Sandy Hook Revisited

It’s hard to believe that three years have passed since Adam Lanza gunned down 20 elementary school children, 6 of their teachers, and his mother. Even harder to fathom is that, three years on, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School no longer stands as an anomaly of recent history. Since that frightful December day in 2012, the frequency of mass shootings in America has pulled the term “active shooter” from the police scanner into the vernacular, and guns have claimed the lives of some 555 American children.

On Christmas Eve 2012, I published a prayer for Newtown, along with a few reflections. I am re-posting them tonight as a tribute to the memory of the fallen and the grief of the living, and an appeal for faith-filled action in the wake of our prayers. The next three years do not have to repeat the last three years.

Adam Lanza did more than shoot a class of innocent, defenseless first graders. He left a .223 caliber exit wound in the collective consciousness of America.

Part of the sting comes from wanting to do something but not knowing what to do. Some are campaigning for gun control. Others are advocating for more and better mental health care. Still others are sending gifts to Newtown. I recently read that well-wishers from all over the world have flooded this community of 28,000 people has with 60,000 teddy bears. I applaud theses efforts, but none of them will ever be enough – for those giving or those receiving.

What I know to do is pray. At least, that’s the only place I know to begin. Following Christ is not a stationary (and never a sedentary!) activity, even when we are still, seeking to know that the Lord is God. If what we call prayer is more than wishful thinking, it must always draw us up off our knees – either to acts of ministry or to stand ready with straighter posture and sharper vision. Prayer moves us. I do not yet know how to move, exactly; but I continue to pray so that I might continue to be ready.

And so for what it’s worth, I’d like to offer these prayers for Newtown on this Christmas Eve. They were first offered on Sunday, December 16, prior to our church Christmas play. They continue to be prayed – for the victims and for us all, that we may heal and learn to wrestle with the questions surrounding this tragedy without forcing answers:

Lord, today as the candles of Advent glow in our midst, a thick cloud hangs over our hearts. We are struggling to comprehend the slaughter of the innocents that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. Such violence. Such grief. Such pain. We turn to you, O Lord: our Rock, our Redeemer; our Shepherd, our Savior, our Sustainer. We turn to you for comfort, for strength, for relief… for we are weary and heavy laden. Hear our prayers and help us to pray. Create in us clean hearts; renew our spirits, and transform our minds. And as we pray, remind us who we are and whose we are in this holy season of Advent.

As a people blessed to mourn, let us pray for the community of Newtown and all who are grieved – around the country and around the world – by what has happened there. May we be comforted.

As a people called to weep with those who weep, let us pray for the victims of the Newtown tragedy and their loved ones, for whom this Advent must seem devoid of anything resembling hope, peace, joy, or love.

As a people called to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, let us pray – as hard as it may be – for the gunman, Adam Lanza, and those who loved him.

As a people called to go the extra mile, let us pray a special prayer for Adam’s brother, Ryan, who has not only lost his brother and his mother just before Christmas but who must live with the anguish of knowing that his brother killed his mother before shooting 26 other people – most of them children.

As a people called to make disciples of all nations, let us pray that the hope, peace, joy, and love of this Advent season will not be lost in the wake of this tragedy. Let us be inspired to continue celebrating the promise of Christmas. Let us be inspired to continue singing with the angels – not to deny the deep darkness of these days, but to proclaim that in the darkness there is a light that shines; that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the great light that shines is a light that darkness does not – and cannot – overcome.

Finally, as a people blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, let us pray together the prayer our Lord taught us to pray, saying: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever. Amen.


Christmas (Faraway, So Close): A Meditation for Epiphany

The Christmas music has faded. The Christmas lights are slowly but surely going dark and coming down. Today we watch the Wise Men arrive in Bethlehem and then depart by another road.  In a few more days, it will look, sound, and perhaps even feel as if Christmas never happened.

I hate letting go of Christmas.  Un-decorating always gets me a little down – except when it comes to packing up the Christmas music. I’ll find myself humming some Christmas hymns around June or July, but after hearing “Last Christmas,” “Wonderful Christmas Time,” and their spawn ad nauseam from Thanksgiving onward, I’m ready for at least an 11-month hiatus.

There is one song from Christmas 2012 that I am not ready to let go of, however, and don’t plan to pack up just yet.  It’s a song, but it‘s not a Christmas song per se. At least, it wasn’t intended to be a Christmas song per se.

