Five Minute “Friday”: help

I love this weekly writing exercise/community, and I return after a few months’ absence. Because it’s always there waiting. And it’s *only* five minutes.

Five Minute Friday is my favorite of writing link-ups hosted by Kate Motaung. Her description draws me back every week, and the community of FMF keeps me writing – “This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation. Just write.”

helpIt’s a word that can save a life. But I find it almost impossible to utter. It feels so, well, helpless. Who needs help in my self-sufficient world? I’m doing just fine, thank you.

Except when I’m not. Like tonight when one of my 5-year-olds defied me in front of her grandparents, and I messed it up. I was angry and frustrated and overwhelmed and out of my league. I was also ashamed for my daughter’s behavior in front of her grandparents and my response in front of them, too. Why couldn’t I just have said, “help, please”?

It’s a lie that as a parent I can do it all and be it all for my kids. But it’s a lie we all deceive ourselves into living by more often than not.

I wonder if this false stigma with the word “help” is what contributed to the tragic death in our church community of a mother and daughter two years ago today. Afterwards, we all expressed the sentiment – “If only she’d asked for help …” We all wished we could have jumped in. But how many of us would have been willing to ask for that help if we had been in her shoes? On my hardest, darkest day of parenting, it took all I had in me to finally, finally text my trusted friend and neighbor with the simplest of requests – “Will you help? I need a hug and I can’t deal with bedtime tonight.” She was over within minutes, and I felt simultaneously grateful and humbled. 

It’s the hardest, best thing in the world to ask for help. Because we know there’s One eager to help us when we ask. And He’s sent people into our lives who are as eager to assist us as we are to give them a hand when needed.

So do you need to ask for help? Don’t delay. Help is on its way.

***

If you find yourself to be entertaining thoughts or ideas of suicide in particular do not hesitate to ask for help. If you’re not sure where to turn, contact the crisis text line by texting “GO” to 741741 or call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

 

 

 

 

the glittering mess of Advent

Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I  hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.

And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.

But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt  each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers?  Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?

And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?

Friends grieving parents taken too soon?

Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?

Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)

Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?

And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?

Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?

Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?

I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.

It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)

And that’s when it came to me.

This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.

These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).

But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.

Ann Voskamp says it well in her Advent devotional:

The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”

 

 

What Tragedy Teaches Us (guest post at TGC)

I will always remember the summer of 2014 as one bookended by two tragedies that struck close to home. The first happened on the evening of May 30. As 17-year-old Mark Rodriguez was driving home from his Christian school’s graduation, he was shot and killed by a madman firing randomly. The madman then killed a police officer and wounded another before being shot and killed himself. That terrible evening in Norfolk, Virginia, seemed particularly tragic for Rodriguez, the son of a pastor and Christian counselor.

What’s amazed me in the wake of that tragedy is watching the way Jesus has shone so brilliantly through that young man’s life, testified to by his parents as well as his own writings and photography on his blog, most notably a post on heaven. As his parents grieved in the days after his death, they graciously accepted interviews during which they spoke of their clear hope in the resurrection:

Our son is not dead; he’s alive, and we believe we will see him again. Mark wanted nothing more than to be a worship leader. And you know what? He got exactly what he wanted.

Two Questions 

As I sat and watched his family and the local Christian community grieve, find hope, and paint a picture of a young man wholeheartedly devoted to Jesus, I asked myself two questions. … [Click over to The Gospel Coalition Blog to read the rest here.]

A year ago: remembering tragedy and finding hope

A year ago today, tragedy shattered one family – intruding into an otherwise sunny summer afternoon and stealing two in its wake. Darkness seemed to win, leaving all of us in our church community in shocked grief at losing Karla and Katharine.

One year ago, we all sprang into action. Seeking comfort through what we could offer the bereaved and surviving husband and daughter, and sharing many, many tears together.

One year ago today – I’d never witnessed a dad telling his daughter the unspeakable, seen them collapse into each other with shared sorrow and grief-torn hearts.

