God With Us at Sandy Hook

Emmanuel means God with us—in our schools, in our suffering and in everything else.

There are times when it feels like the promises contained in Scripture mock us—moments when the words intended to bring us comfort seem remote, detached and distant. Friday morning in Newtown, Conn., was one of those times.

On Friday afternoon, I stood outside my children’s elementary school with hundreds of other parents. In the midst of small talk about what we were doing for Christmas break, there was a somber heaviness. On that day the world witnessed unspeakable evil juxtaposed with the season of Advent.

Advent is supposed to be a season in which the people of God remember, anticipate and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise to be here with us. In the person of Jesus, the long-hoped-for renewal, redemption and restoration had come. This is what Matthew spoke of in his gospel when he quoted the prophet Isaiah.

When I heard the news on Friday, my gut response was to say, “God, why?” My heart wondered where God was in all of this. Many people wondered the same thing.

Matthew wrote, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ [which means 'God with us']" (Matthew 1:22-23). Matthew was eager to point out to his readers that in the person of Jesus we can confidently say God is here, that surely God is with us.

But on Friday, for many people, the feeling was more like, “God is here? Really? Where, exactly?”

When I heard the news on Friday, my gut response was to say, “God, why?” My heart wondered where God was in all of this. Many people wondered the same thing. Sometimes it is hard to mesh the words of Scripture with our world.

One commentator suggested it was precisely because God was not there that this heinous act happened. Governor Mike Huckabee claimed we should not be surprised to see this kind of violence since we have removed God from our schools and our society. Huckabee's sentiment says, “God is not here.” If that is the case, then it surely can explain the existence of pure evil that we saw displayed on Friday.

However, thinking like that suggests we somehow have the power to remove God from our schools and our society. The kind of God for whom this would be the case is quite small, weak and impotent—one dictated by the mere whims of humanity. This is not the God of whom Matthew spoke.

Matthew spoke of the Almighty God fully embodied and revealed in the person of Jesus—so much so, in fact, that He claimed He was Emmanuel, God with us. God is here not in spite of the pain, nor did He come to explain it away. God is here in the midst of our suffering.

“What kind of God allows himself to experience the same pain as mere mortals?” The same God who willfully chose to enter into this world and stand alongside us in our misery.

The hope of Advent is that God responded to the suffering of humanity by entering into it with us. He did not stand outside of it and look in with a wincing face and hope that everything would somehow work out. Nor did He see humans who removed Him from their schools and societies and say, “Well, fine, then, have it your way!” Not at all.

God saw the mess humanity had gotten itself into, and His heart broke. The writer of Genesis wrote that when God saw the evil hearts of humankind, His response was one of pain and a grieving heart. God’s pain was the same pain Adam and Eve experienced as a result of their sinful choice to eat the fruit in the garden. Which raises the question, “What kind of God allows himself to experience the same pain as mere mortals?”

The same God who willfully chose to enter into this world and stand alongside us in our misery. This God is not a stranger to suffering, but one well-acquainted with it. In the person of Jesus, we learn of a God who took upon himself our shame, our wounds and our burdens. He is the heavenly Father who also lost a child to horrible violence and weeps with the parents of those children killed in Newtown—one whose pain is as real as ours.

To speak of Emmanuel is to speak of a God who is found in the midst of suffering. Try as you might, you cannot remove him from schools, society or anywhere. For wherever there is pain, agony or heartache, there God will be also. He is a God who suffers with us.

This enables us to say, “God is here.”

When we utter these words, somehow the promises of Scripture seem a little less distant. They turn from mockery to comfort. What we do not need in these moments is a long and deep explanation of why this happened.

Too often in our attempt to move on, we try to comprehend the incomprehensible. In the midst of the media frenzy, the conflicting reports and clamor of social media, the God who is with us whispers words comfort, saying, “I know your pain, and I am in this with you.”

Indeed. God is here.

These are words we can sit with—words that will sustain us in the darkest moments. At times, we will struggle to believe them, and other moments they will be for us our surest salvation. All the while we know that God is with us. For now, we ache and cry out together, “How long, O Lord?” Each time we do, we wait expectantly for an answer, longing for the time when we will not speak of our wounds and those who caused them but of our wounds and the God of grace who healed them. Our cry is one filled with faith, for we know the story of Jesus does not end in agony, but in glory.

And so, armed with this hope, may you, my brothers and sisters, see the day when God will at last restore, renew and redeem all things–whether things in heaven or on earth. The day when all things will be made right and even our greatest moments of suffering will be transformed into glory.

