It felt as if I’d taken the ALS bucket challenge. Minutes before Sunday’s service began a worshiper reported to me that the young man sitting next to him the previous Sunday became the self-confessed murderer of 11-year-old Ray Allen Etheridge two days later in nearby Cherokee Park.
First thing Monday morning I pulled the previous week’s worship sign-in sheets to confirm this information. And there it was — the signature of Joseph Cambron.
At Highland Baptist we are well-acquainted with sinners of all stripes sitting in our sanctuary’s pews and standing at its pulpit each week, but one’s blood runs arctic to discover a soon-to-be murderer had been in our midst.
What aspect of this news brought on the big chill?
Was it fear in learning someone with this capability was sitting so near loved ones? What if during the service Cambron had struck out in rage before he could be stopped? Would our various safety precautions have been adequate?
Or was it fear over failure to effectively communicate our message in word and deed so as to avert Tuesday’s disaster? Could the sermon have been more compelling and convincing? Could the church’s welcome have been more complete and transforming? Perhaps my primal reaction was more about guilt or shame at having led a service that apparently did not transform.
Fear and guilt were later tempered by awareness and invitation.
We humans are each connected in ways both visible and invisible. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, life presents opportunities to affect the way someone else acts or reacts within their own life. As is said, “If you push here, something will move at the other end of the world.”
The challenge in this recognition is to resist inferring that any time life goes badly, as it did on Tuesday in Cherokee Park, it is the fault of every person whose interaction might have had an effect on the situation.
In other words, we cannot camp out in the past. Instead, we live forward. We approach each day in a spirit which invites a love bigger than ourselves to flow through us to everyone and everything. This is our only responsibility and is possible only when we ourselves are centered in this love. We can’t be responsible for other peoples’ actions. We are responsible for bearing the love which can profoundly affect another person.
In church, this often feels pretty ordinary. We sing songs with children, make sandwiches for the hungry, welcome all strangers, wash dishes after a meal, practice the choir anthem, write a sermon, visit the sick, bury the dead, attend committee meetings, week in and week out. It can begin to feel mundane, even irrelevant.
Then one day the connections are made undeniably visible.
The day before Cambron visited Highland a group from the church repainted and readied the white wooden crosses which go on our front lawn each December in memory of our city’s murder victims. Another ordinary task.
The paint crew didn’t know they were foreshadowing an intimate moment. They had no way of anticipating how, come December, we will pound a cross into the lawn outside our sanctuary to remember a person killed by someone who had been with us inside.
Love will not avert every hostility along the way no matter how hard we try, but sometimes it does. Our task isn’t to keep score or to cast judgments on how well we did or didn’t perform. Our task is to trust the vein-warming mystery of love, and to keep it flowing.
This essay was printed as an Op-Ed in Louisville’s Courier-Journal on October 8, 2014. Click here to see the essay in the C-J.