One year ago today, I’d never seen the beauty of a church community activated by tragedy, becoming family for the deeply bereaved, restoring them to health one meal and embrace and shared tears at a time. I’d never felt such a deep sense of call – of being made for such a moment, to walk into the wake of an unimaginable tragedy and find this was holy ground. I did not go alone. God was there. He held us together, and he has been in our midst. Tragedy left its mark, but it does not win in the end.

A year ago, I never knew that laughter and smiles could return – that joy could be had – that comfort could be known even with questions unanswered and hearts laden with sorrow.

A year ago today, I could not have penned the words below (a letter to grief featured on Kate Motaung’s site) for I had not lived them yet. I have been changed, and so have we all. Let us not forget, and let us not stop seeking to comfort one another and to press into hope. Hope that light dawns after the darkest of nights, that it will one day dawn again. Forever restoring and healing and redeeming we who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

*****

Dear Grief,

You have claimed many friends in 2014, and I have been touched by you as well. The worst part is that the church has too often refused to own you as she should. She has proclaimed a gospel of health and wealth instead of the message of the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief who promised suffering for all who take up their cross to follow Him. And in those moments when the people of God feel like they have no refuge, you cackle and seem to win. You whisper lies, saying that there is no hope, and that God is as distant as the well-meaning friends who disappear after an initial rally of support.

Your problem is that you cannot be predicted nor defined. You come as a unique visitor to each of us, rarely on time and often in disguise. You hide yourself in many forms, putting on a mask of anger to make us feel strong instead of weak. Sometimes you sink deeply into the soul, bringing depression and despair that seems impossible to escape. If left unchecked, you can cause me to live entirely on the surface of life in order not to look within and acknowledge your presence there.

Jesus Christ knows you better than any of us. He is “the man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He bore the weight of what grieves God on the cross and conquered it fully in His resurrection. He took away the sting of death – sin – saying that you, Grief, no longer have the last word. Hope takes away your bitterness, leaving us a cleansing sorrow in its wake. Hope allows us to acknowledge you without surrendering fully to you. Hope frees us to look you in the eyes as you enter our hearts and communities, and to weep freely with those who sorrow. We the Redeemed can meet you without despair; acknowledge you without empty clichés; join with others who dwell in your shadow without demanding answers or reasons.

Sorrow well

So come, dear grief, teach us to sorrow well because of the hope of a risen Savior who will make all things new and eradicate your presence from our broken world entirely when He returns again. You will not own us, though you may visit us more frequently than we would choose. We will not turn away from your presence in our own lives or those of our friends and family. And thus we strip you of your power to isolate, turning your presence into a sign of longing and an invitation to draw nearer to those suffering in your wake.

when you dread summer (and not for the obvious reasons …)

I’ve been procrastinating this post for awhile. It feels like if I don’t write it, it won’t be true. Yet we all know that’s about as effective as saying you’re not hungry when your favorite dessert shows up on the after-dinner tray. (I caved and totally ate the peanut-butter pie while out for dinner last night.) Sometimes I wonder if I’m too negative or brooding. But, hey, that’s what writers are known for, right? And add “counselor” to my job description, and it’s a wonder I don’t spend all my moments looking at/being weighed down by the dark side of life. For there is much darkness that is real. And yet the light wins in the end, and I have hope that it’s already breaking into this broken-down world. 

But sometimes the weight of all the burdens catches up with my soul. And I’ve felt like I can’t quite rise to the occasion of being fully present in my life lately. Part of it may be “compassion fatigue,” experienced by full-time caregivers, health providers, and ministers. That would fit my life description since as a mom to 4-year-old twins, pastor’s wife, and counselor, I am all of the above. So I’m sure that’s a portion of the mist that seems to shroud the days.

