As Christians head to church today, many will hug their loved ones, especially the youngest among them, more tightly on their way to pews while remembering the 20 children and six adults who died Friday in a Connecticut school.
They will say added prayers of thanks for their own families. They will pray for those who are suffering. And they will look to their pastors for assurance that goodness will prevail in the world.
The mass shooting came 11 days before Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birth of a savior who, like those killed on Friday, suffered a shockingly violent death.
At the heart of the Christian message are a birth, death and resurrection of a human son, one whose divine father agonized alongside him. A father who understands human suffering.
“We know that God's heart is broken too,” said the Rev. Vance Polley, pastor of Sunrise Presbyterian Church on Sullivan's Island. “It is a message of solidarity.”
'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want'
About 30 people gathered at a candlelight vigil in Summerville Saturday night to pray for the shooting victims. And to try to understand what is unimaginable.
That effort is at the core of faith, said the Rev. Rob Dewey who began Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy nearly 23 years ago. In that time, he has mourned with countless traumatized parents and children alike.
He sees no escaping a simple truth: Unimaginable things happen in this world.
Few see those moments with such harsh clarity as those whose professional callings bring them face-to-face with tragedy.
“I'm asked on a regular basis, 'Why did my child die?'” Dewey said. “I will hold that parent and say, 'I wish we knew. But we don't. However, I do know that God loves you and that we will know one day.'”
The next question he often gets: Why did God let this happen?
Dewey doesn't see God as the world's puppeteer, one who controls people's actions or the world's tragedies.
“God allows evil to happen. I wish he didn't. But we are part of a fallen world,” Dewey said. “Evil is going to be around us all the time. We confront it every day.”
'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures'
The Rev. Rob Sturdy knows the questions of faith weighing on people's minds. As the father of children ages 5 and 2, he has the same questions. For him, the Gospel provides comfort.
“The Christmas story is essentially about God's son coming to dwell with humanity. Jesus was born in the midst of poverty and violence, and Jesus ultimately lost his own life on the cross,” Sturdy said. “Therefore, God is no stranger to mourning the loss of a son.”
Surdy knows that his children will grow up in a world where terrible things happen. But his Christian faith promises that not only did God endure suffering, he also will overcome it.
“Good Friday is a day of violence and confusion. Easter Sunday is a day of redemption, a great undoing of the wrong done, where suffering and death are abolished, and every tear is wiped from every eye,” he said.
After events like Friday's mass shooting of children, Sturdy prays the Christian judgment day will come soon.
'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil'
The Rev. Spike Coleman, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian in West Ashley, also followed Friday's breaking news. That night, he attended a candlelight vigil for the Survivors of Homicide Support Group.
Yet, the vigil wasn't planned after the Connecticut tragedy. It was a 13th annual event, evidence of how often violence leaves families devastated and asking: Why?
God is good, Coleman said, but he does not control everything in the world.
“I don't believe that death is God's will, especially not this kind of death,” Coleman said about Friday's victims. “That is never God's intention. But he gives us choices.”
And people don't always choose to make great decisions.
On the flip side, Coleman finds that tragedy often prompts people to turn to God.
“It draws us closer to God himself — and also closer to one another,” Coleman said.
'Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over'
Romans 8:28 says: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
It does not, Polley noted, say that God will make ALL things good. Rather, God will make good come from whatever happens.
“I can make a long list of how awfully human beings have treated each other,” Polley said. “Then, I can turn around and look at the amazing things people have done for each other.”
And that is what comes next, as the shock of the latest mass shooting settles.
“There is no explanation that will make a difference in the fact that children are dead, to be buried just before Christmas. That is the reality,” Polley said. “But God will be active in the good that comes out of it.”
Polley recalls the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting. Shortly after, the parents of the shooter's victims reached out to the shooter's family, even inviting them to join them at church.
“They understood that these people also lost a child,” Polley said. “The power of their forgiveness gave that community a chance to heal.”
'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.' – Psalm 23
Rabbi reflects on faith
Chanukah is a joyful celebration of light overcoming darkness, a remembrance of the Jewish people's successful rebellion in the Maccabean War.But at a Chanukah celebration Friday evening, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander added somber prayer for the Connecticut shooting victims and encouraged folks to hug and assure their children to feel safe in their temple.That is what faith means to Alexander, rabbi of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston. The temple is as much a place of faith as one of fellowship and support.“The faith community often can provide more consolation than faith itself,” Alexander said. “The faith has led us to this spiritual home.”Jewish theologians don't agree about the nature of God's role in tragedies. The faith spans a wide range of viewpoints about the nature of God and evil — but the Holocaust solidified a belief that evil exists in the world. For Alexander, faith is what provides hope and a desire to persevere even knowing that evil exists.“I believe that God is that source of strength and resilience that gets you through a crisis,” Alexander said.But explaining beyond that can miss the point of serving others in a way that helps prevent evil from taking root in the first place. In Judaism, she said, the overriding theology is that being Jewish itself compels a person to serve the community, she added.“Ours needs to be a world compelled to do good without a tragedy so that we're not reacting to terrible things but instead are acting to prevent these things,” Alexander said.
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