You are my Shepherd; I am without lack.
You place me in abundance;
You refresh me in Life-water;
You renew my whole being;
You guide me down paths
leading straightway to my good end,
as surely as your Name is trustworthy!
When my days are dark,
for whatever reason,
there is no cause for fear,
for you are with me,
and I with you.
Resting securely between your strength and compassion
there is perfect peace.
I am, in fact, sitting at a grand feast,
which You have prepared for me . . . me!
Even with my enemies here
I am danger-free.
Anointed with your oil of kindness,
my cup remains brim full
sip after sip after sip.
What can this all mean,
except that for the rest of my life
goodness and mercy
will hound me,
abound to me
chief of sinners,
yet your beloved son!
The following is a sermon I preached in the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. I had meant to publish it at that time, but for some reason did not. Now, in light of the massacre in Las Vegas, it seems appropriate. Unfortunately.
= = = = = =.
As is likely with many, many pastors across America and even around the world, yesterday I found myself faced with the need to prepare a new message for today. For after the tragic events in Newtown, CT, it is not possible to preach the Advent message I had planned. The general theme of our Advent series is “Worshipping the God Who Comes,” and as I will emphasize later, the fact of his coming is our ultimate hope and comfort. But we must not go there too soon.
I did not hear of the murders until late Friday night, and did not read about the details until Saturday morning, in a New York Times article entitled “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School In Connecticut”. Immediately after reading what horrific details were then available, I wrote two prayers in my journal. The first prayer was a lament and a plea for guidance:
O God. O God. How can we take it? How can you take it? I am trying to think clearly about what to say/do in tomorrow’s message. I cannot pass by it in silence, but should I devote my message to it? It seems so antithetical to the spirit of Christmas – to the joy, hope, festivity, happiness and good will that marks the season. Comfort ye, O comfort ye, your people! We wanted this day to be one of joy for our congregation, not a lament. Can it be both? My God, give me wisdom to decide.
And then followed this . . .
I am numb.
I want to go on as if nothing has happened.
I want to laugh, and tell jokes, and think positive thoughts.
I want to wrap Christmas presents.
I want to preach an inspiring sermon tomorrow, not recall the day the music died.
I want everyone to be healthy, happy and hopeful.
I want twenty-eight people to be alive who are not.
I want their families to be joyful, not mournful.
I want to edit out yesterday from history.
It was a mistake. Let’s do a re-take.
I want to re-play the last 20 years of Adam Lanza’s life.
From the day he was born to the day before yesterday.
I want him to know every day of his life how precious he is.
How loved he is.
How much goodness God wants to pour into and through his life.
I want to shield him from all evil.
I want his family to be intact.
Loving parents, living together, protecting and nurturing two precious sons.
I want him to live in a violence-free world.
I want it all to go away.
How long, O Lord, how long?
Christ have mercy.
Father, forgive us. We know not what we are doing.
By the time I finished with the second prayer, I felt fairly certain that my message must address the shootings in a way that is both honest and hopeful. Here are the words that came:
We must be honest. We must be free to speak the question. To say it out loud. To scream it out loud: ‘Where was God!?’
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Do you hear the question on this mans’ face? “God, where are you?! How could you let this happen . . . again? God, what are you doing?!”
I think I know the answer. At least part of the answer. It is captured in a song by an artist named Eli. The song is entitled, “God weeps too.”
So this is for the man who never learned to read or write.
He worked two jobs instead of going to school.
I know it hurt you as a child.
Please remember all the while
that God weeps too.
And this is for the widow who now must sleep alone
when the memory of a kiss will have to do.
Every night when she lays down
you can almost hear the sound
when God weeps too.
God weeps too.
God weeps too.
Though we question him for all that we go through,
still it helps me believe and my pain it does relieve when I think that
God weeps too.
And for every survivor of the wickedness of man
Whether you’re a black man or a Jew –
Some people kill in Jesus name;
He is not the one to blame
‘cause even God weeps too
God weeps too.
God weeps too.
Though we question him for all that we go through,
still it helps me believe and my pain it does relieve
when I think that God weeps too.
God weeps too.
And I never really thought about it,
not that much about it,
but God weeps too.
~ “God weeps too” by Eli. From the album Things I Prayed For (1998)
While these lyrics do not speak specifically of the kind of tragedy we have been confronted with in Newtown, they do speak an important truth. The seasons of Advent & Christmas are reminder that God is not a distant, uninvolved spectator of the human drama. Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—wept, and there is no reason to think that God does not still weep.
When I heard of the shootings and thought about the fact that they occurred less than two weeks before Christmas, my mind went to the events recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, when Herod, incensed that the wise men had tricked him and left without revealing the whereabouts of the baby Jesus, responded in what can only be called cold-blooded insanity, in what is called the slaughter of the innocents:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
And now there has been wailing and loud lamentation in Newton, CT, where another slaughter of innocents has taken place, and where there are many who today and possibly for a long time, possibly for a lifetime, are not going to be consoled.
