December 14 was going to be just another Friday…until someone called: “Are you following the story on the news? A school in Connecticut. Is your family o.k.?” A few minutes later, my wife and I sat in stunned silence, watching a strange, unbelievable kind of story unfold on the television news. I was at the edge of tears the entire day, often slipping over the edge. Attempting to do some construction work that day, it was all I could think about.
I am a ramblin’ man, and one of my stops was Connecticut. Though I lived in Connecticut for nine years, I could not have told you where Newtown was. That was before. I know now. It is about an hour from where I lived and where three of my children, a son-in-law, and two grandchildren still live. Too close.
Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, Ana, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison, Rachel, Dawn, Anne Marie, Lauren, Mary, Victoria, Nancy.
My children share the names of two of the fallen, making it impossible not to think: “what if it were my Benjamin?” What if it were my Rachel? I edge closer to the shoes of those parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters. I don’t want to be there. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I cry.
Within hours of the tragedy, people were verbalizing the question: How can we prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again? Or How could we have prevented it? Of course we ask those questions. Multiple possibilities have surfaced: more guns, fewer guns, better mental health care. I am no weighing in on those options, nor am I suggesting “the” solution. Truth is, I’m convinced there is no one “make sure it will never happen again” answer.
At the same time, a thought came to me, a thought that perhaps should be added to the discussion of how we make our world a safer, more just place. I wasn’t looking for the thought; it surfaced quite unexpectedly as I read a remote story of Jesus, a story I actually heard as a young child, a story that was made into a kid’s song:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a Sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree, and he said: “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today.”
We were told he was a wee little man, but we were not told he was a cheating traitor who had become filthy rich at the expense of his neighbors, who pretty much hated him. The little jingle did not say that when Jesus decided to go to Zacchaeus’ house for a meal, everyone in town was ticked off. I’m pretty sure the flannelgraph people were all smiling. Truth is, everyone in town kept their distance from Zacchaeus; that is how you handled his kind. You certainly didn’t eat with them. Jesus was actually treating this traitor and cheat like a personal friend.
Interestingly, the song never mentioned the remarkable change in Zacchaeus after an afternoon with Jesus. He admits to cheating people out of their money and promises to return their money with 300% interest. He promises to give half of his money to help the poor. The change is stunning. Jesus takes the risk to be a friend to Zacchaeus, and it ends up radically changing the neighborhood.
A couple of days after the Newtown shooting, I was reading some online news stories following up the story. That’s when I came across a haunting phrase. A Huffington Post article quoted one of Adam Lanza’s classmates, who recalled: “I never saw him with anyone. I can’t even think of one person that was associated with him.” I’ll admit it; I teared up a bit. I could not shake the phrase from my mind: I can’t think of one person that was associated with him.
A few days later, I was innocently reading the Zacchaeus story, and that’s when the question popped into my mind. I was not expecting it, and to this day I can’t say for sure where it came from. The question: “What if someone had made the costly, difficult decision to be a friend to Adam Lanza, to be associated with him? Is it possible that the neighborhood would have been different?” I’m not even sure I liked the question, but it hung there in my mind.
Let me be clear. I am not excusing Adam Lanza for one second, nor am I blaming his actions on anybody in his life or his neighborhood. Further, I am not positing the reason why he pursued his hell-bent actions. It is impossible to say for certain why He did what he did.
Here is what I can say for certain, however. The costly decision to be a loving, caring friend has far more impact on the neighborhood and on the world than most of us realize. When Jesus befriended a man who was totally shunned by his neighbors, it radically changed the entire community. Never underestimate the power of one friendship.
A few days after the Newtown tragedy, a friend of mine published a pretty vulnerable Facebook post describing a moment in his teen life when he was humiliated by some peers. Seething with anger and embarrassment, he grabbed a weapon and was heading out the door when he was stopped…by a friend. I almost hesitate to mention that story, because the impact of being a friend is rarely so obvious and dramatic. I mention it to remind that every time we choose to befriend someone, it carries significant weight.
In blogging, I think of myself as a dad writing to my kids, so here is what I told them when we got together this Christmas. “I’m proud of the kind of men and women you are. I have watched different ones of you reach out to classmates or others who are harder to love. I’m so grateful for that. That’s the heart of Jesus, who loved an outcast like Zacchaeus. So keep it up. It matters more than you know.”