I came home from church on Sunday exhausted. The last couple days have been a roller coaster of emotions. As a mother I experienced the tragic shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT like I would imagine that most people did. I had a strong feeling of empathy for those who had lost their loved ones, even as I realized that I couldn’t, and did not want to, imagine what they were going through.
As a pastor, it’s part of my job to help others to wrestle with some of these same feelings even while I continue to resolve my own. After a lot of prayer and reflection, I spoke with my congregation about Friday’s shooting during worship on Sunday.
While this may be surprising to many people who have had the unfortunate opportunity to hear some of the ‘famous’ Christian voices of the day, most religious traditions offer a depth of resources to begin the healing process we all need. That’s due, in part, to the fact that we’ve sadly been here before. The Bible, a source of wisdom for Christians, is filled with stories of people dealing with situations where God’s presence is very hard to discern. Take this verse from the Gospel of Matthew:
"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
These words were used to describe the pain of the mothers who lost children when King Herod ordered boys under the age of 2 slaughtered; for he feared that little baby Jesus was a threat to his throne; or so the story goes. While there is some question about the historicity of this story, the words, themselves a quotation from the book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, had a sad resonance this week.
What I’ve grown to appreciate as I’ve reflected on these words is Rachel’s refusal to be comforted. Our temptation in times like these is to offer quick words of comfort; simple platitudes that try to make sense of the situation. While phrases like “I guess God needed more angels” and “God has a plan” are undoubtedly well-intentioned, they also paint a troubling portrait of God. I wonder if Rachel refuses to be comforted because we refuse to address the real source of her pain.
Despite appearances, the church isn’t celebrating Christmas yet. Like many of our neighbors, we get caught up in the rituals of endless shopping, festive singing (and eating), and Christmas tree decorating but technically Christmas is preceded by four weeks of waiting called Advent. It is during Advent that we recognize the darkness of the world. This darkness has been with us for a long time.
It is in the context of this darkness that the Christmas story finds meaning. While some pontificators of faith would like to suggest that the biggest problem in the world today is the absence of school prayer and the preference for the more inclusive ‘Happy Holidays” greetings, Christmas truly loses its meaning when Christians forget their true purpose - to bear light into the a world in need of some hope.
Bearing light can be difficult and it rarely plays out with easy answers in my experience. Our country will, hopefully, have a conversation about how to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. I pray that all participants will open themselves to real dialogue about gun control, mental illness and our cultural obsession with violence; among other things. As we do so, I hope all will resist the urge to find the simple solutions so that we can feel and sleep better. May we also, like Rachel, refuse to be comforted.
On Sunday, I shared a story with my congregation about Mr. Rogers, yes, that Mr. Rogers of children’s television fame. He once shared a childhood fear of tragic situations and the advice of his mother. Mother Rogers told her son to look for the ‘helpers.’ God is difficult to discern in trying times just as it can be hard to find one’s way in the darkness. But we have also seen, in so many of these tragic moments, people of good will who step forward and act as God’s hands and feet.
Of course there is more to do but I pray that you each can see that flicker of candlelight ahead of you on the path. Even better, I hope you will be that light for others because the world can be a dark place sometimes.