Monday, April 16, 2007

it's not supposed to be like this

[an open letter to youth workers in the wake of the murders at Virginia Tech | Rich Van Pelt and I wrote The Youth Worker's Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis | The Parent's Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis is scheduled for release in January 2008]

April 16, 2007

It's not supposed to be like this. Just so we're crystal clear about that.

No one is supposed to walk into a dormitory and classroom building and kill 32 daughters and sons. No one has that right.

Someone has to say this clearly and compellingly to the children of God we have agreed to nurture toward wholeness.

This week, long before we know why those students and faculty were stolen from us—if indeed we ever come to know that—you will be face to face with kids who, having witnessed this calmly efficient evil, question God.

Tell them it's not supposed to be like this.

Tell them the God who spoke through the prophets at many times and in various ways—and in these last days has spoken to us by his Son—tell them this God takes no pleasure in the suffering and death of his creatures.

Tell them it's not supposed to be like this, and someday it won’t be.

Tell them the hope of the gospel includes a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness—we haven’t seen it, but in faith we see it coming.

In the meantime, tell them, life is grace and bad things happen; people are capable of breathtaking displays of love and staggering acts of oppression; the sun rises and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Tell them about the mercy of Jesus who promises the good news will one day prove every bit as good as the bad news so obviously is bad in these days. Tell them life is hard and God is good.

BUT FIRST listen to them. Listen to their denial and fear and anger and confusion. And don't be afraid to admit your own.

As you listen, don't be afraid of silence. Let paper and colored markers express what can't be spoken—and know they will almost certainly require more blue and violet and black and gray than yellow and green.

Talk when you believe they are ready to hear. Don't be glib. Don't talk down. Don't bluff.

Here's is a comprehensive list of things you can promise the students in your care:

1. I will do everything in my power to protect you each and every day.

2. ...(THERE IS NO 2).

Don't make promises you can't keep.

That said, don't believe for a moment that being unqualified means you are not up to the task. "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?" the writer Annie Dillard asks,"or shall stand in his holy place?"

There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.
— Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, Harper and Row, 1977 p 56-57

This is the spirit in which each generation of God's people ushers the next to the table God prepares before us in the presence of our enemies. None of us comes to this table because we are worthy. We come because we are hungry.

Be present. Open your ears and eyes and heart. Remember. Tell the truth as well as you can. Trust God to make that enough.

Thanks for what you do for kids every day.

Deep peace,

Jim Hancock and Rich Van Pelt

p.s. Here are some texts that inform these thoughts and may be useful as you explore all this with your students... the opening paragraph of Hebrews...2 Peter 3...Hebrews 11...Matthew 5:38-48...Psalm 24...Psalm 23...Isaiah 55

[A pdf of this letter is posted at]

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