Yet I’m also a girl who *loves* summer and all that it means. Beach days, bright sunshine, late sunsets, crickets’ songs and lightning bugs. This year I cannot seem to rise to my usual “summer love.” And it bothers me. Winter blues? Well, I always expect those. But summer doldrums? They’re foreign to my existence. Sure, summer is different now since having children because these are weeks and months without the break of preschool for them. My summer reading (and project) list must be shorter now than the fall-winter one, because I actually have less time alone rather than more. But this alone doesn’t seem to explain the low-grade numbness I feel (if numbness can be felt).

Then I consider our recent history – the history of my church community. And tragedy seared us about midway through last summer. I find myself cringing within, emotionally bracing for impact as the season turns and it’s summer again. It was a beautiful, typically-bright July afternoon when trauma struck through the deaths of a mom and her daughter, leaving darkness in its wake for the surviving husband/father and daughter/sister. It was one of the greatest privileges of our lives for my husband and I to be able to be first responders to their grief. To sit and cry with them when it was all so fresh and so confusing. To simply offer our presence and our tears. It has been beautiful to watch our community of faith surround them and carry them through this past year. It has been evidence of God’s grace to witness the strength of these two as they have learned how to do life anew together.

And because of the carrying-with of their grief, traces of those tears still remain in my heart and soul. I would have it no other way. That combined with a year of nonstop everything and insufficient rest is probably contributing to the distancing I feel from what’s good and true and beautiful of life, and of summer particularly.

What will be the path of finding my way back to joy? Of refusing to let darkness write the story of this summer through the never-ending dread? It will be simple yet difficult. Putting one foot in front of the other. Speaking of my struggle while it’s in the present (not waiting for the retrospective – “it’s all over and here’s how God met me”). Creating structure for my soul and our family that includes lots of rest, refreshment, and fun. Soaking my soul in the words of hope whether I feel like it or not. Words like,

“In this world you will have trouble. But, take heart, I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

Yes, dread is a normal emotional response to past trauma, and yes, compassion fatigue calls for rest and a break, but no, it won’t have the last word. Jesus has overcome whatever it is you and I dread. This is reason for hope. Hope that looks like walking out of the mist and embracing what’s good and real and true about life, especiallysummer.

in the aftermath of tragedy

I have been at a loss for words. Understandable, after what we have all mourned as a community. And yet problematic as one who processes through writing, and one who seeks to give comfort through words of the same. It’s almost been two weeks since tragedy struck our community through the unexpected death of a mother and daughter. I think what feels both haunting and comforting is that life goes on. We have returned to our routines, and this feels wrong, for how can we ever really return to a “before” when tragedy interrupted our lives so forcefully and so permanently? Yet in all of the grief research, this very routine normalcy is part of how we grieve and process. Life has to have a rhythm, and it continues to roll on despite the times when I feel it should stop for awhile. Pause, let us catch our breaths and be able to absorb how life has now changed. It feels like a betrayal to grief that I should return to weekly grocery shopping and breakfast/lunch/dinner and reading stories and work-outs at the gym. All of this should be different. And it is, but it isn’t.

katrinadestruction.com

katrinadestruction.com

The analogy that comes to mind is walking through New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. I was there with a team from my church to contribute to the ongoing rebuilding efforts. And four years later, there was still ample evidence of the destruction. Shops boarded up; homes crumbling in disrepair; areas of Ward 9 barely touched because of insufficient resources to rebuild. We began that week of rebuilding with a tour of the devastation. That helped us to have a context for our work, and motivation to work, and compassion as we worked. Could it be similar as we walk through the aftermath of this tragedy as a community? That now is a time for surveying what’s broken as we pray and grieve and ask about what and how we can begin to rebuild. 

We will do this in very apparently ordinary ways. Like bringing a meal to provide immediate relief to the surviving father and daughter, and not being afraid to reach out and call or email to say, “I’m praying for you. What do you need today?” I remember the words from my counseling professor Ed Welch in a class on how to enter into the suffering of others, and he said simply,

You show up. And you continue to show up. You aren’t afraid to reach out and to contact the person [grieving or suffering an unspeakable tragedy].

