Breaking Apart the Foundation of Violence

On this day in 2012, a gunman entered an elementary school in a small Connecticut town and took the lives of 20 first graders and six adult staff members, including the principal, psychologist, two teachers, and two aides.
I remember that day, four years ago. I was in my office when the breaking news alert came in. I remember walking into the loft and turning on the TV and watching for a few minutes before I could not bear to watch any more. I remember walking back into my office, shutting the door, turning off the lights, and lighting a candle on my desk. I didn’t do much for the rest of the afternoon, but I wrote this piece the next day.
As a person of faith, I am called to “weep with those who weep” and I don’t want this to just be something I do for a few days after a tragedy, because I know that four years later those families in Connecticut are still weeping. To that end, I have been reading the book “Newtown: An American Tragedy” over the last few weeks. I have been allowing my heart to feel these things again and weep over them again. In this season of Advent, I weep over all of the senseless violence taking place across the globe, but I also take heart, because I know that evil and violence will not have the final word.
Today, I learned that both the elementary school and the shooter’s former home were razed following this tragedy. One has been rebuilt; the other remains a blank lot. What I find most interesting is that the Lanza’s former home was not just leveled, the foundation was also broken apart and removed from its place.
Since Cain killed Abel, violence has long been the foundation of society. Though not all of us take it to the extremes we see on the evening news, we all have violence in our hearts that we must deal with. We all wrestle with jealousy and strife and all of the little things that have the potential to turn into big things. Violence does not begin the moment it is inflicted, it begins somewhere far deeper, and none of us are immune from the seeds of violence in our hearts.
And this is why Jesus came—to break apart the foundations of violence in our world and give us new hearts that are capable of cultivating love for our neighbors and even our enemies. He has broken the curse of sin and death and re-founded the world on the foundation of love and forgiveness. Because He lives, we are able to love and to feel and to weep and to hold on to the hope that violence will not have the final word.
Members of the Rutter family of Sandy Hook, Conn., embrace early Christmas morning as they stand near memorials by the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Conn.,Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. People continue to visit memorials after gunman Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, and opened fire, killing 26, including 20 children, before killing himself. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Members of the Rutter family of Sandy Hook, Conn., embrace early Christmas morning as they stand near memorials by the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Conn.,Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Jan. 3, 2013 – A bus traveling from Newtown, Conn., to Monroe stops near 26 angel signs posted along the roadside in Monroe, Conn., on the first day of classes for Sandy Hook Elementary School students since the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Twenty-seven wooden painted angels created by Eric Mueller are displayed outside his home in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16. Twelve girls, eight boys and six adult women were killed by a gunman who forced his way into Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14. (CNS photos/Mike Segar, Reuters) (Dec. 16, 2012)

Twenty-seven wooden painted angels created by Eric Mueller are displayed outside his home in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16. Twelve girls, eight boys and six adult women were killed by a gunman who forced his way into Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14. (CNS photos/Mike Segar, Reuters)

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Hope for Monday Morning

Yesterday, on the Third Sunday of Advent, I drove through the first snowfall of the season to a large church in a small town in Central Pennsylvania. As the year comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about what 2017 will hold and moving toward a few dreams that seem quite intimidating from where I currently stand.

During the service, the pastor spoke about risk-taking and how many followers of Jesus take safe, calculated risks instead of wholeheartedly diving in to what God is calling them to do. There have certainly been times in my life when I have done the latter, but prior to yesterday I was still internally waffling calculating my risk-management plan.

After church, as Allison and I were driving home on the roads that meander along the banks of the Susquehanna River, I told her that I had decided to wholeheartedly pursue some of the dreams that God had been stirring in my heart for more than a year.

Yesterday, I was full of hope. Today … was Monday.

I’m not so cynical a person that I dread Monday mornings, but that doesn’t mean I’m always exempt from the Monday-morning blues. I struggled to get out of bed when my alarm went off, but made my way through the day with little fanfare. A few exciting things happened, but they didn’t seem to resonate with me the way I knew they should. As I closed my laptop for the day and drove to the gym after dinner, I talked to God about the condition of my heart, which was not nearly as hope-filled as the day before. I told Him that I was growing weary of being filled with hope one day and struggling through the fog the next.

When I got out of my car at the gym, I didn’t have any answers, but I knew that I was at least taking the small step to care for my body instead of going home and watching television until my brain was as numb as my heart. To some degree, I blamed myself, as I thought of all the places where God was showing up in my life. Sometimes things can be falling into place and internal soul issues pop up anyway, which in this case led me to ask myself, “Why can’t you just be happy, Jared?”

