These images are not hypothetical to me. I don’t have to use my imagination to conjure up the terror and shock, the acrid smell of the gunpowder, the startling sound of popping and the screams filling the halls. I don’t have to use my imagination to envision the immediate chaos followed by a lifetime of episodic post traumatic stress.
All I have to do is use my memory.
On May 18, 1978, a fellow student and friend of mine walked into our classroom and fired three shots from his father’s .22 rifle into our teacher, Rod Grayson. The day before, after getting written up by a substitute teacher for acting up as a class, he told me he was going to bring a gun the next day. I thought he was joking and said I’d bring one too.
There are other memories as well, memories of what a fantastic teacher and person Mr. Grayson was. It’s easy and natural to lionize the dead, especially those who die in a such tragic way. But what you need to know is Mr. Grayson really was exceptional. He coordinated a field trip for our class to see the King Tut exhibit in New Orleans. Folks, that’s a long ways from Austin for a Junior High field trip. He had the energy only a first-year idealistic teacher has. He brought it all to our class and believed in what he was doing. He gave me, just one of his many students, some of his old comics.
The memories immediately after the shooting are confused and sporadic. Not just memories associated with the murder, but all my memories. I have almost no recollection of the following two years of school. After that my memory is spotty at best. Only in recent years have I learned through practice how to slow down enough and pay attention and mine those years. It’s taken a very long time to deal with the deep seated fear driven by this and other traumatic events.
It’s taken a great deal of grace, study and effort to develop and
Active Gospel Imagination to counter the violence of the active shooter.
In early Christian iconography, one of the primary illustrations of Jesus was that of Good Shepherd. Many of these images are found in the catacombs of Rome, places the early persecuted church used to bury their dead and secretly gather for worship. It might seem ironic, that in the midst of systemic and violent persecution, these followers of Jesus experienced him as a “good” shepherd.
One could easily imagine those being actively persecuted for their faith questioning the goodness of the God they followed. While I’m sure on some level this may have happened, the enduring testimony of this generation of believers is of proclaiming and illustrating Jesus as good and comforting and protecting. A Good Shepherd. Even in the midst of the horror of the persecution, their imaginations were being formed by a voice of love.
My last memory is of Mr. Grayson: he is lying on the classroom floor, his head to one side, dark red blood pooling away across the white linoleum. This image seared my memories and imagination for year afterwards. But slowly, and at times painfully, my imagination and memories are being restored by something more powerful even than such catastrophic violence.
Like an image of green pastures and still waters painted on the rough hewn rocks of a cave holding the bodies of the dead and the secret worship of the persecuted, I have an active, Gospel formed imagination of a God who was present with all of us that day and every day before and since. It’s not wishful hoping or “practicing positive thinking”. It hasn’t erased the images of terror from those days, but it has disarmed them of their paralyzing power.
And because they’re being disarmed I can engage them and somehow
allow what was meant for destruction to be used to heal and serve.
Please don’t think I offer this as some kind of spiritual panacea, or a way of diverting the need for serious action addressing the contributing culture, policies and attitudes that foster, even encourage, such horrendous violence. But also know all the posturing, all the easily shared solutions and entrenching of opinions only add to the pain and the problem.
It’s wrong to ignore this, but equally as wrong to add to the violence with accusatory, ill informed and inflammatory rhetoric that only mimics the pompous blowhards of the commentariat.
Take time instead to really listen to those who are suffering, to those who mourn. Listen to the kids who barely escaped. Take time also to listen to the one came to “give life and give it in abundance”.
Let those voices motivate your words and actions, let them form your imagination.