Response to Sandy Hook Tragedy

Below is a question I received from one of my Facebook Friends. I was going to answer this question within FB’s messages but thought others may want to know my response. I am simply sharing this, with the permission of my anonymous friend, in hopes that my answers will help you grapple with Friday’s events.
My friends question was this: I have been struggling with wanting to address a post by our neighbor (a good friend & an atheist) who said “Why has god forsaken us?” Well, I know that God has not forsaken us and that His heart breaks when things like this happen. But we also recognize that America has repeatedly asked Him to leave our schools. But I sense that is not the right thing to say to her. Maybe nothing is the best thing to say here. Any thoughts?
I hear a number of questions within this paragraph and to answer it clearly I will need to break it down. The questions I hear are as follows:
1. Did God forsake us? Behind that is, How can a just and loving God let this happen?
2. Where is God in tragedy?
3. Should God be put back into public school?
4. How do you talk with someone who believe different than you and be respectful?
1. Did God forsake us? The quick answer is no. The story of Christmas, the birth of God’s son, points to the fact that we are not forsaken but forgiven, freed, and reclaimed as God’s own. Christmas marks the start of our Jesus’ salvation journey for our sake. A God who would give up his only Son, for the sake of us, does not forsake us.
I think a question behind this question is one commonly asked; How can a just and loving God let this happen? As a United Methodist pastor, brought up in and taught Wesleyan theology, I believe we have free will. Each of us is given the ability to choose right or wrong, to believe or not to believe. Also, we have to recognize we live in a very fallen world, drenched in sin. If we go back to the original sin, the one Adam and Eve committed we can see what sin is truly about. If you read Genesis 3, you will see the serpent tempt Adam and Eve (Adam was there by the way, read closely) with this phrase. “’You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:4-5) The reason they ate the forbidden fruit was because they wanted to be like God. If you look at all sin, it all goes back to being like God. When people take guns into schools they want to demonstrate their power of life and death. They want to be godlike. If you look at the sins we commit we can usually track back to the fact that we want to be God or we don’t trust God enough.
With that said, God didn’t let Friday’s event take place. It was a decision by Adam Lanza to take lives of too many young and innocent people into his hands. He wanted to play God that morning but thank the Lord he isn’t. God’s heart was the first to break when the events started to unfold. Just like God’s heart breaks every time we sin and that space between humanity and God feels emptier. Humanity is concentrated on making ourselves into “Big Deals” and individuals who stand above others. This is not the way God neither wanted nor originally created the world we live in. And through the gift of his Son, we won’t have to stay this way forever.
2.  Where is God in tragedy? Matthew 28:20 (Jesus’ last words on earth in this gospel) “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Where was God? God was there, in the hallways, in the closets, in the offices, in the classrooms, in the fire station, in the churches, in the town. God was there and everywhere, because God is God. Jesus promises that he will be with us always and I think we lose sight of that. God is right there, with you, right now. It is us, humanity, which has to change our eyes to see God in our midst. God was active in the principals, administrators, and teachers who ran towards the bullets instead of away. God was active in the first responders who provided safety. God was active in the clergy and counselors who provided shoulders, ears, and hugs. God’s presence in tragedy is always overwhelming when we have the right eyes to see God at work.
3. Should God be put back into public school? Once again, using the argument above, God never left. How prideful are we, as humans, to think that through some act of government legislation we can remove God from anything. Once again, this directs us back to original sin, when we think we can be God. Yes, officially teachers cannot lead students in a required prayer every morning, but I bet prayers are said every time they are required to take a test. Prayers are said all the time when courage is being mustarded up to talk to that girl or guy. Prayers are said in sporting events, recitals, and in offices before teacher/parent conferences. God is not absent. God is there. Nothing we can do can kick God out of school because, once again, we aren’t god.
4. How do you talk with someone who believes differently than you while being respectful and understanding? I have found that people are put off by those who have overly bearing and dramatic stances on really anything. Okay, maybe not everyone, but I am, so I try to approach every conversation in that respect. I am not going to wad Jesus up and stuff him down someone’s throat because I don’t wanted to be treated that way. I try to truly live into the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39). If that doesn’t take I go to the golden rule; “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we do not see each other as God sees each of us, than we cannot have any type of quality conversation or relationship.
With that said, if I was to have a conversation with my atheist neighbor, and he said, “Why has god forsaken us?” I would simply say, “I don’t believe God has.” Then let the neighbor ask why. Then I would politely lay out my reasons. One, very appropriate to the season, is why Jesus came into this world. Why do we truly celebrate Christmas? We celebrate because God came into this world to restore, forgive and make right what went wrong. Wrong stuff will still happen, really wrong, evil, horrible stuff from nature and humanity. But then I hear the words of Paul in my head; “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Romans 8:38-39) No matter how much we play god in our lives, nothing we can do can separate us from God, the God that I worship, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
During the best times here on earth and in the midst of unspeakable evil, God is with us. That is what I hold onto. That is where I find my hope; where I find my peace; where I find my joy; where I come in contact with God’s love.
Peace be with you all,