If you were impacted by this tragedy, how is it changing you? What’s the damage that will need to be repaired? Such as theological questions that came unhinged that will now need deeper foundations. Or categories of “how life should work” that seem to be obliterated. Even personal questions of how to support friends in need and how to know whether or not someone is in a desperate place and how to ask for help when I need it. All of these are part of the communal story of grief and response to tragedy. Let’s discuss them together and be changed for the good by such a tragedy. Couldn’t that begin to be part of the redemption story God promises to write, even (especially) here?

…For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. (Isaiah 49:13)

a grief of tragic proportion

Shock. Disbelief. Profound bewilderment. Deep sadness, even anger. Could we have done more? How didn’t we see this? Who could have helped? What do we do now? All of these and more flooded through me as Seth shared the news of a tragic mother-daughter death that occurred on Wednesday afternoon. A mother and a daughter who were very involved in our church, who leave behind a bereaved and broken father and an 11-year-old sister who lost half of their family on an afternoon in July. She was at camp, and immediately there was the question of how to tell her/when to get her/who should be there. Questions no grieving husband and father should have to answer. Questions he couldn’t answer. Questions we all attempted to speak our best opinions into while we, too, reeled inside with the sadness.

Seth and I witnessed the two hardest conversations of our lives yesterday as this brave father shared the details in two stages of the how with his 11-year-old daughter, and they wept together. And how can you see this and not weep? And not rage? And not feel utterly bewildered? No one saw this coming. No one. Not her best friend with whom she had lunch that day; not her husband who’s said, “She’s the center of my life!” None of us who worshiped alongside her on Sunday. Not the fellow girl scout troop moms who remember a friendly, engaged woman who loved her two daughters.

There is a sense among us who knew her of a communal fail. Why didn’t we know? How could we have helped? And this is good to ask and to explore and to take as a renewed call to engage in community (the antidote of isolation). And yet we must balance this with the reality that she must have been very good at hiding. She did not want anyone to know, for a part of her must have known that she would have been stopped. In some very secret and broken place, she decided this was best for her and her special needs daughter. But all of us left behind … this father, this daughter … whose lives will never be the same, whose stories will always be defined by this most awful of days … we grieve, we question, we are shocked, we don’t know how to go on.

Except that there is one who weeps with us. Who is in our midst. Who is not absent. And so we gathered as a church community yesterday to lament, to pray, to sing our grief and our questions without answers, to fall deep in the arms of the One who is holding us. Herein lies comfort that is real. A comfort that will meet us even when the questions will linger for the rest of our lives. There are no answers, but that’s not what we need the most right now. We need to know we are not alone, and that’s the comfort that even a deeply grieving father gave to his shattered daughter as they wept together:

“You are not alone. We are Easter people. We are Easter people. We are resurrection people.”

He said through his own sobs. There is resurrection promised, and it does not ease this week’s grief but gives a hope beneath the grief. The grief will end one day. Tears will change to joy of reunion. And in the meantime, resurrection guarantees that we have HIM with us. He is not in a cold tomb; He is alive and He is with us in the sadness unspeakable.

It was this hope and this reality of Christ-with-us that propelled Seth and me to walk up to the house of the grieving, and to walk inside, and to sit and weep and mourn. “Jesus wept,” is instructive here. Jesus, who knew Lazarus would be raised to life again, wept. He wept for his friend and with his friends. We can do no less.

******

Finding words for the feelings are also provided by our God who knows us and gives us what we need to bring to him. If you are grieving this loss or any other, I suggest reading the following as the prayers of your heart when your heart has lost its words.

 Lamentations 1-5

“Arise, cry out in the night,
at the beginning of the night watches!
Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord! …
Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.” (2:19, 3:19-20)

 

Psalm 44

“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and our oppression? …
Rise up, come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!”

 

Psalm 55

“My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter
from the raging wind and tempest.’ “

 

Psalm 77

“In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted. …
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”

 

Psalm 88

“But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?”

when tragedy strikes, where is God?

