Forgiveness After the Tennessee Valley Shootings

I, perhaps like you, stand here today wondering how to respond to last Sunday’s vicious attack on the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church. My sermon topic this morning was to be “The Year Ahead,” a fitting first sermon for the church year. But a curious thing happened when I sent my topics for the month of August into the office to meet the newsletter deadline. As I sat on vacation in an Alaska internet cafe, with precious minutes ticking away on the computer that would boot me off if I didn’t type fast enough, today’s title somehow got sent in as “A Year to Remember.”

I didn’t realize this until this week: “A Year to Remember?” Huh? Last year was a good year, but I don’t want to revisit the past just yet. I wanted to talk about “the year ahead.”

Then I realized “A Year to Remember” doesn’t have to refer to last year, but this one: making this year a year to remember for our church community. How might we do that? What goals have we set for ourselves? My notes from our spring Board of Directors meeting, where the motto emerged, “All Systems Go!” would have provided ample fodder to fill a sermon about the year ahead, “a year to remember.”

Then Sunday happened. Then a man walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church and unloaded his shotgun into the heart of that congregation, into the heart of liberal religion that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, into the heart of our sense of safety. And while what he really aimed at was the heart of Love at the center of our faith, which is too strong to be destroyed, many people got in his way. Greg McKendryn jumped in front of the gun to protect others and lost his life. Linda Kraeger, visiting from the Knoxville west side church was also killed. Injured were Joe, Jack, and Betty Barnhart; Linda Chavez; John Worth Jr.; Tammy Sommers; and Allison Lee.

After returning from out of town on Tuesday and walking back into the sanctuary, I realized it suddenly felt less like a sanctuary than a target. I thought about the bumper stickers on our cars, which Jan Realini generously donated to our congregation last spring. Were those vibrant rainbows now targets as well? We held a vigil of solidarity on Wednesday for our brothers and sisters in Tennessee, and we asked, “what can we do?” We took a collection and we asked, “what next?” We gather here this morning and we ask, “how will we remember this year?”

I do not know where you are in processing these events. I’ve noticed in myself the waves of anger, of wanting to shoot back at the hate that carried that shotgun into our church. I’ve noticed the deep sadness for the world we inhabit, where standing for love, tolerance, and acceptance attracts hatred. As the week wound down, I found in myself a hunger to forgive—not just Jim Adkisson, the lone shooter, but the society that creates and arms such hatred; and myself, for my inability to feel the kind of empathy I might hope for the future.

What may be so hard for us to accept is that things fall apart. Everything we build, even our communities of love, sometimes seem to crumble. The question is, do we have the strength, the faith, to build again knowing that at any time, they may fall apart again.

Things fall apart.

Anyone who has worked on an old house knows this. They settle over time and need to be leveled. And when you level them, the walls crack, the corners separate, the paint buckles in waves. When you jack them up pipes start small unseen leaks in the walls, so that when you take a long stick, hypothetically speaking, and poke at that small bulge in the ceiling paint that you didn’t notice before, and it answers with a pencil stream of water, and then you climb up a ladder to see what’s going on, and you poke it again with a screwdriver, and then the whole five-foot section of ceiling board, saturated with water, collapses like a damp sponge on your head, just as your wife walks in the door, you realize, fully, that

Things fall apart.

You ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why did I fall in love with yet another old house and want to become its next caretaker? Why do I fall in love with beauty and grace when, ultimately, everything falls apart?

And then, standing there covered in 80-years of accumulated gunk from between the floors, covered in the stink of it, and still alive, you begin to laugh. And you know. To hold back in love, to stop working at the things that capture your heart, to give up when the ceiling collapses and pipes break and porches sag and things fall apart, is to stop building because the fear is too great.

This week a piece of our world fell apart. The reality of violence collapsed on our heads and drenched us in blood of the world. Evil hates the acceptance and tolerance for which we stand, and when a person gives into that evil, which is the absence of good, and listens to those dark fears, anything is possible.

The question for us now, is if forgiveness is possible. Is it too soon to forgive? Are our wounds too tender, our hearts too broken?

I offer that it is never soon to move toward forgiveness, and that is what we do today—we may not be in a place of forgiveness (of the shooter, of the world), but we move toward it as if it were possible.

We’ve all read of incredible acts of forgiveness.

Acts such as Katy McIntosh’s, whose life was ripped apart on New Year’s Eve in 1997. One evening her husband left the dinner table to check on some noise outside and never came home. He walked into an intoxicated mob, asked them to quiet down, and was punched in the head, leaving him on the floor unconscious. A 20-year-old named Ryan caused a fatal brain hemorrhage by kicking Bob in the head. She was widowed with 4-year-old twins.