And so God weeps.
But the God who weeps does not only weep. He acts. He comes. And He comforts.
And he ultimately overcomes all the darkness, all the grief and pain, and wipes away all tears.
We associate Christmas with Handel’s Messiah. Handel drew heavily, of course, from the prophet Isaiah. Hear these words from the 40th chapter:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40:1-2a, 3-5)
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm  rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; [And listen to these last words of verse 11:] he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:9-11)
There is healing in God’s arms, I believe that God has gathered 20 lambs into his arms, and is even now gently comforting both their mother and father sheep.
A day coming when all will be made well. It is the day that the first coming of Christ inaugurated, and whose second coming will complete.
That day has not yet come. It will come, but it has not come. And so, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4)
Now is such a time when we are called to mourn with those who mourn.
But mourning is not the last word. Mourning is not the last word.
Robbie Parker, father of 6 year-old Emilie Parker, who died in the attack, after tearfully describing Emilie as “bright, creative, and very loving,” added this: “as we move on from what happened here, what happened to so many people, let us not let it turn into something that defines us.”
No, this tragedy born of human sin and frailty, need not define us. For even in the midst of our mourning there is comfort from the God who not only weeps but comes. The God who came in Jesus Christ is the same God who now comes to comfort the families of the innocents, the family of the not-nearly-so-innocent, our nation and of the world.
It is a comfort born of hope . . .
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
Now, may the God who comes, the God who is trustworthy and true, be our comfort, and even our joy.
I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It is particularly helpful for fiction writers, which I am not, but also contains some fertile insights for all writers – and non-writers as well. Here she is commenting on the value of keeping attentive to the world we inhabit:
There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible grace. This does not mean that you are a worthless Philistine. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart . . . . If you start to look around, you will see.
Yes. To see God in the ordinary is to see the extraordinary God – the only god worth seeing. Certainly the only god worth trusting. Behold the anachronistic robin bob-bob-bobbin’ along in January, and be reminded of the God who surely cares more for you than all the birds of the air combined, in season and out. See through the window the brown, winter-dead flowers, and remember that all the springtime energy that went into creating their here-today-gone-tomorrow splendor is but a nano-droplet in the infinite bucket of God’s resources made available for all your needs. Turn your fretting about hair loss into wonder that there is a God who had them all lovingly counted before the first follicle hung out its vacancy sign. And of course, we must not forget one of the most ordinary places to find God – in the toi toi. There we are reminded of the God who gives us, mercifully, a way to get rid of our dung: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That last reminder was stimulated by another Lamottian insight:
To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering no hope to anyone.
O, God of the Ordinary, help us to extract our heads and see life with new and hopeful eyes – with your eyes.
My lovely lady recently came across stories of people who are trying mightily to simplify their lives. One approach was by women who went on a “closet diet” on which they wore only six items of clothing for a month. (www.sixitemsorless.com; www.farmersdaughterct.wordpress.com; ) The six item limit apparently did not include underwear. One woman, Sheena Matheiken, wore the same black dress for a year as part of her effort to raise support for the education of children living in slums in India. (She was quite successful: www.theuniformproject.com) Then there are the minimalists who challenge us to divest ourselves of all but 100 items. Try Googling “100 Things” to check it out. Most of the folks engaged in these projects are motivated by concern for living simpler, more “sustainable” lives that contribute to their personal well-being, to the protection of the environment and to the living conditions of others. Worthy causes to be sure. Today I came upon another incentive for the simplification of our lives, from John Bunyan’s 332 year-old classic, ThePilgrim’s Progress. Excuse – or enjoy – the quaint old English:
Now as they [pilgrim, Mr. Greatheart, and their guide] were going along and talking, they espied a boy feeding his father’s sheep. The boy was in very mean clothes, but of a very fresh and well-favoured countenance, and as he sate by himself he sang. “Hark,” said Mr. Greatheart, “to what the shepherd’s boy saith.” So they hearkened, and he said:
He that is down needs fear no fall, He that is low no pride: He that is humble ever shall Have God to be his guide.
I am content with what I have, Little be it or much: And, Lord, contentment still I crave, Because thou savest much.
Fullness to such a burden is That go on pilgrimage Here little, and hereafter bliss, Is best from age to age.
Then said their guide, “Do you hear him? I will dare to say that this boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of that herb called hearts-ease in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet.”
We could all use a bit more “hearts-ease”—peace of heart— in our chests (I’ve always had a hard time saying the word “bosom” with a straight face). While closet diets and minimalist divestments may help, that indomitable Jew, Paul of Tarsus, has, I think, a better approach with a more certain outcome, regardless of how full (or empty) your closet might be:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
May the coming year bring you uncommon peace and deep hearts-ease!
If we build it, He will come. “It” is the highway into our hearts, homes, businesses and governments, built daily with humility and gratitude before the One who will come – again and again. He is Jesus, our Emmanuel – mediator of heaven’s largesse. May your Christmas be as full of him as was Mary’s blessed womb!