Bless all the Dear Children

Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Every Christmas Eve we sing “Away in a Manger,” and for the past 30 years I’ve cried whenever we get to stanza 3.  I can’t get through it.  There is nothing more important in our world than the nurture, care, and security of children.

That’s why I’m grieving, I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m determined.  Like the rest of our country, I am grieving the deaths of 20 first-graders and 7 adults from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, who were gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.  Lanza’s own mother was the first victim.  I can’t comprehend how such a horrific tragedy could happen in an ordinary town that has always been a safe place for children and families to live.

Millions of people the world over have gathered to pray for the families of the victims, those who survived, and first-responders.  This is the worst mass murder since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and is the latest in a string of multiple killings this year.

Since we are in the season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, the Massacre of the Innocents comes to mind.  King Herod ordered all the boy babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed in the hope of snuffing out the life of the child Jesus, a competing “King of the Jews.”  Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Jeremiah, referencing the killing of these babies, rings true today, “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.”

I still remember the Bible story book my mother read to me as a child.  Every Christmas story about Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ birth in a manger, the wise men, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is fresh in my mind.  I remember nothing, however, about the Massacre of the Innocents and am grateful that my mother spared me that gruesome story, which I didn’t need to hear as a little kid.

I’m also blessed that my mother and father were able to give me a safe childhood.  They were excellent parents, and I wish that same kind of secure upbringing for all children in this world.  But I now know there was also a lot of luck involved, for the world can be a scary place, and even the best of parents cannot always protect their children.  That’s why I grieve.  I grieve for the lives that could have been and for those who are suffering through this unthinkable tragedy.  Be near them, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.

I’m not just grieving, I’m sad.  I’m sad because of the destructive ways in which human beings choose to abuse and hurt other people.  God created each one of us with free will, which means that God will not stand in the way of the decisions we make.  Because we are not robots we can choose evil over good, but we also bear the responsibility for our decision-making.

Sometimes I wish God would just intervene and stop this madness, but that is not God’s way.  God wants us to follow the ways of Jesus, to do good rather than harm.  How God must suffer, then, when we freely choose to hurt and kill one another.

God yearns for us to imitate Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions, but God will never force the heart.  God goes so far as to invite us to be God’s representatives on this earth.  It’s up to us to create a world of peace, mutual understanding, respect, and inclusivity.  I am awestruck by the millions of acts of kindness that take place every day in our world.  They far overshadow the mass killings.

I am also sad for Adam Lanza, for his tortuous life that prompted him to inflict such evil.  I am sad when people with mental illnesses don’t receive the help they need to live with joy and fulfillment, and I’m sad when we label other people and don’t reach out to those on the fringes.  God loved Adam Lanza, too.  Close by them forever, and love them I pray.

I am not just grieving and sad, I am angry.  It’s a righteous indignation that some Christians are using this mass killing as an opportunity to promote a religious/political agenda that has nothing to do with the tragedy and defies God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was asked on Fox Live how God could let this tragedy happen, and he responded, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? …  Maybe we ought to let Him in on the front end, and we wouldn’t have to call Him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”

Huckabee’s pronouncement mocks the amazing effort and skills of our public school educators and administrators to teach character as well as academics.  It also disregards the reality that government-mandated school prayer is unconstitutional for good reason.  But the greatest travesty is that Huckabee assumes God was not present during the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  God is always there in the moments of our greatest need.

Equally distressing were the comments made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association on his radio program last Friday, “You know, the question is going to come up, where was God? …  God is not going to go where He’s not wanted…  No, we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost…  ‘We don’t want You in our schools’…  We’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect children, but you gotta invite me back into your world first.  I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted.  I am a gentleman.’”

Such declarations remake God into the image of a small, mean, and vindictive deity who refuses to protect children, and that image has nothing to do with what we know about God in Jesus Christ.  God does not duck out because God is “not wanted” or “offended.”  Rather, we see in our scriptures a God who never causes brokenness and evil and comes to us even when we turn away.  Moreover, in Jesus’ crucifixion we see God’s willingness to suffer the very pain and evil that afflict us.  For God is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Our Christian beliefs affirm that God was there with the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  Jesus was the very first responder last Friday, giving courage and comfort to the children and teachers and cradling those who were shot in God’s eternal arms.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care.     

I am not just grieving, sad, and angry.  I am determined.  Enough is enough.  We must put an end to our love affair with guns in this country.  Why is it that my daughter’s friends who live in other countries tell her, “We don’t want to live in the United States because everyone has access to guns.  Why is everyone allowed to have a gun?”  At a Taize prayer service on Saturday night, someone mentioned that a friend stationed in Afghanistan posted on Facebook, “Why is it that I am safer in Afghanistan than you are in the United States?”

In many parts of the country the predominant culture is not sports, music, or technology, but guns.  There are an estimated 300 million guns in our country.  Connecticut’s “Gun Valley” is the birthplace of the U.S. firearms industry.  Ironically, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the second largest gun lobby in the U.S. after the National Rifle Association, is located in Newtown, just 3 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In another odd twist, the Michigan legislature approved Senate Bill 59 last Thursday, the day before the mass shooting.  This bill would allow concealed weapons in formerly off-limit places such as schools, day care centers, stadiums, hospitals, and churches.  The bill is waiting for Governor Rick Snyder’s signature.

Many churches have declared themselves gun-free zones, including the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church.  If our churches are indeed sanctuaries, what place do guns have in our buildings?  Are there any sacred and safe places left?  We are called to bring in the kingdom of God not with violence but with shalom, grace, hope, and forgiveness.  And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Could this be the tipping point?  What are we willing to give up in our country so that all people can live in safety?  I am determined to advocate not only for gun-free churches and schools but for common sense regulations that do not permit ordinary citizens to own assault weapons that can kill dozens of people in a few minutes.

We have just one world, just as 20 sets of parents in Newtown, Connecticut had just one first-grade child.  Do we have the courage and the will to put our children above our guns?  Are we fit for heaven – and for earth?


P.S. The next “Leading from the Heart” will be published on December 31.  May the angel’s song be yours as well this Christmas and always.