As I began to write these words I became overwhelmed with a feeling of inadequacy. I was reminded of a recent comic strip that had a story inside a story. The first three pains were of a hero falling off a cliff saying to himself, “How do I get out of this? Think, think!” Then, just before impact he resigns to say, “Nope. I got nothin’.” The last frame shows someone looking over the shoulder of the author of the story and saying, “Wow. So that’s what writer’s block looks like?”
Tragedy makes us feel powerless, and we do not like feeling powerless (note comment by Angele McCord following this article). In the wake of reports from the senseless shooting of 20 innocent children and 6 courageous women, nothing seems to make sense. Social media sites exploded with reactions on every side of the issues this opened up. (Interestingly – I could not think of a non-violent term to describe the spontaneous spike in activity. Violence is simply the only way in our vocabulary to describe large scale change.)
Images and resources and videos from around the world are flooding the internet with compassion and anxiety – with fear and hope, with darkness and light. An image from Pakistan shows children lighting candles around a sign that says, “Connecticut School Killing – We feel your pain as you would feel our pain.” Meanwhile one of my friends from days gone by asked the very reasonable question, “Where is your God in all of this?!” This question is as old as the hills and is echoed in Psalm 42:9-11
9 I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’
10 As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
Although I did my best to respond and affirm that God is present in suffering, no one could have said it better than Robbie Parker, whose six year old daughter, Emily, was one of the victims. They had just moved to Connecticut only months prior.
According to the New York Times, “Mr. Parker said he did not regret the move, nor was he mad at the shooter, whom he described as acting under the free will that God gave him. He said that he and his family would in turn use their own free will and use the tragedy to help others.
He said, ‘Let us not turn this into something that defines us, but something that allows us to be more compasionate.’
And though clearly overcome with his own emotions, he offered his condolences to all the families affected by the tragedy, saying his family’s hearts and prayers went out to them.
Then he went further.
‘This includes the family of the shooter,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you. And I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well.’”
That’s the gospel, folks.
Isaiah speaks of devastation at the hands of God – the great and terrible Day of the Lord! He spoke this to a people who had allowed the slaughter of innocents and the mistreatment of the poor. He spoke to a prosperous nation with systems in place that limited some and benefitted others. He spoke to the human condition of people living beyond their means in an organized society and forgetting that God calls us to another way.
And although it is tragic that a troubled man gained access to weapons he did not own and used them for an evil purpose, it is equally as tragic that we live in a nation that has enough impoverished children in it to equal the population of several smaller, developing nations.
And yet we are called to be a people of joy – especially today! We lit candles for Hope, Peace, and Joy today because one naturally flows to the other. Through our expectation of something greater we find a sense of comfort. And in that open space we find a depth of joy that we cannot fathom. It makes no sense because it does not come from a rational process. Nor is our joy in the midst of suffering something sadistic and selfish. Our audacious claim that we are yet filled with a deep and substantive joy is nothing less than the core of what is left when everything else falls away.
That is what the author of Hebrews was describing when he wrote that, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” That is what we sing about in the hymn, How Great a Foundation, when we sing, “That soul though all Hell may endeavor to shake – I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Yet, the book of Hebrews does say that “God is a consuming fire.” Christian teachings and tradition remind us that faith is a process of purification. In fact, last week’s Gospel text spoke of God purifying us like silver.
In that day and time silver was processed by heating until molten so that the impurities would rise and be removed. Silver was said to be pure when the Smith could look on the molten silver and see his own reflection. The heat, the removal, the friction, the loss – all of these whether we see them as good or evil will yet be used to move us toward a reflection of the image of our creator.
I firmly believe that God does not require or will tragedy and loss, but God allows it to be. And God sifts through our molten tears to reveal something ever more beautiful, leaving us to reflect something ever more pure.
John the baptist knew this. When his disciples asked which baptism mattered, he did not say that repentance was no longer important. He simply said that what came from God was more important than anything that came from him. He said, “I must decrease, while he must increase.”
In all of the holiday chatter and in the midst of the violence of poverty, the idolatry of consumerism, and the very real suffering of children from Connecticut to China to Afghanistan and Iraq, and even here on the mean streets of one of the most hospitable places on the planet – we must find a way for Jesus to increase.
Our good old neighbor, Fred Rogers, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
Tragedy cannot stop you from helping – even if only by smiling, even if only by suffering with someone in sighs too deep for words. In the end, darkness cannot overcome light. Although our choices may become limited by our social contracts or by the choices of others, nothing can limit our choice to shine. I think that is why we light candles. They remind us that there is a source of light within us and beyond us. And when we come together and share our light, the softer glow that stands resolute is more powerful than the light of a thousand suns. And that, beloved friends of God, is a source great joy and power!
May God add understanding and wisdom to these words, that we may live as a people of hope in the midst of doubt, a people of peace in the midst of violence, and a people filled with joy without limit or understanding. And to God be the glory both now and always, Amen!