And may we always long for and hope for that day when the God who suffered with us and for us will have made his dwelling among us, and we will stand alongside one another and exclaim, “God is here!”

17 Comments

Stacie Cordell

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Stacie Cordell commented…

Correction. I just watched this video yesterday of Governor Mike Huckabee and he did not say God was not there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MR39j1KMOsE

Matthew White

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Matthew White replied to Stacie Cordell's comment

No, in my opinion, he has said, in sum, something far worse. "God is punishing you because you're not the kind of Christians I think you should be; moreover, He is doing this by taking the lives of your children." Oh, if we could just return to teacher-led prayer in public schools, open government censorship of media, and computers the size of entire rooms, things would be so much better! It's this newfangled technology and gay marriage that have brought us to this point, after all.

Mark Lounsbury

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Mark Lounsbury commented…

I live less than five miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, am the father of four children ranging in ages from 11 to 4, am friends with several individuals directly affected by this tragedy, and held my wedding reception at the firehouse where children escaped to in the aftermath. This is very real and raw for me personally!

I wrote the following as a way to work through some of the pain I was feeling, hopefully this will help someone else:

(Sorry for the length of this post! I simply needed to work through some things and thought I'd share it here. It helped me, hope it does the same for others.)

In the aftermath of this tragedy, questions inevitably arise that need to be addressed, even if they cannot be adequately answered. There is an immediate drive within us to make sense of the senseless tragedy before us. That’s part of the problem of this tragedy. We are compelled to accomplish an impossible task; namely, making sense of something that is senseless. However difficult, even impossible, the task may seem, we must try to make some sense of this tragedy. So, we ask questions…lots and lots of questions.

(I’d like to take just a few minutes to wrestle with three of the most common questions that are asked in the wake of a tragedy like this: 1. Why?, 2. What?, and 3. Who?)

1. Why?:
After a tragedy, this is probably the first and most frequently asked question. When it was reported that innocent children had been gunned down in cold-blood, this was the first question that came to mind. I asked, “Why would anyone do something so horrific to the most innocent among us?” This is obviously a nearly impossible question to answer. And yet, the question is relentless in its demand to be satisfied.

To address this question in light of the specific tragedy in Newtown, we must take a step back and consider the idea of evil in general. Evil exists. Please, take a moment to consider that last statement. The events that took place in Newtown are evil, not because we say so, but simply because they are so. Evil is present in this world, and it is manifested through the actions of (some) people. I know my conservative friends will blame the games, and my liberal friends will blame the guns. However, both of those “reasons” seem pretty shallow, and offer only a truncated understanding of what’s happening. No, I believe it’s the insidious evil that seeks to gain influence in the hearts of humanity. (Evil takes root where love has been jettisoned.)

(By introducing the concept of evil, I’ve no doubt raised the “why” question all over again. Why does evil exist? While this is a very intriguing question, it’s not my intention to address the origin or nature of evil at this time. Forgive me if this sounds like a copout. I’m sorry, but since I’m writing this I’ll choose what to focus on. Thanks! However, I will say that the Bible offers a very compelling narrative to address the origin, presence and ultimate end of evil. Yes, evil has an end!)

If this all seems a bit unsatisfying, all I can say is, “I agree.” Remember I stated earlier that I was going to “address” the question of “why” this happened, not answer it. It is an impossible task to fully answer this question. This is precisely why we begin to ask other questions, whose answers are more readily accessible. For example, we ask, “What really happened here?”

2. What?:
Another question quickly surfaces after tragedy strikes, in an attempt to determine how it happened. When we ask, “What happened?” we are really looking to find answers about how this was possible. So, we want to know what happened to the security system in place. This helps us to understand how the perpetrator gained access. What did he do once he entered? This helps us to know how each person met their untimely end. What could have been done differently? This helps to understand how to change policies and procedures moving forward. There are dozens of these types of questions that must be asked and answered.

In some ways, the “what” questions are the easiest to deal with because they have concrete answers. Initially, the details are fuzzy, but as the investigation unfolds, answers come into focus. It’s like looking through a camera lens, as you adjust the focus, the overall picture becomes clearer, providing a sense of concrete understanding. This concreteness provides some semblance of stability, in an otherwise tumultuous and topsy-turvy time.

Naturally, we tend to spend a lot of time asking these questions, because they have answers and offer some security. However, these questions do nothing to make sense of “why.” So, we are left to contemplate the last of the three questions: “Who?”

