|Milky Way Over Quiver Tree Forest by Florian Breuer|
I think it’s safe to say we are all in shock.
Our hearts are so heavy with grief, confusion and anger, for the suffering of families in Newtown, Connecticut. And I want you to know that all of these feelings are absolutely appropriate and welcome in this place where we come together in the presence of God.
Their reality seems to hover underneath everything else at the moment, and we are not sure what to do with it. The sadness and horror can be paralyzing. And yet we cannot turn away. Turning away would feel like abandoning them – not that we are actually WITH them anyway. We’re just watching their nightmare from afar, glued to every news story, every image, every facebook link, hovering in a state of despair, hopelessness and dismay. What are we to do?
My sister yesterday was observing that for the vast scope of history, even a hundred years ago, people mostly only knew about what happened in their own community. If a tragedy happened far away it could take days, sometimes weeks or months to find out about it. Whatever tragedy you encountered, was right near by. Your neighbor’s house burns down, your pastor’s child dies, your town floods.
Virtually everything that happened, whether suffering or joy, could be shared. And you could always act. There was always something you could do. You could act on what the person near you was experiencing. Their suffering was your burden, their joy was your celebration. We are wired to live like this, in the image of a God who made us for connection and even finally plunged in and joined us in this life and death thing so that nothing we ever suffered would be borne alone. We are meant to share life with each other, to bear tragedy together.
So prayers were paired with visits, homes rebuilt, casseroles delivered, side by side piecing back together lives or simply sitting in the grief together and listening. We know how to act, we want, with everything in us, to act when something terrible happens to another human being. It is the normal response, the right response. It is the God-given, human response. But how do we act when people are far away and we do not know them? Where does our compassion and our sadness go? How do we join suffering when it is reported to us in a continual feed of information, disconnected from real lives, real voices and faces and friends? When there is no ride you can offer or meal you can bring or night you can pass hand in hand in grief and prayer?
Our passage today is the newly pregnant Mary, fresh from the angel’s pronouncement. Still absorbing what all this will mean for her, she leaves home and heads out to visit the six month pregnant Elizabeth. Both women have been given this enormous awareness, the weight of a promise that the world is going to change, that God is going to come and do something irreversible to save us all.
But they cannot carry this weight alone.
None of us can carry the weight alone.
And so they find each other.
Before Mary came, Elizabeth had told no one about the impossible baby growing inside of her and hadn’t set foot out of the house. She believed God’s promise, had seen and felt the changes in her own body as this child grew. She had every reason to go and proclaim it to anyone who would listen. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave the front door.
But now, here comes Mary, who knows and shares the secret, who is also vulnerable and chosen, who is also participating with God.
And when Elizabeth sees her, the baby in her womb leaps for joy, and Mary, at being greeted by Elizabeth, recognized as the chosen one of God, bursts out in a song of joy and thanksgiving for the God who sees and saves and calls and redeems.
And now they have each other.
Together they bear the weight of the world and the promise of God, living side by side until Elizabeth is ready to deliver.
In one another, God provides sanctuary, and space for the promise to grow, to shape them into people who could face what was to come. And with one another they could be reminded of the bigger picture, could imagine together the future God was unfolding, could literally see in each other what God was doing for the future of the world. They were given to each other to share together in this promise of God. To bear the weight of it together.
Christmas says that God in Jesus Christ came into real life, into people’s real lives, in a real time and place, embodied in flesh and blood and experiences. And we meet Christ who shared life with us and bore death for us, when we share life and bear death with one another, in our real time and place. We are called to live fully with the people to whom we’ve been given, the people who are given to us.
I cannot do that with people in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t know anyone there. I have never been there. It might as well be a horror movie, a nightmare looping in the background of my life, for as much as it impacts my own world.
But I know teachers who must regularly run classroom drills with their students against such a terrible occurrence ever happening on their watch.
And I know people who struggle with mental illness, gripped by instability and frightening bouts with darkness.
I know family members who feel helpless and heartbroken that they cannot change the choices someone they love has made.
And I know people whose child or spouse was taken from them suddenly and unfairly, or who are staring down the barrel of terminal cancer, or battling a life-stealing illness.
I have a friend whose adopted daughter has been delayed in Haiti, and every day for over a year now my friend waits to hold her little girl once again in her arms, as she gets older and older in an orphanage waiting for the red tape to clear.
There is suffering in my neighborhood, my church, my family. As much as I long to, I can’t share the suffering in Newtown, but I can share the suffering of those God has given me to, and to whom I have been given.
And I can trust that these people in this tragedy have been given by God to people as well, that these families have communities, have churches, have neighbors and loved ones who are right there, bearing their suffering along with them. Who have voices those people can hear, and arms those people can fall into and weep. We can trust God with their care and needs. And the thing we can do for them as much as anything is to love and care for those around us, being human for them, with them, being image-bearers of a life-sharing God, a force for hope and peace and joy in whatever ways, and with whomever, I am able.
This is the week of Advent we focus on Joy.
