By Anne Sutherland Howard
How one mother who lost a child to gun violence tried to make the world safer for others.
In my Santa Barbara, California neighborhood, which we sometimes call “Leave it to Beaver Land” for its seeming serenity and peace, a new practice has become evident. Children no longer walk alone to our neighborhood elementary school. Every morning, a parade of mothers and fathers accompany their children the short distance to school, dogs in tow and cellphones in hand. It looks like the practice of safety, but it’s also the practice of fear. You just never know. It could happen anywhere. It could happen here.
These parents know about something we call “school incidents.” They know the statistics about the number of American children that are shot, stabbed and killed in our schools each year. Like the rest of us, they know about the big ones, from Columbine to Newtown to Chicago to Pittsburgh, and they know there are so many more stories that never make it to CNN.
The soundtrack for the story of childhood in America reverberates with gunfire and the sobs of stunned classmates and grieving parents. It’s the soundtrack of fear.
Fear is our newest neighbor, even in sunny Leave it to Beaver Land.
In John’s story about the good shepherd, fear is a familiar neighbor. John’s community lived with the reality of persecution and the threat of extinction. Their first-century Mediterranean world was a scary place. The persecutions were heating up, and the followers of Jesus were, in the eyes of Rome, just so many lambs for the lions. The Jesus movement was still new, struggling to define itself against the threat of Rome and the threat of competing philosophies and counter claims to truth.
So they told stories. Meeting under cover of darkness, hidden from the authorities, huddled in some secret spot, listening for the sound of Roman boots; they told stories to counter the fear. They told stories that helped them to name who they were and to whom they belonged and whom they could trust.
They heard the story of the shepherd and the sheep and they remembered who they were. The metaphor of sheep and shepherd made sense to John’s community. In ancient Palestine, shepherds brought the sheep of the village into a common sheepfold for the night. In the morning, in order to take their sheep out to the fields for grazing, each shepherd had to separate his sheep from the common flock. Each sheep had a name, and each shepherd had a particular way of calling his sheep, so each sheep would respond only to its own shepherd. Even if another shepherd called the sheep by its own name it would not respond. It was the knowing that counted.
John’s community knew about good shepherds and bad shepherds, the thieves of the story who taxed the poor into poverty, the ones who starved the people and fed themselves, the ones who traded the shalom of their tradition for the Pax Romana. No doubt they longed for a good shepherd. In John’s telling of the Jesus story, they hear that Jesus is the good shepherd, the way of comfort and sustenance, abundance and strength, even in the face of death.
I can imagine that sometimes their fear got the best of them, and they got more concerned about the identity of the stranger than their own identity. So sometimes John’s gospel sounds jarringly exclusive, in puzzling contrast to Jesus’ voice of inclusive welcome.
But the story of the shepherd helped them to remember a better way. They knew about the way of the good shepherd, and that was the way of love, not fear.
They became the people of the Good Shepherd. Early Christians began to scratch the image of the Good Shepherd, lamb slung over his shoulders, on catacomb walls; they painted frescoes onto baptismal fonts to mark the beginning of life and they carved the Good Shepherd into tombs, to mark the end. They belonged to the Good Shepherd, from beginning to end. Good Shepherd was more than words, more than an idea, it was their way of life, their brand.
This brand of the Good Shepherd told them who they followed, who they were, and more than that, how to live. They were to live the Good Shepherd way.
They knew that they belonged, but it didn’t stop there; the way of the Good Shepherd was the way of the wide embrace and the long reach. Just as each one of them had found a safe spot on the inside of their tight circle of belonging, so were they to include the one at the far edge. Just as they had been given hope in dark and violent times, so were they to encourage one another. Just they were held close in the comfort of the loving shepherd, so were they to reach out.
Isn’t that how we want to be known? Isn’t that what our churches must be today in our climate of fear? The Beloved Community, practicing not the exclusion of the stranger but the hard work of love. The opposite of fear, after all, is love.
Watching the parents in my neighborhood and reading the latest “school incident” headline, I want all of us to do the hard work of love. Not sweet sentiment, but the heavy lifting of the shepherd.
I am not a shepherd, so I don’t know how to describe that heavy lifting. I could quote scripture about love casting out fear. But the best way I know how to describe the work of love is as a mother.
I believe that what we need in our churches and our schools and our homes and our public squares is a kind of love that looks something like a mother’s love. The kind of love I’m talking about is tender, and it’s fierce:
It means naming danger when it threatens, and meeting it with savvy and with courage.
It means paying attention, knowing what time it is and what the weather’s like out there.
It means teaching the difference between right and wrong.
It means being responsible for our words and our actions, and calling on others—like public officials who block common sense gun laws—to take responsibility for their actions.
It means showing up, being present, caring, not expecting somebody else to handle it.
It means having a strong sense of identity and belonging, coupled with a profound respect and appreciation for otherness.
It means compassion, knowing that we are all in this together.
And of course it means getting your heart broken, which opens you to hold the pain as well as the beauty of being fully human.
The practice of love might change that soundtrack of fear.
Bible Study Questions:
- What stories does your family or church tell to name “who you are and to whom you belong?”
- What might the “hard work of love” look like in your life, in your church, your local setting and our national life?
- Where do you see the forces of empire in our 21st century world?
For Further Reading:
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, Harper, 2006.
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey Bass, 2011.
Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Crossroad, 2009.
Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, Jericho, 2013
Anne is Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society. She is the author of Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation (Alban, 2009). She writes a weekly lectionary-based blog, A Word in Time, posts occasionally at Huffington Post, Patheos’ Public Square, and at other sites and in print publications. A seasoned and accomplished preacher, she is Preacher-in-Residence at the parish she formerly served, Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, CA. Prior to ordination, she was a newspaper reporter and later Executive Director of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA. After ordination in 1988, she served as Associate and Interim Rector at All Saints by-the-Sea, in Santa Barbara and as Canon to the Ordinary for Bishop Fred Borsch in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and also as Director of Mt. Calvary Invites, an adult education program of Holy Cross Monastery in Santa Barbara. She is a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School and the University of California, Santa Barbara. She holds a Certificate in Preaching from the College of Preachers at the National Cathedral. She is a member of the Board of Faith in Public Life, an Initiator and Spokesperson for the CANA Initiative; she also serves on the Advisory Board of God Complex Radio and the Advisory Board of the Capps Center for Ethics, Religion and Public Life at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A native Minnesotan, she travels widely from her home in Santa Barbara, California where she lives with her husband Randy. She is an avid hiker and birder, and when she is home she love to dig in the dirt.
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