Why? How? How could someone be so cruel? The pictures today are haunting. They speak of utter tragedy. Parents being informed by other parents that their children’s class is “unaccounted for,” then the directions are given where they should go to meet with law enforcement and grief counselors. Other parents fiercely hugging then protectively leading their young one or young ones from the scene of the carnage. Some 20 children are dead, most of whom are between the ages of 5 and 7. Some 6 adults have also lost their lives this day. A community has been savaged. A country is once again in mourning. Because of social media in particular, but other media outlets as well, parents are facing children, who are forced to grow up far too soon, full of questions. Some parents long for the days when questions about the “birds and the bees” were the questions to be feared. Why did the bad man do this? Am I safe at my school? Is there a bad man or woman who want to hurt me and my friends like this? All of this comes on the heels of a mall shooting just a few days earlier. Prior to that, someone invaded a college campus with a crossbow. Is this what we have come to? And how can people get “in the Christmas Spirit” when violence like this keeps happening?
I was asked a lot about it by my kids friends at school. You proclaim a God who loves the world and all of us--why would He let something like this happen? Why not protect those kids from harm? I have also had a few adults already check in with me to see what they can do to protect their kids. The world just isn’t safe any more, Father. I almost feel like I need to move to Montana and start home schooling my kids and keeping them away from stores and malls. What do I say to my kids? How can I convince them that I will ever keep them safe when there are idiots like this on the loose? Why should I believe that God loves me when He lets things like this happen to other kids just like me?
Although I would give anything had this not happened at all, I am thankful for my parishioners and those in orbit of my parish that it occurred during Advent. Advent is the season of the church year when we remind ourselves that we are an expectant people. Yes, we live on this side of the Christmas Manger and Empty Tomb, so we know God cares enough for us to save us and has the power to accomplish everything that He promises. But we live in a world which is not yet reflective of His will that is done in heaven. Not even close. Christ has not yet returned to establish His kingdom on earth. That amazing day of judgment when He returns to call His people home has not occurred. And so we live in a world that continues to be assaulted by sin.
The secular press and a number of people with whom I have already spoken wonder what causes tragedies like this. Quite simply, it is sin. Each of us, no matter how good or bad we might seem, has found themselves in rebellion against God. Sin is, ultimately, that preference for our own wills over God’s. In this case, a young man seems to have killed his mother, maybe some of her co-workers, some 20 kindergartners, and in the ultimate act of rebellion against God, himself. Sin, separation from God, is the root cause of this event. The investigation may well point to a fight or a mental disease or a sense of hopelessness which triggered the rampage, but as Christians I believe we are well served to call the cause what it really is. By placing the cause in the context of our faith, we can then begin to witness to the reality and problem of sin and a loving Father who loved us so much that He sent His Son to redeem us from our sins, but also a loving Father who loved us enough to give us a choice. We are all given the choice to be reconciled to God through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, but God does not force us to serve Him. Nowhere is that reality more apparent than in the world around us. The governor of Connecticut rightly spoke that evil was done in his state today. We would do well to remember his words and call this senseless tragedy what it is.
For those of us in the faith, however, this tragedy is a reminder of the fragility of life. President Obama probably caught the general mood of parents across the country this evening when he claimed that he and the First Lady would hold their girls a bit longer and hug them a bit tighter. Those of us who claim to be Christians, however, should always be reminded of the gifts that God has given us and their temporal nature. Life itself can be snuffed out at the whim of another sinful man or woman. Our reputations can be destroyed by a well placed lie. Our very identities and all that goes with them can be wiped out at the stroke of a keyboard. Innocence can be lost at the hands of an abuser. Trust can be crushed at the hands of a liar or thief. The list can go on and on. Our answer to our kids is not to withdraw from the world. Quite the contrary, we are called to live in the world confident that we are not of the world. It is an important distinction, one that we often forget in our spiritual laziness.
How do we face such acts of evil? However God, empowering us through the Holy Spirit, calls us. I have not yet heard of any heroic stories, but I expect several. In the midst of such tragedies there are always those who become modern illustrations of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps a teacher acted to save the lives of children in her care. Maybe a janitor risked his or her life to lead children out of the school into the waiting arms of those first responders trying to discern what was happening. Maybe some shielded the kids left alive from the gruesome scene in the kindergarten room when the survivors were led out. Maybe some mental health professionals will feel a call to help children and their families deal with inevitable nightmares and jumpiness at certain sounds. Some of our brothers and sisters will be on the ground at this moment offering a shoulder to cry on, offering to mourn in silence with those parents who experienced the ultimate tragedy. Others will be gathered all around this country interceding with God on behalf of those suffering. And God will act. He has promised. The same God who conquered death and the tomb will be there with us, inspiring us to do His will and empowering us to accomplish great things in His name, all for the purpose of bringing light into the darkness, hope into the hopelessness, and life into death!
