Monday, December 17, 2012

Trying to Make Sense Out of the Senseless…

In the middle of the Advent season, on December 15th a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT and opened fire killing 26 children and adults. Just minutes before in Memphis, TN a 15 year old shot two Memphis Police officers, killing one officer who was a single mother of five young children. In times of senseless tragedies, all faith leaders search for words of comfort as well as clarity. Some faith leader’s comments or reflections will be helpful, others unfortunately will not. While we all search of discernment and understanding, here is my first reaction and response. I pray you will find it helpful in the days ahead as we try to continue to celebrate Advent in spite of these tragedies and in honor of all the victims.  

Mary had every reason to feel betrayed and abandoned by God. She was a young teen, unmarried and pregnant, and lived in extreme poverty. Mary held on through this confusion to the promise of God, holding tightly to the words of the angel: “You are highly favored, the lord is with you.” And despite Mary’s confusion and emotionally troubled reaction in the angel telling her she was pregnant; we find her deep in the story holding on to hope and faith. In the gospel of Luke 1:46-49 Mary declares, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty one has done great things for me, Holy is his name.” It didn't matter what anyone else in the community would think or say about her condition. Mary hung onto the promises of God, and responded with a song of daring, boundless faith. Her focus was not on her emotional state or on her challenging situation but on the love of God, who promises a future of hope. Mary trusted in God’s promise, knowing God’s outrageous way of working good out of seemingly impossible, horridly, and tragic situation. Here is what I know from Mary. There is no reasoning or theology that can justify or clarify why someone would walk into a class room full of innocent children and systematically slaughter them. There is no platform or political view that can justify why a 15 year old kid, in my home town of Memphis, would open fire on two police officers, killing a single mother of five. There are no words of pastoral comfort you can give to a family who did nothing wrong, but instead of buy Christmas toys, will be picking out caskets to bury their children. There are no magical words or prayer that we could recite that would turn back time and prevent things like this for happening. There is no policy, procedure or drill that can keep our children 100% safe all the time when they are out of our sight. I wish it wasn't so but it is just the reality in which we live. I wish that life was not messy. I wish that life was always free of pain, hurt and disappointment. I so wish we lived in a world where only the guilty felt anguish and the innocent are always protected. I wish we lived in a world where children wouldn't have to die, where children do not go to bed hungry, and where every child had a healthy, loving, protective, and supportive relationship with both their parents. I wish no one would have to battle life threatening illnesses, feel the pain of the death of a loved one, or the severe consequences of addictions, divorce, or poverty.
Regardless of what we wish for in difficult and tragic times it is normal that we get derailed and loose our God bearings.  We forget the promises of God. In times like Friday we overlook Emmanuel that God is with us. God created us, loves us, pursues a relationship with us, and forgives us. We can begin to feel, especially when tragedy hits, even if we are not impacted directly, the lingering consequences as it affects our daily lives. We will worry more when we drop off our children at school. We will get angry at the one who caused this. We will want to blame someone or something. We will listen to everyone jump on their own agenda and soapbox and use this senseless tragedy to their own advantage. News broadcast will keep replaying it over and over again to keep ratings up. We will all want answers; we will all want to do something to help both in the healing and in the prevention.  It is especially vital in times like these we do not listen to all these voices but cling to the promises of God.
So in light of this advent season, in light of the past two days, it is important to return to the things we hold absolute. First and foremost, the God we serve and worship, the God that loves us, is the God of love and life. God did not make this happen to teach us anything, to punish anyone, or because God is mad at us. I honestly don’t need to know the why but I am certain with all my being that God welcomed those people into his kingdom with open arms. I know that those children, those teachers, that police officer is now in a place where they are feel no pain, where they feel safe, where they are comforted. God will do the same for us one day also. Second, God has designed us to live in community and what happens in a community affects us all. We must understand this is a two sided coin. On one side, my actions positively or negatively affect not only myself but others around me. On the other side, I must comprehend that I am not an island although I may feel alone; ultimately I am not alone in my pain, my struggles, or my current situation.  Emmanuel is with me and so are His people. This is a huge gift. We can influence those around us with God’s help.  It is a time of Advent which means “coming” or “arriving.” I don’t know how, when, or in what form but God is coming to those families who lost their babies and loved ones. God will show up. God will give comfort, strength, and hope. Just like that baby that was inside that pregnant scared teenager, God will remind each of us that he loves us and we are to love one another. Especially in times like these. I have said before but lastly: we don’t live in a spiritual neutral environment. There are forces, there is evil, there is the devil, Lucifer or Fred, death, cancer, disease or whatever you want to name it, but they are out there and they want us to panic, destroy relationships, or to lose hope and faith in God and one another. Trust me. There are things out there that do not want us to love our neighbor, trust our neighbor, and have compassion for one another. There are things and situations like the shootings in CT, but also in our everyday life that will cause us to question the reason of our own existence. That will tell us to just give in, give up, and destroy our life. Whatever you name it, it wants you to doubt your worth on this earth. We will think we are not lovable. But God love us anyway. Even when we try to make things better we will still make mistakes. Romans 3:23-24 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. We will all still mess up and God loves us anyway. We will all sin, we will all fall short, and God will still pursue us, love us, and forgive us. In times of uncertainty, in times of turmoil, we must clench tightly to hope and faith. We must cling to the fact that we can make a better safer world for our children and grandchildren. We must live as those that have faith that God will protect the ones we love. Our actions, every single one, should be to reassure our children that they are loved and safe. Don’t be afraid to talk with them about the shooting. Listen to their worries, fears and concerns. Only will they be truly nurtured and flourish if they know without conditions that someone will protect them and that they are loved unconditionally. When we all feel loved and secure, we can begin to flourish, grow, and transform this dark world we see now into something brighter. We must love each other even when we feel unlovable or we feel the other person is unlovable. If we don’t we breed into the next generation mistrust and without trust there cannot be peace, security, or hope. We must also realize time is a gift. Treasure each moment you have with the ones you love, you never know when they will be gone. Hug more, talk more, and forgive now because you never know if you will get a second chance. Make peace; use this moment to repair damaged relationships. Put aside the petty, open up communication, and let healing begin. Pray daily for those who are hurting. God will answer your prayers. Please remember even in the hurt, confusion, anger, and scary times in our lives we can learn from the pregnant scared teenager: it is then we see Emmanuel, God with us, as we are loved by him and that love will propel us from this season of pain and confusion into a brighter future.
Peace, Love, Hope, and Joy:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Rockwell or Griswolds?"