Once inside the gym, I put my headphones in and began listening to a sermon from a pastor of a large church in North Carolina. Just a few minutes in, he read a verse where the Apostle Paul talked about how he was having a miserable time on a ministry trip that God had called him to embark on, using language like “We despaired even of life” and “In our hearts we felt the sentence of death.”

The fog broke the instant I heard that. Here was the Apostle Paul, a guy who had a lot of cool experiences and did a lot of great things (like, you know, writing a good portion of the New Testament) having such a bad day that he was in total despair. The negative self-talk immediately faded, as I realized that it’s okay to feel down—and, more importantly, that I didn’t have to stay there.

You see, Paul was writing all of this after the fact. The verses I quoted above are from a lengthier section of the third letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians*, which in my Bible has a nice header that reads The God of All Comfort. (You can read the whole thing in II Corinthians 1:3-11; it’s totally worth it.) Paul starts out by praising God, “The Father of compassion” and “God of all comfort” and he talks about how his hope is firm and secure that if we struggle, we will be comforted. He’s talking to a group of people who are going through a tough time, and instead of just saying “You’ll get through this,” he then opens up and begins to share about his own struggle.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us. ~ II Corinthians 1:8-10, NIV 1984.

I love that Paul says, “He has delivered us … and He will deliver us.” He’s not only being vulnerable and sharing what he has overcome in the past, he’s also acknowledging that there will probably be more rough days ahead, but it’s okay because “on Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us.” In other words, Paul used his past experience with God to make a decision about how he would handle adversity in the future. His hope was set; He knew God would be his source of comfort and deliverance because he had experienced this and he understood that God’s heart toward us doesn’t change from one day to the next.

I worked out for an hour, my heart becoming more and more filled with hope as I listened to the sermon. Toward the end, the pastor read from Psalm that said, “I lift my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2, NIV 1984).

In other words, the Psalmist looked up at the reality of Monday morning, probably freaked out a bit, and then asked himself how he was going to get through this challenge. He then answered his own question, stating that his help would come from the one who made the hills he was looking up at from a low place. He then goes on to say, “He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber … the LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life” (Psalm 121:3, 7; NIV 1984).

What is most interesting about this Psalm is who the Psalmist is speaking to. Did you catch it? He’s talking to himself! The reality is, we all talk to ourselves—and much of the time it is negative. But that’s not what the Psalmist does. In a challenging circumstance, his self-talk does not focus on the size of the problem, but on who God is and what he is confident God will do. This is exactly what we need to regain the hope of Sunday on Monday morning.

As I listened to the pastor read those verses from the Psalms, I began to sing a melody I had not heard in some time. Pulling out my phone, I typed in the lyrics that were dancing through my mind into the Internet search bar. Within a few minutes, I was listening to a ten-year-old Bebo Norman song, a song that I had grown up singing in church. I remember this song resonating with me at fourteen, but it resonated with me even more at twenty-four. Because when I was fourteen, I didn’t realize that life isn’t just hard in your teenage years. I needed this song at fourteen, but I need it even more now that I am twenty-four.

Your kindness is what pulls me up / Your love is all that draws me in
I will lift my eyes to the Maker / Of the mountains I can’t climb
I will lift my eyes to the Calmer / Of the oceans raging wild
I will lift my eyes to the Healer / Of the hurt I hold inside
I will lift my eyes / Lift my eyes to You
~ Bebo Norman

I think what I love most about this song is the reminder that it’s God’s kindness that pulls us out of the fog and the struggle. He’s not standing around wringing his hands while you’re blaming yourself for your inability to function with a fully awakened heart; rather, He’s the one who wants to breathe the life that will awaken your heart into you.

Got a mountain you can’t climb?
Got an ocean raging in your mind?
Got hurt that you can’t seem to let go of?

Life your eyes. Take heart.
You’re not alone.
You are never alone.

h2 Church in Sunbury, PA – Sermon from Mark Gittens – December 11, 2016
Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC – Sermon from Steven Furtick – November 6, 2016
I Will Lift My Eyes – Song by Bebo Norman – 2006

* Fun Fact: II Corinthians was actually Paul’s third letter to the Church at Corinth, and I Corinthians was his second. Something happened to the first letter and it did not make it into the canon of Scripture.