The lethargy of spring and the lingering weight of pollen in my head and chest have left me, this year, all too comfortable with the vocabulary of Lent. The wind wails across the still-empty fields and I watch with bone-heavy fatigue twisting cones of dust, the dust from which I’ve come and to which I will return. It seems years ago that I stood at the altar and voluntarily accepted the ashes. I didn’t think it would last this long.
But it has. And the burden that greets me each morning is not just the cold, but the weariness of impotence and resignation. The reminder that on the same day Valentine’s candy collided with ashes, they were both overlapped by a murderous tragedy in an otherwise ordinary high school. An event that has shadowed every single day of the season in which I and my fellow Christians find ourselves called to repentance.
For eighteen years I have given my professional self to the job of prosecuting juvenile offenders in the place I have called home for my entire life. It is a job that forces me to make hard decisions, to ask hard questions, to sometimes disregard the pleas of well-meaning parents. It requires me to take the long view, to look at today’s behavior in light of tomorrow, to utilize whatever resources are available to, in the words of the Juvenile Code, secure “the moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare” of the children whose lives intersect mine.
It is not easy.
That is not a request for sympathy or affirmation. It is simply a fact. And, in light of a recent spate of incidents in our own communities in which our children have engaged in making threats against each other and their schools, I have to stop to wonder – not for the first or the second or the hundredth time – what is going on here. Why are children threatening to kill other children? Why are they threatening to blow up their schools? Why are they posting hate-filled racial epithets on social media and then acting perplexed when consequences result?
The answer, I think, is one of two things. Either the child has become absolutely numb to the words because of the way culture has appropriated hate speech and profanity as "art" or he lives in an environment where that kind of language is the norm, where the adults in his life suffer from a poverty so great that their only power comes from hating, criticizing, and looking down on others.
What that means is that we – the adults who are birthing and rearing and modeling for these children – have failed to teach them the power of words. Whether we have forgotten or we have chosen to ignore that words are the original creator, we can no longer pretend it doesn’t matter.
So now it is time to repent. Time to put off the sackcloth and ashes, time to rise from the heap of sorrow and anger and despair, time to stride into the authority that is ours by virtue of having listened to the stories, lived through the struggles, learned what the long view means. Time to stop giving ourselves a pass for the occasional racist or sexist or homophobic remark because we know that we’re basically good people. Time to start using words – every single word – in a thoughtful and respectful way.
And when we do, spring will come. New things will grow. Resurrection will be ours.