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Embracing their smiles

By David Whitlock

You’ve heard the same news I’ve heard in the aftermath of the Nikolas Cruz mass murders in Florida.

Much of it seems so confusing, so contradictory. On the one hand, we learn that the warning signs were clear: The FBI had access to information that should have tipped them off so that they could have prevented this heinous act; the school should never have let this troubled student in the building; the young man should never have had access to a gun.

And, at the same time, we receive other information: There were no real warning signs, the family that took him in had no idea a “monster” (their words) was living in their house; the FBI cannot possibly follow up on all troubled young men, such as Nikolas Cruz; nor does Social Services have the resources to address the deep problems of people like the shooter. 

Yes, there were warning signs, but not enough, some say, to act, prohibiting Nikolas Cruz from doing what he did. 

And, on the one hand, we hear from those who say gun laws are the problem and on the other, we hear from those who say stricter gun laws would have made no difference in this instance.

It’s a bit overwhelming; I feel like I’m in the same place I’ve been before when I’ve heard conflicting reports from previous shootings — inadequate to understand it all and incapable of doing much of anything about it.

Then I remember that this Nikolas Cruz was once a little boy, a little guy who surely loved to play like little boys like to play, laugh and giggle like little boys like to laugh and giggle, and learn sing-along songs like little boys like to sing-along.

I peer into the eyes of his mug shot. I see evil in those eyes. I see fear in those eyes. I see despair in those eyes. I see the lives of the kids who had a future before them, snatched away from them in a second, taken from them as those eyes took aim at them, one by one.

And then I wonder, what were Nikolas’ eyes like, say on his sixth birthday, a month after his daddy died? Is that when they turned downward? Or was it before? Or later? Did those eyes once dance as he watched the candles burning on his fourth or fifth birthdays?

I’ll probably never know.

What I do know is that I see the bright eyes of hopeful children every Sunday morning. I grin as they race down front for our “Children’s Time,” in worship service on Sunday mornings. They gather around my feet, look up to me, and they smile. Their smiles melt my heart; they don’t know it, but they have captured me with those smiles, and I’m likely to stay with them longer than the service time will allow.

Sometimes some of them gather right outside my office door on Sundays as they wait for their mommas and daddies to come out of their Bible Study class. One of the kids is brave enough to venture inside my study and talk to the Preacher. The others follow her, emboldened by her boldness, staring goggle-eyed at the books that dominate the Pastor’s Study.

“Now, I don’t believe I know you,” I say to the ones who are new to the group. “Tell me your name.” And they smile; they are proud to be noticed. Then the brave one shows off a picture she drew for me that I have displayed in my study. Wide-eyed, they stare at it, like visitors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In all the confusing, conflicting reports of that tragedy in Florida, I do what I can: I love those kids in front of me, for they are the only ones I can love in that moment, for, you see, it’s the only moment I’ve got.

As they scurry out of my study, I pray that the light in their eyes will shine through the disappointments, deaths, and destructive forces that will inevitably come their way, gratis as members of the human race.

And remembering the words of the Lord Jesus when he told the disciples to “let the little children come,” I vow to put feet to my prayers and open my arms to them every time they come around.

And embrace their smiles.

Contact David Whitlock, Ph.D., at drdavid@davidwhitlock.org or visit his website, davidwhitlock.org.