The sanctuary at Second Congregational Church was full this past Sunday of folks who had come for our annual Christmas pageant and Jesus’ birthday party, but also of folks who needed to come together, maybe longing for a word or a reason or some way to understand the tragic events that took place in Newtown, CT last Friday. I know any number of colleagues who ripped up their prepared sermons to directly address those events and others like them, to give voice to the pain, sorrow, anger and confusion that many people were experiencing.
Just before the service, a number of parents of young children had come up to me and said, “We haven’t told our child about what happened in Newtown, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention it directly.” Ahh….it’s been awhile since my children were in first grade, and that was 20 years ago. How to honor those parents’ decisions and be sensitive to the wide range of needs and abilities of our church family?
Looking out on the congregation as I stood up to welcome everyone, I saw all those beautiful faces, some atop angel and shepherd costumes, some older and more reflective, and it seemed so good and right that we should all be there together–children in our midst, sitting with their parents or beloved adults, teens and adults in various groupings. Just gathering together in that place was healing. Lighting the Advent candles, even–perhaps especially–the candle of Joy, which, in the words Tom read, is both like an underground stream and a choice–lighting those candles was sign and symbol of the Light that shines in the darkness. Seeing the green ferns and trailing vines emerging from what 2 weeks ago had been a bare root on the communion table reminded us of the Life that emerges even from the most desolate settings. And the children ministered to us with their pageant–Mary and Joseph both responding so quickly and matter-of-factly to the angel’s news that they were to be parents of this God-child – “okay,” they said simply, the shepherd bowing with her lamb, the three wise men gallantly climbing the steps, King Herod’s bluster and then dramatic death, surrounded by the cutest thugs ever….”and all because of just a little Christmas.”
It is the middle of the darkest week of the year here, in so many ways. Rain and thick cloud cover make it even darker. Sadness and ache as we watch Newtown bury its children and fallen heroes. So more than ever, we long for the Light.
Here’s the advice my friend Maria Sirois, who’s one of the adjunct faculty of my Positive Psychology course as well as a psychotherapist, shared with us–
When tragedy strikes, here’s what we can do–
–Feel what we feel, so that neither grief nor anger become poison within us and so that others have permission to feel all that they feel.
–Bear witness without flinching from the darkness.
–Tell the truth.
–Honor the ordinary heroes among us and those who do the difficult work of holding the story in all its despair and desolation and those who begin the long, hard job of clearing and cleaning, uncovering and naming as much as can be uncovered and named.
–Hold onto the bits of light that emerge wherever they do so and from whomever.
–And surround those who grieve with care that is authentic and wholehearted. Love them up, feed them, show up and show up again. Bake if you can, drive if you can, buy them milk, share your memories if they are ready and however possible, be as a sequoia, rooted in your conviction that none of us need go through this alone and certain that every limb, every twig, every arm holds the promise of spring even as it anchors the ice of winter.
Mr. Rogers said to tell children to “Look for the helpers,” and indeed we lift up and remember the helpers–the teachers and staff, the first responders, the fire department, and police, the ministers, priests, and rabbis, the counselors, the funeral directors and personnel. Remember them in your prayers.
The Rev. Matt Crebbin is the senior minister of the UCC Church in Newtown, who was interviewed on the Today Show this morning. (If you missed it, check it out on Today.com.) He did a beautiful job of conveying the complexity and richness of our faith that is based on joy that is deeper than “happiness,”/happenstance.
The UCC and Pilgrim Press are donating 1000 copies of “Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Small Children”. You can send $1 donation to https://secure3.convio.net/ucc/site/Ecommerce, although my guess is the $1000 was quickly raised. We have copies of this book in our church library (and I have one in my office). Feel free to borrow it.
The time for advocacy for safer gun laws will surely come, though that journey is complicated and fraught with difficulty. Support of mental health services and research is long overdue, and we need to have conversations about both. Our nation’s culture of violence is pervasive and destructive, and we must begin that long, hard self-examination sooner rather than later.
I welcome further conversation about how we as individuals and we as a church family might respond to events like Newtown, which, alas, will surely not be the last. We need to be the change we long to see, as Gandhi said. We need to hold on to the Light that is within and around us, being born into the world at every moment. “ The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Thanks be to God!