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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Newtown

Advent's Invitation: Consider your joy, and keep your song

jenmichel@me.com

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept When we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars

We hung our harps,

For there our captors asked us for songs,

Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

May my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

If I do not remember you,

If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Psalm 137:1-6

Maybe you, like I, wonder how we can bring ourselves to the melodies of Advent when we are in collective mourning for Newtown, Connecticut?

Yesterday, I am standing at the kitchen sink, and above the noise of breakfast clatter, I hear the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary children read aloud on the radio. Charlotte Bacon, James Mattioli, Olivia Engel. It’s a long list of tragic loss, and every name sears. It’s not their faces that make me weep, but their names. Oh God. How do we bury all the possibilities of a child’s name?

This morning, I read coverage of the first two funerals – Noah Pozner and Jack Pinto – and think of the utter impossibility of eulogizing children. What would I say of my own children were I to lose them? The heartbreak is in the absence of words, all that could not be said of their stolen days, months, years - the record that will never be.

No, I am convinced. You cannot eulogize a child, and this is just another ominous reminder that this, this, should not be.

We are struggling to find our words in the wake of Newtown.

And when the heart breaks, a song feels like an utter impossibility. This is the picture of Psalm 137: Israel has been exiled, taken far from home and settled in the land of Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon we wept.” The weeping seems to have excluded the possibilities of a song: “There on the poplars we hung our harps.”

And this is grief. We hang up our harps when life shatters. We bury bodies - and with them, we want to bury our songs.

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”

And if we needed a reminder that this bedraggled and beat up planet is not our home, Newtown has been the chilling reminder of our own exile. The scene at Sandy Hook Elementary has stirred up all of our Edenic longings for a better world, a world where children live out their days, where poverty and injustice are banished, where all of creation sings the songs of wholeness and goodness, truth and beauty, justice and righteousness.

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”

Newtown testifies, not just to a season of national mourning, but to the universal groaning of Creation that began when sin birthed this tormented world of wrong: “For the creation waits with eager longing . . . the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth,” (Romans 8:21, 22).

We pine for a better world: the New Jerusalem, the future city of God, all of which are images used in the Scriptures to describe heaven. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

By the rivers of Newtown, we sat and wept.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD – the songs of Advent – in this foreign land, where Death still reigns supreme?

If I forget you – the new heavens and the new earth – I will lose all capacity for a melody.

I will lose my joy. And I will bury my songs.

Which is why today’s Advent invitation invites us to look beyond these shadows of death to a future hope. Receive today the invitation, which Christ secured on the cross when He defeated Death and announced that Creation was finally waking from the long sleep of her spell:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Today, consider your joy and keep your song. Because this is not our home: "Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship - A SONG? - with reverence and awe."

“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” Isaiah 65:19, 20

“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:13

* * * * *

I spoke at two events this month on the subject of joy. Some have asked for the manuscript, and I’m including it here, knowing that its message of joy in the midst of loss may provide hope to us in our own sadness.

Grace Christmas Brunch, 2012, final

Advent's Invitation: Reach for God in death (and hope for Newtown)

jenmichel@me.com

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.