A Pastoral Response to Newtown, CT
There are times in life when we are faced with issues that touch the very core of our being and shape the culture in which we live. In our lifetimes we have faced the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union, The 1993 war in Moscow, 9/11, the Beslan school massacre (380 deaths), the Moscow theater hostage crisis, and now this needless shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. These may not be the moments that come to your minds or stir your attention, but they are the moments of our history. Just writing them down brings about emotions which usually remained buried beneath the surface.
Living in the former Soviet Union we always lived with a heightened sense of awareness that we and our children were targets. International schools are especially considered soft targets for terrorism. Every day we sent our children off to school knowing that they had to be kept safe by those around them, and in the protective arms of God. The school itself had a safety perimeter with guards at the gates. All cars had to have permits to even enter the property. All doors were made of heavy steel and had electronically coded locks. The codes were changed on a regular basis. This is what we came to expect living in Russia, but somehow it’s not what we expect when we live in America. We have always thought of America as the safe place where children could run freely, without the worry of looking over their shoulder for the suspicious individual who may be following them, or monitoring for left packages or bags that could be bombs. But maybe that is all changing, and the church must be prepared to speak into that change.
As ministers of the gospel we must bring Jesus with us into the pain of this world and into the world’s cultural changes. When society experiences a collective tragedy such as the one in Newtown we must be willing to speak into that pain with our congregations. This is not something that should be pushed aside and forgotten. We must address the situation and be willing to provide Christian leadership. Where do we begin?
Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God (Is. 40:1).
The first responsibility of ministers is to provide comfort for those who are living in the midst of this tragedy. While we do not live close geographically we must be willing to realize that today’s media makes these events very live and real for all of us! The reactions this week make us realize that this shooting has hit a collective nerve in the psyche of America. That includes the people within our congregations. We have heard reports that church attendance was up on Sunday. Why is that? Because when we are hurt we seek comfort from God and from his people. It is moments like this that the church must step up and be a voice for the love and comfort of God which can come to us in the midst of tragedy.
The minister must be willing to acknowledge the incident and the pain that it has inflicted among those in Newtown, but also here in our local congregations. Recognize the fear that exists within the hearts of children and parents and share the good news of Jesus Christ – that it is the Lord who wants to come and comfort us in the midst of these difficulties, as well as take away any anxiety which we may fear. Every day we step out into a world full of uncertainties. Any day could be our last! As God’s children, he promises to come and be with us.
No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one (James 1:13).
“Did God make this happen?” This is one of the questions that ministers are frequently asked in a desire to understand the awful circumstances. Well meaning Christians might say that God had a plan for this situation and that he purposely planned it so that we could learn a lesson. Some have gone so far as to say that God did this so that we would learn that we need to have public prayer back in the schools. First of all, prayer should have never left the schools if Christians who work and study in the schools continued on with their prayer-lives. No one has ever outlawed a person having private times of prayer in a public school. I know of teachers who come to school early in the morning and spend time sitting in every chair in their classroom praying for each child who will enter the classroom that day. I believe that God is pleased with this type of prayer from someone whose heart is genuinely turned toward him, and no laws can keep someone from doing this. Therefore God is in the schools, as long as Christians are in the schools, following the Apostle Paul’s example of praying continuously.
God’s nature does not allow any space for evil. The early church Fathers wrestled with this question and laid a foundation for our understanding. Gregory of Nyssa writing long ago said that the image of God is marked with “alienation from all evil.” In other words, evil is completely beyond the realm of God’s attributes. God cannot be the father of evil. Nyssen explains that it is the person’s “departure of the better state” which becomes “the origin of its opposite.” “Since then, this is the peculiarity of the possession of a free will, that it chooses as it likes the thing that pleases it, you will find that it is not God who is the author of the present evils, seeing that he has ordered your nature so as to be its own master and free; but rather the recklessness that makes choice of the worse in preference to the better.” In other words, it is the human’s will which is “swept away by deceit” that becomes the “inventor of evil.”
This was not something that the human simply discovered “after it had been invented by God. Nor did God create death; man, in a way, is the founder and creator of evil.” Instead, according to Nazianzen, you will be on a journey toward God. “‘God,’ according to bright students of Greek etymology, is derived from words meaning ‘to run’ or ‘to burn’ –the idea being of continuous movement and consuming of evil qualities hence, certainly, God is called a ‘consuming fire.’”
We, as humanity must take responsibility for the actions at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. What happened there is the result of choices made by humans and now we, as God’s people must choose how we will respond to what has occurred. We must also ask ourselves how might we become involved so that there might be a different outcome in the future. This is the responsibility of God’s people.
Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).
“But couldn’t God have intervened?” Jesus was sitting at the right hand of that Father that fateful Friday morning interceding for all that was happening, and who’s to say that he didn’t intervene? Wasn’t Jesus visible in the courage of the woman in the school office who called 911? What about in the young teacher who locked away her children in the cupboards only to face the shooter herself, saving the lives of numerous children? And what about the first responders who put were willing to run into the midst of that dangerous situation to stop the senseless violence?
But how could Jesus allow so many little children to die? Honestly, we don’t have the answer to that. There are times when we may need to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that we cannot completely explain God. He says,
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).
If we can’t answer all the questions, what are we to do? We are to be reminded of the promises of the love of God.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).
There is a very personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who came to this earth to save us from our sins. When we run into the arms of the Savior, we are also running and fleeing from evil. Even the children who died that day ended up in the arms of a dear loving Savior. If we are in a right relationship with Jesus Christ there is nothing in this world that can separate us from his love.
This is the advent season. We have been horribly reminded of the pain that exists in this world. May we join together and pray,
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20b)!