I awoke to a clear blue sky sunny with the cheery light of early summer. I texted my friend, “What a beautiful day for your wedding!” We slowly woke up on this Saturday morning in June.

And then peace was shattered as I heard of a shooting from the evening prior that left a 17-year-old and a Norfolk police officer dead. What chilled me was both how close it happened to our home (ten minutes away), and that the boy who died, Mark Rodriguez, was the son of acquaintances – a fellow pastor and his counselor-wife, Carlos and Leigh Ellen. Carlos pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, a church planted by the church where my husband is one of the associate pastors. We’ve often prayed for the Rodriguez family and their young church. And now. How to process?

Empathy is helpful to me as a counselor, yet it also means I can feel the emotional impact of an event that does not personally affect me. And I can be weighed down by it. Such as a national tragedy or the nightly news. And this. Well, it’s shaken me. I wonder how on earth I would ever get through such a tragic loss as a parent. And I feel angry at a world in which a high school rising senior would be killed while driving home to make it in time for his 11:00pm curfew. How did his parents get the news? In an extended interview, Carlos talks about retracing his son’s route when his son did not get home in time despite a text to his mom saying he’d dropped off his friend and was headed straight home. He speaks of seeing the car, the ambulance, the police and sirens and flashing lights. He speaks of crying out, “Where is my son?!” And finally getting the answer from the detective, “He’s deceased.” Then of calling his wife … and their stunned disbelief. A car accident with some injuries is what he first thought – but this. It’s a thousand times worse. More tragic, more apparently senseless, more awful. To be randomly shot by a madman with a gun from inside his car. That’s losing your son to the very worst and most irreversible brokenness of this world: murder.

I went to the Christian school’s memorial service for Mark Rodriguez on Sunday afternoon (two days after his death) to be on hand as a grief counselor. I was, instead, counseled by many who are grieving with hope the life of a remarkable man. I saw a picture of a young man wise beyond his years, with the secret of this wisdom being no secret at all: it was the Lord to whom he was surrendered. The God he loved to lead others to worship. His mom said, “All he ever wanted to be was a worship leader,” and fellow students spoke of his joyful (even goofy at times) way of leading them in worship. His mom, Leigh Ellen, spoke of his blog post about heaven – his last one, written less than two months before he died. She talked about his journal that revealed someone “even better than who we thought he was. The Mark you remember is the real deal.” For the mother of a teenager to speak these words – that alone communicates volumes as to the character and integrity of Mark Rodriguez. I was comforted to hear both parents hold in tension the reality of grieving their son’s death (no minimizing or denying this reality) with a deeper seated hope in resurrection life. His father, Carlos, said that there is no question that Mark is alive and with the Savior he loved. They even asked this Christian community to reach out to the family of the shooter, to offer comfort for their grief. They hold no malice (although I am sure there are questions) because they are resting in God’s sovereign goodness over every detail of their son’s life. Psalm 139 that speaks of every day ordained for us before our lives start – this is how a parent can say, “Mark got exactly what he wanted – to be with the God he loved so much. God took our son home, and he did not live one minute shorter than he was supposed to.”

It raises the question for me – well, so many questions actually. There are the typical ones about why and how come and this is not fair. But the questions I want to live with moving forward are these:

(1)  How could I live a life like Mark’s – completely surrendered, longing for Jesus, true through and through – so that those who know me best could say, “She was even better than you thought she was. Not because of her goodness, but because of her Savior to whom she was surrendered.”?

(2)  When I am cut, will I bleed gospel like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? For that’s what’s so poignant. It is the gospel flowing out in their pain that is so compelling. But don’t take my word for it. Watch their interviews here. It is worth every bit of the 20 minutes for all four parts.

