The 1999 Columbine shootings happened near my home in Denver, and in the aftermath I was invited into the community of first-responder youth workers, to come alongside them as a resource and a friend. In the 15 years since that mass murder, we’ve been force-fed a regular diet of school shootings, and I’ve connected with many more youth workers who’ve been caught up in the swirl of violence.
And then, two days ago, my 15-year-old daughter Lucy was at the other end of a hallway from Karl Pierson, an angry teenager with a shotgun, bent on killing his debate coach who works in the Arapahoe High School library.
Lucy was in the cafeteria, studying during her off-hour, when the guys standing next to her spotted the shooter and raised the alarm. She and all the others in the cafeteria dropped everything and ran across the mouth of the hallway, toward the outside doors. Inexplicably, Pierson turned away from them and went in the opposite direction. A school counselor yelled at the kids to stop and take refuge in a locked counseling center instead. Lucy was one of a handful of students who heard the counselor’s cry and stopped.
As Lucy turned to run toward safety she heard the blast of three shots down the hallway. Pierson had just shot a 18-year-old girl near the library.
Lucy and 15 other students frantically crammed into the counseling center, and for 45 minutes she sat on the floor in a tiny hallway listening to the tragedy unfold over the counselor’s walkie-talkie. Nearby that counselor was trying to comfort a special-needs student who was getting more and more frantic. In a burst, that student broke away from the counselor, ran to the locked door and flung it open, escaping into the hallway. The counselor sprinted through the door after him. At the time, no one in the room knew if the shooter was still active, and they were staring at an open door. The next thing they saw was the end of an assault rifle come around the corner and poke into the room, and they screamed. In a moment the room filled with SWAT team members, ordering the kids to get their hands up. Once they’d determined there was no threat in the room, they barked at the kids to keep their hands raised above their heads and get out of the school. Lucy hustled with the other students through an outside door, across a barricaded street, and into an empty grocery store where they clumped together in the produce section at the back of the store.
At that point, Lucy called my wife from the store to tell her she was safe—most of the world, including my wife and I, had no idea anything was happening at Arapahoe. Like every other parent, it’s hard to believe the violence that is “out there” could somehow be “in here.” Caught off-guard, my wife asked, “Safe from what—aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
A minute later my wife was on the phone to me, so frantic I couldn’t understand everything she was saying. I was 90 minutes away in a planning meeting for our Simply Youth Ministry Conference in March. My wife had been out Christmas shopping. We dropped what we were doing and raced to Arapahoe. Two hours later, after she’d been released from a “reuniting location,” I was holding Lucy at home—her face was flushed and her body was still shaking as she told her story.
In the interim between then and now we’ve had a house-full of friends and teenagers and relatives talking and crying and hugging late into the evening, and my email inbox has filled up with messages from youth workers from all over the world, offering encouragement and prayer. When I woke up the day after this ordeal I lay in bed, trying to understand how all of this has impacted me, and how all that I’ve experienced merges into the river of my relationship with Jesus.
And I thought of something I wrote for a book I just finished called Skin In the Game (it’ll be published in early 2015)—this little artifact from the book comes closest to capturing the orbital center of a life lived in the ugly/beauty of a desperate dependence upon Jesus: Singer/songwriter Regina Spektor captures the dynamic outcome of a dependent relationship with God in a brilliant piece of piano-driven post-folk pop music—here’s a portion of her song “No One’s Laughing at God,” from the Far album:
No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor
No one laughs at God
When the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God When it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from the party yet
No one laughs at God When their airplane starts to uncontrollably shake
No one’s laughing at God When they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else
And they hope that they’re mistaken
No one laughs at God When the cops knock on their door And they say we got some bad news, sir
No one’s laughing at God
When there’s a famine or fire or flood
Spektor nails it—no one is laughing at God when they actually need Him. And our fears surface our need for God. Skeptics and atheists and those who are uncomfortable going all-in with Jesus hold onto a sneaking suspicion that faith in Him is a crutch, and therefore indicative of a kind of pansy-weakness that is intolerable to people living in a make-it-happen culture. Who can afford a dependent posture in a world that demands toughness and strength?
When NFL offensive lineman Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins abruptly left the team in the middle of the 2013 season because, he alleged, noted bad-boy lineman Richie Incognito had mercilessly bullied him, the biggest surprise was the backlash against Martin. Many in the sports community, and the culture at large, accused Martin of being “too soft” to play in the NFL. For example, when Denver Post columnist Benjamin Hochman asked Bronco defensive lineman Terrence Knighton if he’d want Martin on his team, he bluntly replied: “He’d have a hard time finding friends in here. There are no soft players in this locker room, and there’s nobody who doesn’t stand up for themselves as a man.” We live by a simple dog-eat-dog ethic—dependence of any kind is an unaffordable weakness. And perhaps that’s true, especially when it comes to chemical and relational addictions. But all of us, at some point, will be compelled to stop laughing at God (whether in this life or when we face Him in the next one).
And in those moments when dependence seems the perfectly rational response to our circumstances, we experience a kind of clarity that is easy to brush off as fear-induced desperation after we’ve survived the fire. But it is not our everyday independence that is whispering the truth to us—it is our dependence, sometimes driven by fear, that shows us the path to life.
Praying for our students,
 Lyric excerpt from “No One’s Laughing at God,” written by Regina Spektor, from the Far album (Warner Bros, 2009).