Bishop Goodpaster Speaks on Worship on 9/11

Bishop Goodpaster, Western North Carolina Conference’s Bishop and the chair of the COuncil of Bishops, released the following statement. This is a good way to look at how we celebrate the heroism, morn the tragedy, and remember whose we are.

The statement from Bishop Goodpaster follows:

On behalf of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church I greet you in the name of Jesus the Christ in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven….” (Colossians 1:19-20, NRSV)

On this, the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I call upon United Methodists and all people of faith to a renewed commitment to ministry of reconciliation, and to being witnesses of God’s love and grace for and in the whole world. As people of faith, we approach this anniversary with the gift of both memory and hope.

None of us who watched in shock and horror as the events unfolded on that fateful day in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC will ever forget the images. We remember the innocent lives that were lost on that day. We remember the first responders who put their lives on the line to provide assistance in the midst of the devastation. We remember the ways in which the world reached out to embrace us in our pain and grief. And we remember the generous outpouring of more than $20 million through the United Methodist Committee on Relief and our “Love in the Midst of Tragedy” special offerings.

Even as we recall all of these events of a decade ago, we are also a people whose faith and hope in Christ Jesus turn our hearts and lives toward the future. We proclaim the Resurrection message that the future belongs to God’s reconciled new creation, and we live toward that time when the dividing walls of hostility will come down and God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. In a world of violence and revenge, of suspicion and fear, of mistrust and hatred, we dare to proclaim an alternative vision known throughout Scriptures as God’s Shalom. We believe that God works for good in all things, and that the goodness and mercy of God can overcome even the most tragic events and experiences in this world.

In the days and weeks ahead, communities will be marking this anniversary in a variety of ways, and we urge our churches to lead in planning for and providing services of worship and prayer. Let us build bridges of trust and reconciliation through these services by inviting and encouraging people of all faiths to come together for prayer. Let us work for personal and social holiness by practicing John Wesley’s General Rules for the people called Methodist, especially to do no harm and to do good. Let us seek to restore a sense of hope for the future by praying for and working for the healing of broken relationships. Let us remember that day of pain, suffering, and grief; but let us also seek to bind up the wounds and renew our efforts to work for peace with justice.

Above all else let us live as faithful followers of the Prince of Peace and, in the words of the author of the Letter to the Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other….” (Colossians 3:12-13, NRSV) May our memory and our hope unite to move all of us toward peace and inspire us to live with compassion, confidence and courage.

Larry M. Goodpaster

President, Council of Bishops

The United Methodist Church

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

One of my parishioner’s cousins was in a serious incident and past away last week. After two weeks of living in the hospital under a drug induced coma he slipped from this world unto the next. He and his wife had been going through a rough patch and they were separated. One night during what looked like a heated debate he was shot in the stomach with a shotgun. The wife told the police he did it to himself. Maybe it was out of grief or to call her bluff. They checked him for GSR and it came back positive.

The doctor’s could not close up his wounds because he literally did not have skin to pull together to stitch. For the last two weeks of his life he laid in the hosptial bed with this ambdomen wide open. Finally organs started to fail. The doctors woke him up from his coma and his family said goodbye. The police had some questions as well. According to my parshioners he was able to tell them that he didn’t do this to himself.

Last week the family said goodbye at his funeral. During the visitation before the service people approached the casket and some people placed objects into the casket for rememberance purposes. His wife placed a photo of him and her in western wear and a shotgun in his hand. My parishioner told me, “I know their redneck, but it was everything we could do to stop my aunt from taking her out back and giving her a beaten!”

That’s been on my mind all week…you can’t make this stuff up…

Youth Trip Nightmare

I read this article on the UMC website and it sent chills down my spine. Not only would it be tragic to find one of my youth dead on a trip but then to have the conflict of suicide vs wrongful death is even worth.

I have no connection to this at all except I am in youth ministry. I could not imagine going through something like this at my church. To loss a youth would be hard enough but then a scandalous fallout would be even worse. I as a youth worker would hate to know that something like this happened under my watch, to youth that I knew, loved and ministered to.

My prayers go out to the Church of the Messiah and to the family of James McCoy. May they know the peace and the love of Christ.