I stumbled upon it on YouTube one late November day while looking for an extended concert recording to play as I worked. I’ve listened to it just about every day since. As the events of December 2012 unfolded – illnesses at home, hospitalizations and funerals at church, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School – this song gave voice to my feelings and my struggles in ways I could not. As odd as it sounds (even to me), this barebones 11-year-old acoustic rendition of a 20-year-old U2 song has helped me ponder the meaning and message of Christmas in newfound ways – and it has given me comfort.

It’s a song written from the perspective of someone observing and lamenting the effects of a dysfunctional, manipulative, abusive relationship on someone he cares about. It’s a song about someone longing to do something to make it better, to make it right. It’s a song about someone on the outside, heartbroken by what he sees, wishing he could be on the inside.

It’s also a song that describes more than a particular situation. The more I listen to it, the more I understand it as a song about the ironies, the hypocrisies, and the tragedies of the human condition.

We live in a dysfunctional, manipulative, and often abusive world.  The Newtown masacre was a blunt and biting reminder of that.  All of us, at some point, find ourselves confronting situations we don’t like and don’t understand – observing things we don’t understand, coping with things we don’t understand, even doing things we don’t understand. As the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

I hear “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” as a lyrical slideshow of select snapshots of how we are want to behave when life seems ludicrous or out of (our) control:

  • Feeling dressed up like a car crash: wheels are turnin’ but you’re upside down.”
  • Playing the part of a vampire or a victim [depending] on who’s around.
  • Wiling away our time up with the static and the radio waves: distracting ourselves, perhaps even medicating ourselves, with satellite television, and other forms of escapism.

But then the song takes an unexpected turn in the last stanza. In the wee hours one morning in this disturbing, distraught narrative – when all is quiet, when no one is around, when we least expect it – there is the bang and the clatter as an angel hits the ground.

I realize this song was written, at least in part, for the soundtrack of the Wim Wenders film Faraway, So Close – a movie about angels wanting to come to earth and be human. No doubt that screenplay originally inspired the lyrics here, but this unexpected turn – especially in the context of a December that seemed so far out of control – is what has made “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” a Christmas song for me.

All through Advent we read the prophets of old proclaiming God’s faithfulness to His promises.   “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33); “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Micah 3); “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted (Isaiah 12).

We read, we listened, and we waited.  Then, on Christmas Day, we heard a ruckus: a bang in the fields outside Bethlehem where an angel appeared to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. We ran with the shepherds to the manger and found a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, just as the angel said we would.  We discovered what the ruckus was all about – a ruckus that actually began months earlier in Nazareth of Galilee with the clatter caused by Gabriel dropping in on a maiden named Mary.

For me, this final stanza of “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” plays like a prelude to Ave Maria.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with you!

And when I hear that prelude, I am reminded that Gabriel came to Mary because God was looking down on us, from the outside, heartbroken by what he saw. God was looking down – wanting to do something about what He saw. God was looking down – wanting to be with us, to make things better, to set things right; to make us better, to make the world right.

I am reminded that’s exactly what God decided to do at Christmas in the person of Jesus: to be with us, to be for us – to be as we are so that, ultimately, we might be with Him, and be for Him, and be as He is.

And the heavenly bang of Christmas is still reverberates.  We see it in Jerusalem today, as the Magi come asking their questions about the King of the Jews. We feel it in Herod’s fear and the Scribes’ confusion.  And if we dare to listen, we will hear it bouncing off of our turning, sputtering wheels and humming in the midst of the static and the radio waves; we may even hear it cracking the walls of this divisive world and the hardness of our own calcified hearts.  The echo continues, and we can’t pack that away.

So as we watch the Magi disappear over the horizon as they return home by another road; as we continue to dismantle our nativity sets, our Christmas trees, and our lawn displays; as we return from our holiday travels and  to our regular routines; as we turn off the Christmas music and turn on the evening news; as the children in Newtown go back to school; as all of us go back to coping with things we still don’t understand and wrestling with the the ironies, hypocrisies, and tragedies of this life, let us listen for that echo. The bang and the clatter still resonate because even though Christmas fades, Jesus remains.  He is still with us, He is still for us, and He will be always – even to the end of the age (Matthew 28).

Because on Christmas morning, Jesus came to stay.

Thanks be to God.

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