At my high school reunion this fall, I talked with an old friend with whom I’d lost touch over the years. He was one of those iconic figures in our class, someone you always knew would go far and do amazing things after he left for Harvard at 18. As we caught up recently, he explained to me that during his freshman year at Harvard, he started a non-profit organization called Peace First, which trains young people in the skills of peacemaking. Eric continues his work with Peace First, which began in Boston and is now working in other major American cities. Here’s the work they do as they describe it: The Peace First model teaches students to work effectively with others to resolve conflicts, solve community problems, communicate ideas effectively, and form positive social relationships. As students progress through our curriculum at each developmental level, from Pre-K through 8th grade, they develop the courage and compassion they need to see themselves as leaders and to act with empathy toward others.
As we talked, I remembered that I’d heard Eric had also gone to seminary, and I asked him what had been his motivation for seeking a divinity degree. That’s when he told me about the funeral of the 17-year-old kid, who’d been a part of the Peace First initiatives. This young man been senselessly shot on the streets of Boston, and when Eric faced the grieving family, he realized he had no language for tragedies, no real framework for assimilating the whys and hows of evil - and certainly no words of comfort to offer a family whose son had been irrevocably and violently taken from them.
God was needed for that darkness.
I’m remembering Eric this morning - and his reach for God in death - as I think about Newtown, Connecticut, and the darkness that descended Friday morning on that sleepy New England town.
Yesterday, I had the radio tuned to NPR and heard Scott Simon interview a rabbi from the small Connecticut town.
“How do you make sense of such an event?” Simon asked the rabbi.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” the rabbi replied, indicating that we can never make sense of this kind of outrageous act. In his estimation, our only response can be to comfort those who’ve been directly affected.
But wouldn’t we find hope to if we were able to find even some small light of understanding? Wouldn’t some comfort come if we had the necessary language for events like Newtown? I find that I share my friend Eric’s impulse: to name and know evil. I want to reach for God in death.
Of course there is so much we will never understand. To kill is always a horror. To kill children is unspeakable evil.
And why Newtown in the middle of Advent? Something feels so wrong, so horribly incongruent to celebrate that God-with-Us, Immanuel, is coming –has come – when our world still suffers the possibilities of an armed man entering an elementary school with a heart set on massacre, a world where parents might be called to identify the barely recognizable bodies of their children, a world where death is still a fearsome enemy and every parent on the planet shudders to think that it could have been them.
Where is God? Where is God this Advent? And where is God for Newtown?
The Christian response matters most now, for those questions. Because I believe we have words to speak into this darkness. I believe there is some small sense to make of what is in almost every other dimension a senseless act.
The Christian response begins with this: the world is NOT as it should be.
The first three chapters of the Bible sketch what is really the entire narrative thread of the Bible. If you wanted to know what the Bible says, you could begin to make sense of the shape of the story just by reading Genesis 1, 2, and 3.
God made the world good, and that goodness was expressed as inner harmony as well as relational harmony. We were at peace with ourselves, with one another and with God.
But that peace was severed because of human rebellion. For the Bible says that while we were meant to live under the authority of God – an authority, which was never despotic or capricious but always benevolent and wise, we rejected God’s reign, choosing self-sovereignty over submission.
When self – and sin – rule, the only result is tragedy. The rest of the Bible fills in those details.
We are wrong to think that evil only exists in the extremes – only in places like Newtown, CT. To be sure, Newtown is a particularly egregious and horrific manifestation of human sinfulness. But the Bible says that we are all guilty of sin. And even though the vast majority of us will never commit violent crime, we will commit unthinkable evil. And for this, we will all fall under the judgment of God.
In case we are offended of the notion that God judges, we may need only think of Newtown. In events like these, we want – DEMAND – justice. We thirst for it. Because to let the guilty go free while the innocent suffer from their crimes is almost a crime worse than they perpetrate.
Why Newtown in the middle of Advent?
Because maybe now is the best time for remembering that the world is a broken and beat up place, where we hurt and are hurt, and there is desperate, DESPERATE need of rescue.
And though we are not always rescued from our suffering (I am sure that among the families grieved by loss, Christ-followers are among them), we can be rescued by HOPE.
The Christian has hope that God has not abandoned this world to its mess but has entered it. God has put on flesh – JESUS came and pitched his tent among us.
And when He was falsely accused and executed by Roman authorities, when three days later He was bodily resurrected, He became the RESCUE. He became the HOPE.
Jesus is the rescue for all sinners, who are exiled from God and alienated from themselves and one another by virtue of their own personal evil.
At his coming, the angels announced a new world order, where evil no longer was sovereign but God was taking back His rightful, righteous rule: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
Peace for our world of aching violence? Yes, yes, that is the Advent announcement. The promise of God-with-us, Jesus peace: soul peace, peace with one another, peace with God. There’s hope beyond Newtown.
This hope of Immanuel -Jesus, seated upon the throne with death, our great enemy, conquered beneath His feet - helps us realize that Newtown, CT, is not the final scene of this world drama. The Bible promises a new heavens and a new earth, whereby God makes His home with us. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 19:4
But let’s not mistake something very important: hope does not annul lament. Newtown is an invitation for lament. We should cry and rage, mourning all that is not yet about the kingdom of God.
Come, Lord Jesus, is the cry of the Church. This is the Christian’s prayerful reach for God in the face of death.
And Newtown is an invitation into the expectant hope that this will one day be true: the world will be remade, reborn, and brought under God’s rightful rule in Christ.
Come, Lord Jesus. Put the world to rights.