On the day that the gunman was subdued on a high-speed train heading into Paris this past summer, it just so happened that my mom and I were also traveling by high-speed train through France. We learned of the incident long after we had arrived at our destination, but there was something deeply unsettling about hearing the news and realizing that it could have happened to us.
After we emailed family to let them know that we were OK, I said to my mom, “Wow. That’s just a little bit too close for comfort.” And my mom gave me the funniest look of disbelief and said, “Really, Jennifer?” At first, I thought she was implying that I was blowing the situation out of proportion; that it wasn’t really too close for comfort. But then realization struck – no, she was surprised that I could feel so unsettled by a thwarted plot that happened hundreds of miles away when I live in a city where people are regularly murdered within a couple of miles of my house.
The sad truth is, I’ve grown accustomed to Baltimore’s murder rate. So much so that when I received an email from the president of our community association saying that a man had been shot and killed at the major intersection two blocks from my house, my first feelings were not shock or horror or fear. I wasn’t outraged. I just sighed, and I wondered what – if anything – we should do to respond.
His name was Brian Johnson. He was 29 years old. He was shot at the corner gas station at about 3 in the afternoon – not long after the elementary school a block away would have been dismissed, in broad daylight, at a busy intersection. I was driving home from the after-school program that we run at that school at almost 5, and aside from heavy traffic I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary in the neighborhood. My neighbors who passed the corner saw police cars and crime-scene tape but weren’t entirely startled by it – we’ve seen it before. The murder garnered fewer than five sentences in the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday. Brian Johnson was someone’s son, someone’s friend – and as I learned from the principal of that school on Friday, he was the father of two young students. He wasn’t even 30 years old. This should be a tragedy. This should sadden me, shake me, enrage me. But it doesn’t. This is just the way my city is. This is what I see day in and day out. Years of exposure to this incredible epidemic of violence – first in Philadelphia, now in Baltimore – have desensitized me to it. Years of exposure to this incredible epidemic of violence in our country have desensitized us to it. We are so used to this world as it is that we have come to believe that it will always be this way. We have lost our grip on what the world as it should be looks like; we have lost our faith that the Kingdom of God is a reality.
In the lectionary text for that next Sunday, Jesus welcomes the little children and he says to his disciples, “Receive the Kingdom of God like one of these little ones.” I spent the latter part of the week wondering: What that does that mean? I found myself thinking back to when I was a child, back to when I did things that I’d never do now: like writing to the vice president, asking him to singlehandedly save all of the endangered species. Or like reading all about space because I was sure I was going to be an astronaut. I imagine that most of us did things or dreamt things that adults would call impossible. But as children, what did we think? We believed that these things were entirely attainable. We believed that we could become anything, do anything, change anything.
And then we grew up.
We grew up and grew accustomed to the world as it is. We grew up and grew blind to the tragedy of broken relationships, broken people and broken lives. We grew up and grew out of our faith that all things are possible. So Jesus says: Grow back. Grow back into your childhood dreams, your childlike faith that all things are possible. Grow back, because truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
In the middle of writing this blog post, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. He killed nine and wounded at least seven others. Later that day, President Obama said that we’ve grown “numb” to this as a nation. Yes. We have. But at least we still pause when it’s a mass shooting. How long before even those warrant as few lines in the paper as Brian Johnson’s death?
Bad news is like a tidal wave, pounding over us day in and day out, telling us that this is the way the world is and there is nothing that we can do about it. But as Christians, we gather every Sunday to be reminded of the good news. The good news that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God is not just a childish dream, but is a present reality. The good news that the world as it should be is attainable. The good news that the Holy Spirit is alive and active within all of us with the power to change this world!
It starts right here, right now, in all of our churches. It starts with all of us who gather for worship daring to grow back into our childish belief that the world as it is can be made into a new creation. It starts with all of us who gather for worship daring to tell our friends, our family, our neighbors that they are wrong when they say that this is just the way things are and it’s never going to change. It starts with all of us who gather for worship daring to hold fast to the belief that with God all things are possible, including the transformation of our world.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.