3. Who?:
This is the most vital of the questions, in my opinion (but not for the reason you might suspect). We need to determine who’s responsible for this, or any, tragedy. (They have identified the perpetrator of this senseless violence, but he will not be named here.) Understanding who’s responsible provides both the concreteness of the “what” and disequilibrium of the “why.” On one hand, we feel secure because that’s the one responsible and he’ll never be able to do this again. On the other hand, it brings us back to asking, “Why did he do this?” So, we diligently dig into his past actions, mental health records, familial relationships, interactions with others, websites visited, video games played, etc. All hoping to find something, anything, that helps with the “why.” We won’t find enough to adequately answer the question. (Remember those other two guys from Columbine? After all our investigation into the “who,” we came no closer to answering “why” it happened.)

Now, I’d like to present why this is the most vital question for us to wrestle with presently. When asking “who,” I’m less concerned with the person responsible, and more concerned with “who” I will be in response. Who will I be in light of this horrific act of violence? Will I become more, or less, compassionate? Will I search for ways to bring peace to others, or search only for my own peace? Will I look to comfort, or simply be comforted? I know what the answers should be, but am afraid of what they might really be. Will I be afraid to leave my kids at school? Will I forget those who lost their lives? Will I be the same person a few weeks from now that I was before this happened? I hope not!

I hope that: I tell my wife and kids, “I love you” more often, and that I give more rib-cracking hugs. I don’t let petty things bother me so much. I give more of my time, talent and treasure to others. I live my life in a way that causes others to miss me when I leave them. I never take a single moment for granted. I never choose to hold un-forgiveness in my heart toward another person, or decide to cut people out of my life simply because I can’t be bothered with them. I never speak a harsh word to someone, not knowing if that would be the last thing he/she would ever hear from me. I make people smile when they see me coming, not when they see me leaving. Most importantly keeping my heart filled with love, so evil can never take root. Most importantly, I hope to keep my heart filled with love, so evil can never take root. (And probably a million other things that I hope to be different, in light of this atrocity.)

In the end, who will we become in the aftermath of this tragedy is the most important question we can be asking right now! This question has concrete answers, which will affect the rest of our lives. So, take some time and ask yourself, “Who will I be?” It’s a question with an answer, and the answer will change the world around us!

Giambroni

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Giambroni commented…

I don't think Huckabee was implying that God wasn't there at the tragedy (which He definitely was). But rather that God is not being presented or taught to children in schools.The conversation about God can be absent in the classroom even when God is right there among the teachers and students.

N. A. Bouadjemi

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N. A. Bouadjemi commented…

The first thing that stuck out to me was this part in the article:
"On that day the world witnessed unspeakable evil juxtaposed with the season of Advent.
Advent is supposed to be a season in which the people of God remember, anticipate and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise to be here with us."

What is Advent supposed to be about?

For the last two and a half weeks I have been following a guide of Scriptures made for the Advent season. All the Bible verses were from the Old Testament and were pleas for God to come and save.

Advent, therefore, seems to be about people yelling out because of their oppression and turmoil. Advent is about us realizing our need for a savior, seeing that all other options have failed and will fail, and knowing that the only one who can deliver is God in the person and work of Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit.

Advent is about recapturing the wonder and awe the shepherds, the magi, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, Anna, Simeon, and other family members had when they saw God’s Answer and fulfillment of his promise to save us from evil both internal (our sinful natures) and external (death and the devil).

What the Newtown tragedy reminds me of is that we need a savior. Something has to change as President Barrack Obama said during his speech for the victims and their families. We need help, desperately. The only answer is... Emmanuel, God WITH us and God IN us working THROUGH us, the church.

Connie Almony

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Connie Almony commented…

I agree with you, Michael, though I add a caution. First, I think we, as Christians, need to be careful not to assume meanings behind words of other Christians that can serve to divide us into factions. Paul writes extensively of this in his letters. When I read those words from Huckabee I am reminded of how, though God has ALWAYS been with me, I have had times in my life when I turned from Him—not feeling His presence due to my own neglect. That’s not to say prayer in school would fix this problem. Sometimes, a rote spiritual behavior is just as empty as no behavior at all. It’s true that if we ALL made God a focus in our lives ALL the time, they would be problem free. I suspect that’s what heaven will look like. This world will always fall short.
Having said that, you are on mark about God being with us in these times. It’s like when my daughter is distraught about something and her Daddy gets her a tissue and wipes the tears away. Suddenly the tears dry up and she feels loved … which covers a multitude of sins :o). God does this for us. And He asks us to model this “with”-ness to others.

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