What is Christmas like at your house? It is the Norman Rockwell version or is your family Christmas more like Griswold’s? Mine is somewhere closer to the latter. Many of us spend much money, time, and energy into chasing this unattainable ideal set for us by Norman Rockwell. Many of us are just trying the best we can to survive all the Christmas activities. All of us want the Norman Rockwell version but in reality we are closer to the Griswold’s. The first Christmas was pretty messy and life today is pretty messy but God shows up in the middle of the mess to bring us a message of hope. Mary was a teenager, unmarried, and pregnant. She was engaged to a man but the child was not his. Messy! She faced the shame and public humiliation and could have been put to death according to her customs. Messy! While she was in her last trimester, she was forced by the government to travel a rough road to be counted for the census so tehy could be taxed accordingly. Messy! While she traveled with Joseph’s family, she could still hear the whispers, see the stares, and feel the uneasiness her presences brought to the other women. Messy! When the contractions started, Mary had to give birth in a barn among the animals. Messy! Jesus was born into the most chaotic, unsterile, or unplanned time imaginable. In reality the first Christmas is more like the Griswold’s than Norman Rockwell. It was far from “perfect”.

What are our own unrealistic expectations for the “perfect” Christmas? Do you strive to cook, clean, buy, prepare, plan, invite, and attended events on your way to the perfect Christmas? If we are in search of the perfect Christmas we are simply delusional because the perfect Christmas does not exist. There will always be unmet expectations, people will let us down, either intentionally or unintentionally. There will always be the pain of the void left from our loved one who has died and cannot be with us. There will always be a dish that no matter how close we followed the recipe, we left something out and it taste horrible. There will always be a child, cat or dog that knocks over the Christmas tree that we spent three days decorating. Then there is the relative that shows up that we didn’t invite, you know the one that always starts a family feud. Christmas will and often can be a mess.

Even in the midst of the unexpected, the messy, and the devastating, you can still fully expect God to show up. This is truly what Christmas is about. When we begin to shift our focus just a bit we will realize that Christmas is not our birthday but Christ’s. Christ was born into a mess, Christ is presence in the middle of our mess, and He loves us despite of our mess. When we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, we acknowledge and celebrate that in our mess, God is with us. In our pain, God is with us. In our struggles, God is with us. In our chaos of broken relationships, God is with us. We celebrate that undeniable fact that Jesus stepped down from His kingdom into the mess of our lives and into our lives with all our imperfections. That is something to celebrate.
Peace, Love, Hope, and Joy!