Joy. It’s a staccato word, sharp and short. I can remember the sound of it sung by a gym full of school girls, grades 4 through 12, performing a German carol for parents and friends. “How Great the Joy,” we sang, then echoed, “great the joy.” Then louder: “Joy, joy, joy!” And another echo, softer but just as emphatic: “Joy, joy, joy!”
It’s a hard word to hear today. In my mind is a picture put up on Twitter just four days ago by a school principal. Rows of fourth graders are standing dressed for a concert, singing to their friends and their families. Their principal is dead now, along with five other staff members and twenty of the younger schoolchildren. We see their suffering and grief playing out live on television. There is no comfort to be had, only discomfort. How can we be joyful?
Experts will tell us how to care for our children. It’s okay to let them know we are sad, but we shouldn’t show so much emotion that we upset them. They need to count on us, so we need to mask our distress to comfort them. Teach them to follow each worried thought with a brave one.[i] (Easier said than done, I fear, for most of us.)
That’s all psychological advice, and it’s good as far as it goes. But my area is the theological. I want to know where God is in all this. Mr. Rogers, perhaps my favorite Wise Man, drew on his faith when he wrote,
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”[ii]
So when terrible images are on the television, if you can’t spare your children, tell them to look for the helpers. Look for the people who are right there in the middle of danger and sorrow, helping the injured and the suffering. Look for the goodness and love and courage they are sharing. I believe that’s where we find God.
We also need to remember that little ones don’t perceive the world the way we do; they don’t understand permanence. They don’t understand death. We do. We understand death, and illness, and suffering and loss, each of us in our varying ways depending on our life experiences. We understand. And some things we can accept: the losses that come in the normal unfolding of a life. But some things we cannot accept. Some things we cannot understand.
A feeling of helplessness struck everyone who heard the news. We continue to read the minute details of the story – many of which turn out not to be true, by the way – because we’re trying to wrap our heads around it. We’re trying to comprehend how such a thing could happen.
We hear and read opinions that blame whole categories of people from the mentally ill to the autistic to divorced parents, when no one really knows yet what happened. We rush to judgment because that feels less painful than waiting for things to unfold, helplessly. We hear words that I consider blasphemous, such as people who call themselves Christian claiming that God allowed this to happen because we put God out of the schools. That’s an outrageous statement, but no more outrageous than the suggestion that this was part of God’s plan, or that God needed these children as angels in heaven. No. I do not believe this was God’s punishment or plan.
I do not understand how people can think such thoughts.
We wonder, what is wrong with people? What is wrong with this world?
I’m afraid it’s the same things that have been wrong with the world ever since God put people on it. The people of Israel listening to Isaiah were in an enormous mess. They had little hope. Their community had been divided by the invading Babylonians. As we’ve talked about recently, some of them were living under occupation at home while others had been carried off into exile. Families were divided. Who knows what happened to the children along the way, the ones too little to walk a long distance, the ones who cried and disturbed someone, even the ones who were not causing any trouble at all. Who knows?
We wonder, what is wrong with people? What is wrong with this world?
John, in the wilderness, could see the trouble, and he tried to get people right with God. He spoke a hard word. It must have been a bad time for people to be willing to listen to his preaching. He didn’t hesitate to tell the people, and especially the religious leaders, exactly what he thought. He called them cowardly, like vipers that skitter away when their nest is threatened. He called them hypocritical, willing to rest on the reputation of their ancestors. He called them unproductive and unrepentant and unacceptable. A tree that bears no fruit, John tells them, will be cut down.
When they asked him what they should do to please God, he gave them the sort of practical recommendations that we seem almost obvious. Share with those in need; don’t cheat people; don’t abuse your power. It sounds so simple, but we know it’s hard. We struggle to get it right, and when we look around at the world, we see so many people getting it wrong. We’re living in the short, dark days of the year. We’re living in the hard, sad darkness of tragedy. It’s an act of faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s an act of faith to believe we are moving toward God’s future, toward the intentions held for us by the One who knows us best of all.
And that is the place where our hope lies, even on the darkest, longest night of the year, or the darkest, longest night of our lives. God doesn’t give up on us. That’s our hope. That well is deep. That hope is eternal. We point to it year in and year out in Advent. We light our candles and remember, but we also light our candles and hope in the future and pray for peace. Today we stand at the well of salvation and try to draw up a little joy. It feels like a long way down as we let out the rope. We sing of joy, but we don’t do it blithely, unknowingly or childishly. We sing of joy emphatically, to encourage one another.
So hear me:
Even when the things we do and the culture we create and the news we make don’t coincide with love and hope and peace and joy, God does not give up on us. God wants more from us, but God does not give up on us.
So we don’t give up either. No. Here’s what we do:
- We pray for one another, even for our enemies, even for the ones who commit the destructive acts.
- We pray especially hard for those who have lost their children, or their mother, or their teacher.
- We look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers wisely said, and remember how much goodness there is even at the same time there is so much brokenness.
- We give any help we can our own selves. We look around us to see where the needs are right here.
- We come together and sing our joyful praise that there is a God who loves us even in the midst of terrible loss, and we do it on behalf of those who are too sad or too angry or too shocked to do it for themselves.
This is not sweet and easy work. There is nothing sugar-coated about joy. Christian joy is not an emotion, like happiness. Christian joy is a condition of the spirit. It is emphatic, and it is fierce. Isaiah promised the Israelites, far from home and in despair, that a better future was coming. And it came. He promised they would draw water from the well of salvation, and they would do it with joy. And they did. That saving well is deep, and we draw the water from it together. It comes up from a serious, deep-down place. It’s a well of belief in the God who made us and loves us. It’s a well of belief in God-made-man, God who loves us enough to come and dwell among us, with skin on, in Christ Jesus.
It’s a story of joy, but it is not sugar-coated either. “Joy joy joy” we will sing, sharply and resoundingly. “Joy to the World!” We will sing it emphatically! “The Lord is come!” God knew very well what sort of world God’s own self would come into, a world where people treated each other badly and treated children even worse, but God still came. God is still coming. This is the promise of Advent; there is discomfort now, but there will be joy. Amen.
[i] “Motherlode,” The New York Times. December 15, 2012. http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/how-not-to-talk-with-children-about-the-sandy-hook-shooting/#more-42472