Sometimes the news is so disturbing. This week has been one of those weeks.
Last night I came across the story of 2, 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who plotted the murder of one of their friends. These girls had, for some time, been working up the courage to kill another girl by stabbing her to death in order to, according to several media reports, fulfill some self-created connection to the fictional horror character Slenderman.
Everyone is shocked by the vicious attack that took place. It is sick enough that it involves two 12-year-old girls, but multiplied by the malicious intent, the months of planning, the sickening debate that occurred over how/when/who to attack along with the unfathomable connection to a fictional online character. (The girls believed that after killing their victim, they would live with this character in his castle in the woods.)
Miraculously, despite 17-19 stab wounds, the victim was able to crawl to a public place where a passing cyclist saw her, called police and the child did not pass away. She is in stable condition, physically, but I’m guessing the horrors of what just happened will terrorize her dreams for many nights to come. As a parent of an 11-year-old, I cannot imagine the heartache, pain, suffering, fear, anger, hurt, and loss of innocence that everyone is feeling right now. My heart is truly broken.
Over the past 15 years, since the first egregious act of violence that has defined my years of youth ministry (the Columbine high school massacre), the culture of violence has left us wondering what has gone wrong with our students. Why do 16-year-old boys plot the demise of their entire school? Why do 14-year-old girls bully a fellow cheerleader until violence erupts and families are destroyed by murder? Why do 17-year-old boys go on murder sprees? Why do 12-year-old girls plot the death of a friend?
I’ve worked with students for over 20 years now and I’ve tried to stay pretty current with youth culture. I’ve spent a lot of time staying in tune with the cultural norms of our youth and paid attention to trends and cultural shifts; I’ve seen waves of change happen during that time. No, I don’t think that there was some magical golden era of teenagers where everything was better, where teens were magically more obedient, kinder with their words and more loving of their siblings.
Yes, I do believe that in the past, there were social norms around interactions, respect and family dynamics that were different, but that doesn’t mean the heart of the child was any different. Just because someone says, “Yes ‘ma’am” or “Yes sir” when you give instructions, doesn’t mean the heart of the person shows the same respect. Haven’t we all been guilty of playing nice on the outside, while standing up in rebellion on the inside?
If you have ever followed some of the stories around high school shootings, cyber bullying, gang violence or any of the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching ways in which students act out in vicious attacks on others, you’ve seen some similar patterns. Once in a while you will find the kid who committed the crime was the kid that everyone suspected; the child that somehow showed psychotic behavior for many years.
That is not, however, the norm. Over and over in the papers, in the online blogs and forums, you find this statement: “They seemed so normal…” The story involving these two young girls was replete with testimonies of how these two perpetrators seemed so nice, so regular. I’m sure in weeks to come, as the investigation grows, some things will emerge that reveal a darker side, but like so many of these tragic events, there is a outward normalcy to the murderers.
Sure, some may be the loner types, introverts to the extreme, but many are not. Many are outgoing and friendly, good students who get good grades, and even show some leadership aptitude. And that’s what scares us as parents; that’s what makes these stories hit so close to home. It could have been our kids that were the victims. Right now, our own children could have friends that look so good on the outside, but are full of evil intentions on the inside.
For years, now, I’ve urged parents to remember this one truth: having “good kids” isn’t the goal of parenting. If we believe that raising good boys and girls, who do well in school, are respectful of others and generally don’t get into too much trouble and are positive contributors in society, that we have succeeded as parents, we’ve missed the mark! Great parenting involves helping our children be changed from the inside-out, so that their good behavior is a reflection of a changed heart; not just compliance to social norms, parenting pressure or as a response to a generally good disposition.
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 shows us the pathway to this change when Moses tells parents: “…These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…” (6:6-7). You see? God’s Word is to be the chief influencer on our hearts, so that the good behavior that follows submission to God and His Word is rooted in heart-change!
I slept horribly last night, thinking about the families of this incident in Wisconsin. I prayed for the young lady’s recovery, I prayed for the family’s future and I prayed for the friends and students at the girls’ school, as they all learn to process the events that just transpired. But most of all, I prayed that the need for radical heart-change would be experienced by many. I prayed that we as a culture wouldn’t just push for social reform, weapon-control or sensitivity training. I prayed the impossible dream: That somehow we would turn back to the source of heart-change and find true healing for today, and true hope for the future, in the power of God’s Word.
I am as passionate about helping students today as I was when I first began working with them 20 years ago (that’s been over half of my life!). One of the reasons I love working with teens is that they are willing to embrace something new, they’re open to radical changes and their hearts can be set aflame for God and His Word. I see it here at the camp every week of the summer as hundreds of campers in 4th-12th grade make life-changing decisions that set a different course for their lives.
Today, I am praying that the next tragic child headliner is going to be changed because a heart will be altered. I am praying that someone living the Overboard Life will show love to a child who has never experienced unconditional care, and a heart bent on evil will be eternally changed by the grace and glory of the Gospel. I am praying that we will — not go back to some other era of perceived civility — move forward into an era of radical life change brought on by a relationship with Jesus Christ.
I’m taking the plunge today, because the world will be better when we boldly live Overboard. Will you join me?