Five years later the police arrested Ryan. Katy said she did not expect that the traditional justice system would give her a voice or the healing she needed. She wanted to look Ryan in the eye, tell him what her husband’s death had been like for her and for her family, and how hard they had worked to rebuild our lives. She challenged Ryan to do the same, and promised to stand by him if he stepped up and accepted responsibility for his actions.

Through a restorative justice reconciliation process, Katy met again with Ryan. She said: “Ryan was someone’s son, bullied as a child. He had fallen into a spiral of substance use and violence in a twisted effort to find identity. Our lives were entwined whether we liked it or not—we connected through our brokenness.”

“I believe when bad things happen,” Katy contines, “we have a moral responsibility, simply because we walk this earth together, to roll up our sleeves and clean up. Sometimes we may find ourselves working alongside the very person that caused the harm. When this occurs, there is a powerful opportunity for transformation.”

After Ryan served three years in prison, he and Katy now stand together speaking to audiences in schools, community halls and prisons. They stand on the side of love.

The world is filled with similar stories. In my research of groups attempting to bring people together in forgiveness I came across The Forgiveness Project, begun by Marina Cantacuzino, an Irish journalist who said, “I chose the subject because she found herself moved more by stories of forgiveness than revenge … “because gentle people attract me more than resolute ones, vulnerability more than strength, and I believe there are very few truly malevolent people in the world. As Father Michael Lapsley says, ‘All people are capable of being perpetrators or victims – and sometimes both.’ Lapsley runs the Institute for Healing Memories in Cape Town, despite – or probably because – he had both hands blown off in 1990 when he received a letter bomb sent by FW de Klerk’s death squads.”

Cantacuzino notes that for many people forgiveness is no soft option, but the ultimate revenge. For many it is a liberating route out of victimhood, a choice, a process, the final victory over those who have done you harm. As Mariane Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, said, “The only way to oppose them is by demonstrating the strength that they think they have taken from you.”

Things fall apart, and we have the strength for that hard-edged option of forgiveness.

Pierro Ferrucci, in his book The Power of Kindness, writes that forgiveness is precious and important, but it should not be caricatured into being mistaken for condoning. “Forgiveness means only that I do not want to continue feeding anger for an age-old wrong, hence ruin my life. I forgive, yes, but I keep well in mind the harm done to me, and I will be mindful that it does not happen again,” he writes. “Someone who has forgiven can still live in a world where injustice is not tolerated. he just does not keep his alarm systems switched on, his guns always aimed at the enemy.” Forgiveness is a decision we make to create peace and to close the circle of violence that we do to ourselves, and to others, when we choose to hold onto anger from the past. This is a tough decision and counter intuitive to an evolutionary process that would have us destroy all that threatens our safety. Forgiveness exposes us to feelings of vulnerability, even when statistically we are just as safe today as we were two weeks ago. Ferrucci writes that we feel vulnerable “because our identity, like ivy that grows over an old column and clings to it, is attached to the wrong we have received.” We feel that to forgive will invite danger, and that to retain our sense of outrage and indignation will give us strength.

But forgiveness allows us to transcend the part of human nature that would have us retreat to our caves and resentments. “Forgiveness is a positive quality,” Ferrucci writes. “It contains joy and faith in others, generosity of spirit. Illogical and surprising, sometimes sublime, it frees us from the ancient chains of resentment. Whoever forgives, feels uplifted.

That was the experience of Katy McIntosh. It was the experience of Father Michael Lapsley. It was the experience of Mariane Pearl.

With work and faith in ourselves, in Love, and in that which sustains us, it will be our experience, too. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow.

The shooting in Knoxville took place while the children sang the song “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie: “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya! tomorrow, you’re always a day away.” How many of us know this song? How many of us find the song, just a bit, irritating? For me, it is indelibly marked in my head. My sister loved that record as a child. With her own vivid red hair she identified with little orphan Annie and would sit in her room for hours, and hours, and hours, playing the record over, and over, and over again. Right on the other side of that thin, tract home wall, again and again: Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya! tomorrow, your always a day away.

The sentiment always seemed sad to me. The present is grim and the sunlight always a day away, never seen but hoped for.

And yet Little Orphan Annie presses on, spreading whatever love she can through the world. Her optimism antagonizes Miss. Agatha Hannigan to no end. She would have everyone be as miserable as she.

But there’s always tomorrow. We can always forgive, tomorrow.

We might not be able to see tomorrow right now, so what I want us to think of when we consider what we will remember from this year, this “year to remember,” is that we were able to forgive an unspeakable act of violence, we were able to forgive a world gone mad with intolerance, we were able to forgive ourselves for not doing more, or for whatever anger you hold.

A year to remember, when things have fallen apart. A year to remember when we forgave and found the courage to build again.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.