This week what could have been another Sandy Hook school shooting massacre was averted, because of the calm presence of one woman, an office worker at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy just outside Atlanta. Her name is Antoinette Tuff. Yes she is “tough” but she is also cool as a cucumber. She knew that once the young man walked into her office carrying at AK-47 type weapon that she had to keep him in there. If he walked out she knew he was going to kill. He told her so. He said, “I came here today to kill. I’m going to die today.” He said he wanted to die, he had nothing to live for.
But somehow, Antoinette Tuff had the presence of mind to keep talking to the man. If you go on to YouTube you can listen to the entire 24 minute 911 call with Antoinette on the phone talking to the dispatcher and relaying her conversation with the gunman, Michael Hill.
As I listened to the call, she reminded me of an excellent school secretary who deals with children and the stress of a busy elementary school every day. Of course, this was no ordinary day. This was life and death. There was a man standing in her office with an automatic weapon. He had already run outside and fired shots at the police, and then come back inside. She just kept talking to him: treating him like a human being.
Do you remember last week’s message? The story of the Samaritan and the man on the side of the road? The story about being a neighbor? Jesus said treat everyone like a neighbor even the man hold an AK-47, as a neighbor.
Because you see, Michael Hill told Antoinette Tuff, “I should have gone to the mental hospital today. I should not have come here.” That is when she knew, there was hope.
I have a hunch that is when this woman, who admitted later that even though she seemed calm, she was terrified. I think that is when she knew if she just kept talking and listening, that maybe she could help bring about a peaceful end to this situation.
Because you see, she was paying attention to this man as a child of God. She treated him as a human being. I don’t know if I could have done it.
Everything turned in that moment. He said he wanted to turn himself in and she started working with dispatcher on a plan for him to turn himself in. She even offered to walk out with him so he wouldn’t get shot.
She told him she knows what it’s like to go through hard times. She said "We're not going to hate you," she told him, saying, "we all go through things in life."
She said she had tried to commit suicide the year before when her husband left but that she got through. She said, “But look at me now I’m working and I am okay.”
She told ABC's Diane Sawyer that much of her conversation focused not only on trying to understand the gunman, but also on trying to get the gunman to relate to her. At one point, as he is about to give himself up, she says to him: "It's going to be all right, sweetie, I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you're just giving up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life."
Now, every situation is different. This man said he did not take his meds that day. She was able to talk to him, calmly and help him make a choice not to kill any children, teachers, or police offices. Shots were fired at the police, but thankfully no one died.
Antoinette had the presence of mind to talk to him. And she listened. She said later: "I give it all to God, I'm not the hero. I was terrified." But Antoinette paid attention to the man because she has paid attention to God all her life. Her life with God is what made her ready to deal with Michael Hill in that school office this week.
I want to take you back now 2000 years to another story. The scene is Bethany, a village on the East side of Jerusalem in what is today known as part of the West Bank, pretty rough place. Jesus has traveled to there to visit his friends, perhaps to get away from the heart of the city. This is during a time when Jesus is traveling from village to village, telling stories, healing the sick and sharing the good news. Sometimes, as with last week’s story, religious leaders are asking questions and trying to trip him up. “What do I need to do to get eternal life?”
“Love God and your neighbor,” Jesus says. “And who is my neighbor?” the man says. Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan, the “outsider” who shows compassion, as a way of teaching that his followers will treat EVERYONE as a neighbor.
So, Jesus goes to visit his friends Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42 from The Message for those following along from afar) who are the sisters of Lazarus. So the story goes, there is quite a contrast in the way the two sisters relate to Jesus in his brief visit in their home. Both welcome him.
But Martha is distracted by working in the kitchen to prepare a nice meal. Mary, sits at the feet of her teacher and “hangs on every word he says.” A bit of sibling rivalry kicks in. (Never heard of that!) Martha calls upon Jesus to scold her sister: “Master, can’t you tell Mary to help me in the kitchen. She has left me to do all the work!”
Jesus looks at Martha and says: “Chill! Relax!!!! You are stressing out about unimportant stuff. It doesn’t matter what we eat. Mary has chosen to pay attention to the main course. This moment will never be taken from her.”
You see Mary had what we call a kairos moment – a moment in time that was an event; a moment when God breaks into our lives. The Celtics call these moments “thin places.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&). Thin places are those times and places where heaven and earth meet.
That is a kairos moment, when in an instant, you stop dead in your tracks because God gets your attention. Perhaps you see a person show great compassion. Perhaps you a grieving and you know your life is forever changed and you turn to God. A kairos moment can happen when you see something beautiful, or puzzling, when you are frightened or grateful, and you remember to pay attention to God, and reflect if even for a moment on what God might have to say to you in this moment.
When Jesus came to see Mary and Martha, Mary was not going to waste one moment of that visit. She was going to drink in every ounce of the experience sitting at Jesus’ feet and drinking in his presence. Poor Martha could not relax and enjoy the kairos moment. She was too tied up in her responsibilities. And Martha got jealous that Mary was enjoying the moment with Jesus. Jesus invited Martha to choose the moment too.
Sometimes, we have the opportunity of choosing our moment with God. Sometimes, like for Antoinette Tuff, a crisis is thrust upon us. Hopefully in that crisis we will remember to put our trust in God rather than panic and think we can only depend on ourselves.
You see, I know by the way she handled that gunman that Antoinette Tuff is a deeply spiritual woman. Only a woman who has been through hard times, like she said, and who has put her trust in God, would have had the inner strength to do what she did. Antoinette Tuff is a lot like Mary. I have a hunch she had paid attention to the kairos moments in her life. She has a child with multiple disabilities. Her husband walked out on her after 33 years.
But when Anderson Cooper interviewed her and said to her “I don’t know how you did it.” She said, “I don’t either but God. That was nobody but God’s grace and mercy. I was terrified inside.”
But here is the thing. She actually cared about that young man. You could hear it in her voice. I heard a couple of psychologists interviewed, who talked about how they thought she was able to diffuse the situation. They said: “This was a person who said, I have been through pain. She did not try to escape. She was engaged with him.”
It just makes you wonder how many broken people in the world could be helped, when they are hurting, if one compassionate person, a follower of Jesus, would just pay attention to them? Now I don’t want to be naïve. Another gunman could have easily pulled the trigger. But in that situation, Antoinette did not need a gun; she needed the compassion of God.
Now, she did not get that overnight. That woman did not say a quick “Hail Mary” prayer and have the depth of courage and calm to have the right response in that situation. She is a woman of deep faith. I pray none of us ever has to face the kind of test that she faced. I know that deep faith came over a life of deep struggle.
But what do the stories of Antoinette Tuff and Mary and Martha teach us? To pay attention to God. To listen. To look for opportunities to see Jesus. Antoinette saw a neighbor when she saw that gunman. She saw another hurting human being just like herself who was going through tough times. Jesus told Martha that when you have an opportunity to sit and see God like Mary did that you need to do just that.
These stories invite us to pay attention: to watch for the thin places in our lives. This week, look for those places and moments where heaven and earth come close together, to pay attention to the God moments and to savor those moments and to learn from them.
We are going to do a little exercise this week at home. Look at this diagram. If you have a chance, put it up somewhere you can look at it. As the week goes on, look for those moments of God’s presence, the thin moments. I hope it’s not anything as scary as Antoinette’s moment. But at the X moments in your life, stop and feel God’s presence, and let it change you and your life. Many people had their lives change this week, with that moment, Antoinette, the gunman, the dispatcher, the police, the teachers, and the students. The question is what new paths will there be. Look and learn from them and feel God’s presence with you.