How can we rejoice?

This Sunday, I, like many of my brothers and sisters who climbed into pulpits, attempted to say something coherent about God in light of the horrific events of Friday.  You may listen to my sermon here, or, if you prefer, the full text is below.

Every Thursday morning, the Pankey family attempts to leave the house by 7:45am. Cassie does so, so that she can be prepared for her first patient when they walk through the door of Foley Family Dentistry at 8am. Lainey, Eliza, and I leave at 7:45 so that I can start a 75 minute road-trip. First, we turn left on 59 and drive two miles north to drop Lainey off with my mom and dad where she spends the day bringing them joy while wreaking havoc on their Christmas decorations. Next, Eliza and I journey down to Fort Morgan Road, where Eliza joins her fellow three year-old Caterpillars at Holy Spirit Episcopal Day School. These days, she barely even turns around to say good-bye to me as she enters her classroom excited for another day with Miss Janet and her friends. I get back into my car, and return north where at 9 AM, every Thursday, I am an expected guest in Miss Cashion’s Kindergarten classroom. If I’m lucky, I take my place in the visitor parking lot, then I check in at the office, exchange pleasantries with the school secretary, sign in, receive my fancy yellow name tag, and then begin the looooong walk to the classroom.

This Thursday was a day like any other. We were running about 5 minutes behind schedule, but with a seven month-old, that’s not bad. I dropped Lainey with my parents, got Eliza to school, made sure arrangements were all set for her to stay late, and then moseyed my way to Foley Elementary School. As I entered the classroom, where Miss Carpenter is subbing for Miss Cashion while she is on maternity leave, I was bombarded by 23 children, all jumping up and down, hugging my legs, shouting “Mister Steve! Mister Steve!” Little did I know how holy and comforting that moment would become.

Friday, too, began as any other day in the life of the Pankeys – maybe even a little better than usual. We had promised Eliza a trip to the Build-A-Bear Workshop. She was up early, obviously excited for the day head, so we got ready and headed to the Wharf. She made a lovely pink bear, we did some other Christmas shopping, had lunch at Tacky Jacks, and planned to buy a few more gifts on the way home. As I returned to the car, having picked up a gift card, Cassie showed me her phone, upon which I read the headline, “As many as 27 dead in a shooting at an Elementary School in Connecticut.” Honest to God, I didn’t know what to do with that information. It shocked my brain into numbness. Sure, I’ve read headlines like this before, several of them this year, in fact: “twelve dead and fifty-eight wounded in Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting,” “six dead in shooting at Sikh Temple,” “man begins shooting randomly at Portland, Oregon mall.” These are all terrible tragedies, but when the headline says, “Elementary School” and when, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the gunman’s victims were mostly six and seven year old boys and girls, words cease, brain function slows, and all I could see and feel was grief. All I could say was, “That’s awful.”

Lainey was still asleep in the car as we reached our last stop, so Cassie and Eliza went into Target to pick up a few last Christmas gifts while I stayed behind and tried to collect my thoughts. The first thing I did was open the Associated Press article, trying to figure out what the hell had really happened. It was worse than I could have imagined. Then I checked in on Facebook and Twitter, and my heart was strangely warmed by the outpouring of care and prayer that I found on social media, overwhelming even the loud voices of those, on both sides of the aisle, who would politicize a tragedy as it unfolds. My third stop was the Lectionary Page, where I read the words of Paul to the Church in Philippi and struggled to make them make sense.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Rejoice? Give Thanks? The Lord is near? Guarding our hearts and minds? These words felt empty to me. As I sat in the Target parking lot, listening to my sweet little child nap in her car seat, thinking of those amazing children at Foley Elementary School, and contemplating the madness that would cause a grown man to kill innocent children, I couldn’t imagine how the world might ever rejoice again. With Christmas then only eleven days away, I couldn’t figure out how to wrap my mind around the great miracle of the Incarnation, how God might deign to become flesh and dwell among us, and at the same time, how I might ever stop worrying about my two precious daughters and their friends, how light could shine in the midst of such deep darkness.

I know that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. December Fourteenth felt, in many ways, like 9/11. Through social media, some parents and grandparents gave thanks for the safety of their own children, while others lamented that their kids and grand-kids were so far away. News men and women struggled for words as they attempted to describe the horrific images being shown on TV. Even the President of the United States couldn’t stop himself from shedding tears as he got choked up commenting on the tragedy on Friday afternoon. On Friday, December 14th, it was abundantly clear that all is not right in the world. Realizing the gravity of the situation, I turned, once again, to the lessons for Sunday and prayed, “Lord, what word is there to offer in the wake of such unspeakable violence?” I desperately sought words of comfort for myself, in the hopes that I might then be able to share them with you this morning. And then it happened. Two random events on Friday night and Saturday morning opened my eyes to see God’s hand at work in a world so fraught with madness.

The first glimpse of God’s steadfast love came as Cassie and I got ready for bed on Friday night. She began to sing the chorus of O come, O come Emmanuel. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” As I listened again to the words of my all time favorite hymn, I began to realize that part and parcel of the life of faith is the invitation to rejoice, even in the midst of hardship. Especially in the midst of hardship. Israel is invited to rejoice in the midst of Roman occupation with the hope that Emmanuel will someday come. Paul invites the Church in Philippi to rejoice, even as he sits in a Roman prison awaiting certain execution. This Advent season, we are invited to rejoice. We rejoice, with Israel, in the coming of our Savior on Christmas Day. We rejoice in all circumstances, with Paul and the Philippians, in full confidence that the Lord is near, no matter where we find ourselves. We rejoice with the crowds that came to see John the Baptist, confident that small acts kindness, charity, and justice can make the world a better place. We rejoice in the steadfast love of God that shines the light of the Kingdom even in the midst of deep darkness.

The second opening, into which the light of Christ began to shine for me, was a prayer, written by Max Lucado that was shared on my mother’s Facebook page. It is entitled “A Christmas Prayer” and Lucado offers it as the answer to the question many of us are asking this weekend, “how do we make sense of this senseless shooting?”

Dear Jesus,
It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.
These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.
The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?
Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.
Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.
Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.
This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.
Hopefully,
Your Children

In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, I will add but a few more words. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. Shine your light in the darkness, restore our joy, empower our faith, and by all means, pour out your grace, peace, and love on the people of Newton, Connecticut. Amen.

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