GK Chesterton wrote, ‘We become taller when we bow’. Humbling ourselves is not very fashionable, but it was one of the key ideas Jesus taught and modelled. The following story involving the Amish community explains it in one of the most powerful ways I have ever heard.
In October 2006, a gunman entered a schoolhouse on Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and opened fire on ten little girls aged between 6 and 13, before turning the gun on himself. The girls were part of the Amish community which combines Christian faith with a lifestyle that has changed little since the 16th Century.
Terri Roberts who lived nearby heard the helicopters overhead, but thought no more of it until, her husband Chuck, a retired police officer called her and told her to go immediately to their son Charlie’s house. On arrival, she learnt about the shooting and the devastating news that it was their son Charlie who had committed the crime. Five of the girls died, four recovered and one, Rosanna, was left disabled with serious brain injuries.
Chuck and Terri had to come to terms with how their son, who had enjoyes a happy stable childhood, had somehow become this monster who had turned a gun on innocent children. One of their first visitors was their neighbour Henry Stoltzhoos, who came in his Amish black visiting attire to tell them, ‘Roberts, we love you. This was not your doing. You must not blame yourself.’
This was the first instance of a startling experience of forgiveness by the very people who Chuck and Terri believed had most reason to hate them. The next hurdle was Charlie’s funeral and the police had assured the family that they would provide a cordon of officers around the cemetery. On the funeral day they were faced with aggressive news crews and spectators. At that point a group of 30 or so Amish stepped forward and formed a solid wall of black around the family, shielding them from onlookers. The group included some of the parents of the girls who had died in the attack.
Terri says, ‘This will be forever a picture in my mind. I see those faces – the purity of their love and compassion. There are not words to describe it.’ Surely this is the epitome of GK Chesterton’s words – we become taller when we bow.
One by one the Amish came forward from the black line to express their condolences and to tell Chuck and Terri that they were so sorry for their loss. Forgiveness ultimately is a choice and the Amish community were very bold and brave in the way they chose to make their response.
The journey of healing and forgiveness continued. Chuck and Terri began to visit families in the Amish community and vice versa. Friendships grew, and Terri started to help relieve the family of Rosanna in the round-the-clock care her post shooting condition now required, by looking after her one evening a week. At first, it proved distressing and difficult but in time it became second nature to her. We become taller when we bow.
How is God calling us to bow? I suspect that in the end this is the only way we really make ourselves taller.