaven.

And hope was born anew.

These are the big questions we need to ask ourselves:
What kinds of houses-- what kinds of homes-- are we building?
What kinds of houses of the spirit? What kinds of communities?

We've made houses for hatred,
it's time we made a place,
where people's souls may be seen and made safe.
Be gentle with each other, these fragile flames,
innocence can be lost.
It needs to be maintained.
[Jewel Kilcher]

Our children's fragile flames-- and ours;
our children's innocence-- and ours--
are all threatened by the harsh winds of hatred
and violence
and little-mindedness.
But it's time
to build together
something better:
it's time we made a place,
where people's souls may be seen and made safe.

(We can build that kind of place.
We do it all the time, when we dare to love one another.)

The most important lessons we learn from Columbine may well be the simplest,
not those that impact national policy,
but those that change our individual hearts,
and that change the way we treat one another.

The most important lessons we learn from Columbine may well be the simplest principles of human being together on this good earth carved deep again in our hearts:
to know the miracle of our birth,
to know our own worth,
to listen to our different drummer,
to respect ourselves,
and to respect one another.

If we can teach our children nothing more than these simple values,
and if we learn nothing more from them than these,
then our job will be done,
and the future of the world will stand secure.


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