I cannot speak to how this tragedy will be redeemed yet. The shock and pain are simply too raw and too near to offer a period of reflection. Those who claim Christ as Lord, though, know He stands weeping with us, saddened beyond all understanding, and aware of our need of Him. But I know this tragedy will be redeemed. Our Lord knows the pain of losing a Son. Lessons will be learned, hopefully, that prevent the next school shooting. Perhaps mental health professionals will learn something that enables them to see signs of such imminent evil. Maybe the tragedy will cause our politicians to become statesmen and stateswomen, men and women who work for the good of those who elected them rather than their particular party and lobby interests. God has always redeemed such evil, and I am confident that He will yet again.
But what of us at a distance? What are we to make of such a tragedy during the Christmas Season? As I said at the top of this note, the season of Advent speaks to such evil. The whole world needs a Savior, and God has provided Him. Better still, one day in the future, He will return to claim what is His. Nothing, absolutely nothing in this life, even death itself, can keep us from His plan of salvation. The tragedy offers us an opportunity to speak into the grief, the shock, the horror, and the fears of those around us. As much as we might like to think that we can prolong our lives or protect our loved ones, we know that in the end we are unable to do either very well. All that we are given, our children, our spouses, our parents, our resources, our talents, even life and breath itself, are gifts from our Lord that we hold as stewards. Each are meant to be used to glorify God.
I understand the urge to run off to Montana and hide and other such wild idea. Who doesn’t want to keep their children safe? But there is nowhere on earth that we can escape the consequence of sin in the world. There will always be storms, and bad men, and institutions which run over individuals no matter where they are. In the end, we cannot protect our children as much as we mike like to believe. So, it becomes our job, our most important job, to teach our children that they are loved beyond measure by our Father in heaven. Yes, they need to be made aware to stop, drop and roll and to avoid trusting people on the internet and any number of common sense safety issues. But there is much more that we need to teach our children. They need to know that they are loved so much that He sent His Son that we might be freed from sin and death. Sin and death and evil might seem to win to the world, but we know better. The empty tomb teaches us all that we will not be separated for very long, should such tragedy strike our families. No matter what happens in this life, those who serve Him and call upon Him as Lord will rise in glory. In the end, we and He will be vindicated. He is our trust. He is our hope. He is our life.
I was struck by the brutality of one of the kid’s question at school this afternoon. Do you think those kids are probably with God, Father Brian? I answered yes, I thought they were. Why? Well, they were awfully young. I’m not sure what the cutoff age is for making a decision, but our Lord indignantly told His disciples to let the children come to Him. It would seem weird to me if He chose to keep them away in their greatest hour of need. He nodded and asked a follow-up. What about older kids? What happens when older kids are killed and don’t believe like that school in Colorado or that college in Wyoming? When I was a kid, it seems like I worried about cooties and picking teams for kickball. It is definitely a different world. I told him that I leave those decisions to our Lord. Why? It has always seemed fair to me that the one who died on the cross gets to decide those things. I am ill-equipped and sometimes ill-tempered for such responsibility. But they have to decide, right? I mean, you can’t not decide all your life, right? We were talking about this all afternoon and some of my friends said they would think about all this when they got older. What happens to them if they haven’t made a decision if a gunman kills us? You are not going to like my answer. Why? I am not big on playing “what-if.” I would rather tell you to live your life in a way that honors God to the best of your ability and to the grace given you. Then, when they see you responding differently to such bad events, they might ask you why. Then you get to tell them. And, hey, if they decide to become a disciple of Jesus, we know what happens to them instead of worrying about them, right? My budding evangelist nodded his head, promised to think about it, and headed out to meet his parents.
As I was walking through this conversation with this boy, I was reminded of a number of parents in my ministry. They could be the parents of any number of his friends. Time and time again I am told by parents that they don’t come to church or bring their kids to church because they want to give their kids the “freedom to choose,” as if that is a noble parenting sentiment. My question of them is always “how will your child ever make an informed choice if he/she does not know the Christian narrative?” One of the ways in which this tragedy may well be redeemed is if parents in other parts of the country take stock of how they are raising their children. Are they raising their children to know and love the God whose birth we remember this Christmas and whose return we proclaim this Advent? If not, bad habits can be changed just like that. All God demands is that we repent and return. The saving part is up to Him! Part of the reason we go to church is to remind ourselves of the saving deeds He has done. The killing of 20 kindergartners might seem unredeemable to the world. But those of us who study Scripture and remember His story know this is not the first time children have been killed. Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew male infants to be killed. Herod slaughtered all the babies in Bethlehem who had the misfortune to have been born around the time of Jesus. This is not the first child tragedy in history to confront and, unfortunately, unless He returns tonight, it will not be the last. But just as He steered His people through those times of unspeakable evil, He will see all His people through this evil. He will wipe away the tears of mourning and turn them into the cheers of victory. That is His promise and our hope!