It feels strange to talk about joy against the backdrop of such sorrow. But these things are not isolated and separate in life. They touch, and intermingle, and deepen one another. Joy is a miraculous inbreaking of God – a moment where you touch transcendence, or rather, transcendence touches you. And for a moment, if only a moment, you are complete, and part of the completeness of things.
I heard the terrible news Friday just before Maisy’s first sleepover ever. For Maisy, there was nothing, nothing, as important in all the world, than this friend sharing this magical evening with her. When they met on the corner in mittens and boots, they burst out in excited greeting, and then they walked home touching each other the whole time, as though this was too good to be true and this friend might just disappear if they did not remain tethered together. I watched them, their faces alight as they eagerly discussed how their stuffed animals would camp out in a tent next to them, and when I texted a photo of them to the little girl’s mom, she responded, “Everything is broken. And this is beautiful.”
When the girls got home they arranged the bedroom, planned every moment of pajama wearing and teeth brushing, and then the breathless time came to dress up, find jewelry and shoes, and matching accessories, and prepare to come to the Christmas Razzle.
All the way there they talked about how they were two princesses going to a ball. And I was their coach driver. And every time I wanted to plunge back into tears, to lose myself again in the grief and horror over what had just happened in Newtown, I was inadvertently pulled into their story.
“Mommy, you have two roles- you are our coach driver, and also you are the fairy godmother, which is perfect because you already have a beautiful dress and make up on. Just pretend you have a wand, ok?”
“Ok honey,” I said, looking in the rearview mirror at the rapturously content faces staring into the starry night, already nearing their bedtimes as the evening was just beginning. “I’ll pretend I have a wand.”
I took a deep breath and continued, “We are almost at the ball, where may I drop you off, your highnesses?” and they giggled with their heads together.
And for a moment, these sweet girls in their reverie startled me into poignant gratitude, into joy so unexpected and shocking that I could barely breathe for how holy and surprising it felt.
Life is so hard sometimes. Being alive, tragedy and heartbreak are inevitable and universal and sometimes powerful beyond comprehension. But then there’s these flashes of, of all things, joy, unforeseen and astonishing. And it sweeps in and alters the landscape with its passing power. Joy is the surprise that satisfies and completes. Our experiences of joy in this life are momentary, fleeting, impermanent. They are both glimpses of the future, and a completion of the past. They are the fulfillment we long for and recognize deep in our being as things being right, being restored, being redeemed. A friend yesterday called joy moments, “premembering” – they are remembering what is to come.
And as such, joy, experiences of joy, moments of completion and fullness, and glimpses of God’s completeness-, joy is powerful. It is light piercing darkness, it is hope tasted, peace glimpsed. Joy anchors us in real, tangible experiences transcendence in ordinary life. Joy gives us strength and courage to face the darkness, even while highlighting just how dark it is against the light that shines.
We are people grounded in time and space. We are embodied, in flesh and blood and experiences; we live in one place, and exist in one time. As much as I long to and no matter what I do, I cannot save anyone Newtown, Connecticut from suffering, or even truly share it with them. Not even if I watch the news every second of every day. But truth be told, I can’t even save the very people I love most on earth from suffering. But I can be with them. I can stand by them and share their suffering. I can share joy and life with them, and that is being faithful.
Our lives are a gift. We are given to each other – family, friends, communities, to share life with one another. We are called to do that faithfully. To be faithful friends, parents, brothers and sisters, faithful members of our communities and responsible for the place we’ve been planted for this time in life. Everywhere in the world right now, Newtown included, there are people standing with other people, sharing suffering and joy, and that is the place God is present. We are called to live faithfully where we are and God-with-us is with us.
Yesterday, over and over, I prayed for families in Newtown. And I went online and sent some money to the National Coalition to stop gun violence, because this kind of terror is unacceptable and I want it to stop. But I also turned off my phone and headed to the Children’s Theatre with my family for our annual Christmas tradition and enjoyed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” together. The Dalai Lama has said, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” Last night I got to share an evening with the beloved souls I have been given to share this fleeting gift of a life with. And that brought me joy.
Christmas still comes. No matter what happens, and especially when we need it most of all, God enters in. Advent invites us to long for joy, and to try on the fullness, to choose to notice, embrace and celebrate moments of joy, when lost things are found and relationships are restored, when brokenness is healed or fears overcome, or the delight and innocence of children’s wonder fill us with gratitude.
The light is has come, the light is coming that’s going to change the whole world, and already is, even when darkness is overwhelmingly dark. You and I carry this truth, but it is too big for us to carry alone. We need others to carry it with us, to give each other strength, to remind one another of the big picture and what God is doing for the future of the world. What God is doing right now. We need one another to premember the joy. Together we bear the weight of the world and the promise of God, together we say “Everything is broken. And this is beautiful.”
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. Live faithfully the life you’ve been given. It’s not very long. Invest in peace and point out hope. Love those around you. Bear their suffering. Share their joy. Grieve when you need to, as much as you need to, however you need to. Rejoice when joy comes, unexpectedly into your life, let it wash over you and fill you with gratitude. Pray for the world and live faithfully in the time and place you have been planted. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
When we gathered in worship on Sunday, December 16, we also shared Praying in Times of Tragedy, as we came together to lift the needs of the world and our community in prayer.