How can I live like Mark? And grieve like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? Through drinking deeply of the gospel. A gospel that shows that God’s in the very middle of the tragedy. He is the God who’s not only sovereign in it, but faithful through it. He is the God intimately acquainted with grief. The God who knows what it is to lose a son to senseless murder. For isn’t that the story of the cross? He is the God who hates death and sin and brokenness so much that he allowed Jesus to be murdered that death and sin and its brokenness might be reversed – eradicated – that love would win through an empty tomb and a stone rolled away. Resurrection. Life after death. Hope amidst tragedy that frees a community to grieve and laugh and hope again. 

 

Connecting Christmas with the Newtown Tragedy

stars at night

Darkness. Black darkness. Tiny beams of light come through. But it’s still night. We still wait. We can’t see clearly, and we don’t know when daylight will arrive. Yet aren’t the stars brighter because it is so dark? They are not visible when the sun is at full strength. We await Light. The true Light sent into the world, whose first coming [Advent] we celebrate during this season. But all it takes is the horrific story of a deranged 20-year-old committing the most senseless tragedy to date in an elementary school in a safe, postcard-perfect New England town that had a single homicide on its record of the past 10 years – all it takes is this one story to remind me, to remind us, that there is a greater Advent we await. Our king came in weakness and vulnerability the first time, but when he returns next, there will be no question of his power and his strength and all evil will flee before him like darkness at dawn’s first light.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee.

The only way I can reconcile the Newtown tragedy with this season is to see it as a study of contrasts. The darker the light, the brighter the star shines? The God who came, and who is coming again, came to the unsuspecting and unaware. But not to take life senselessly – he entered to give life abundantly. Many asked “why?” Why would a powerful God, the Creator of all, stoop to take on human flesh in some mysterious and lowly way? Love. Love that beautifies and gives life to the one loved. Many still ask why – why come to a virgin? Seems humanly impossible. Why come poor and not rich? Why come to a lowly city? Why spread the news first to those despised in society [shepherds]? Unlike all of the “why” questions we’re asking about the Sandy Hook tragedy, these “why” questions are beautifully inexplicable. Underneath all the search for why and theories as to what caused Lanz to do what he did is a search for safety and protection that we are never guaranteed on this side of heaven. I shiver with fear to write these words. I feel the “survivor guilt” of being able to hug my two daughters when there are 20 sets of parents who waited in vain for their children on Friday. I feel the anxiety mixed with nausea when just imagining what it would have been like to wait for  my child who had been senselessly murdered. I said to a friend in jest, “Another point for homeschooling.” Yet the sobering reality is that I cannot protect my children in any place, at any time. I cannot guarantee their safety. This is a call for me to entrust my fear to the God who banishes fear, who has prepared a safe place where sin cannot enter, death is no more, and tears and mourning are forever banished.

Because I worship a God who came near, I can have faith to picture what you won’t see in any news report. We see the images of weeping parents without their children. But what would it be like to imagine our Father God welcoming these little ones home on Friday? Rescued from the evil of the world, now safe forever from the power of the Evil One to hurt and destroy. They were not embraced by their earthly parents on Friday, but could they be embraced by God their Father through faith in Jesus? Who knows but that many of these little ones had the child-like faith Jesus tells us we are to emulate. Now they see the reality we hope for during Advent.

Even more so, I know that I can trust this God who came near. In the midst of heart-wrenching suffering and sadness, I was reminded by our pastor this morning that our God is a Father who knows what it’s like to have a child unjustly murdered. He allowed Jesus Christ – his only Son – to die for the sin of the hurt and rage and brokenness of all the human race so that we might be saved from sin’s death sentence. So that we can hope for full justice even in such a tragedy. So that our own sinful brokenness might be healed and we would know comfort in the midst of unspeakable pain.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found

As there are new corners touched and hearts broken by sin’s curse through this tragedy, I can hold onto hope that Jesus is coming to bring joy when he reigns with truth and grace and that even now the comfort of the Christ-child (God come near – Emmanuel) can be tasted in the midst of a dark world. We wait for dawn in the dark blackness of night. But it is coming. He is coming. Come soon, Lord Jesus!