Tomorrow morning, Episcopal parishes across the country will open their doors in order to provide space for prayer and meditation. It will have been one week since tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, transpired, when Adam Lanza killed 27 people before ending his own life, at his own hand. Churches with bells or carillon systems may elect to toll bells to mark and remember the lives lost.
Some discussion has been raised about how many times those tolls should sound. With respect, the best number in this case is 28.
Twenty-eight is the number of lives taken, period, in this instance. It is inclusive of all the dead whom we would wish to remember and pray for, and it includes the perpetrator, whose name, again, is Adam. For surely as he will be remembered for his deeds, it isn’t as though his infamy prevents any persons of faith from remembering him in prayer.
Also, this thought: the idea of Episcopal parishes tolling 28 times sends a message about who we are and what we stand for: a small word of mercy and forgiveness at a time when hearts are breaking before God.
It is so hard to pray for those who hurt us in all the ways we can be hurt. Life is so fragile, and we do all we can to kindle and to protect life where we find it. Remembering especially those who take life, and doing so with any measure of compassion, so soon after the deed is done, can be the hardest thing. But Jesus’ call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is not invalidated by our anger, hurt, or confusion.
I am in Iowa, a long day’s drive from Connecticut. I feel, as I’m sure many do, strangely connected to Newtown, and my work as a priest in the past few days has surely reflected that fact. I’m the father of an eight-year-old and a five-year-old, and I would stand in front of a speeding bullet for either one of them without hesitation. My heart breaks, too, in a way I can’t quite comprehend.
A few years ago, in a parish I served in Colorado, a couple came to spend one summer camping in a trailer and helping teach kids learn trout-fishing on the Crystal River. Every week they sat in worship with us, the Prayers of the People were always seeded with these words: “I pray for all terrorists worldwide, that they might come to know the love of God.” That’s a principle that has extrapolated itself into my own prayers a number of times since, and I have found it soothing and softening my benumbed and hardened heart.
It’s such a small thing, really, to sound out a twenty-eighth toll, yet the right thing to do.