On Sunday at North City Church, where Candace, Daniel, and I worship, we spent our Bible class hour talking about our reactions to the Newtown massacre. Our class is small and composed of some older African-Americans and a few middle-aged Euro-Americans. We all live in the inner-city.

The context is important because gun violence, rage, and mental illness are common in North Saint Louis. One week ago a man was shot three blocks from the church building. There was another shooting this week. One of the ladies in the class had lost bother her husband and a son to a bullets in the streets. Even though I’ve been living in the city for four years now, I’m still making sense of the violence. My older black sisters and brothers, however, understand it all too well.

We discussed the lectionary readings for the day, which initially seemed dreadfully unfitting in light of the killings. The primary motif of the readings was joy. Isaiah urges Israel to “shout aloud and sing for joy” and Zephaniah tells them to “rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Perhaps realizing how difficult it might be to rejoice always, Paul said it again: “and again I say, rejoice.” How can disciples of Jesus not only to cope with suffering and death, but even rejoice in the face of it?

The Apostle answers the question succinctly: “The Lord is near.” These words can be understood in two ways. First, it is a reference to the hope we have of Jesus’ return and the restoration of all things. Christians are especially aware of Christ’s impending return during this season of Advent. Even though evil seems to prevail now, we believe that on the judgment day God will set things right; in fact, through the cross, evil has already been defeated. Our hope contrasts with the world’s hope. In Newtown, city officials are quietly removing the town’s Christmas decorations as a sign of mourning. While this is an entirely appropriate action for the city, Christians understand the joy of the Christmas season not as a seasonal high sustained by family-time and gift-giving, but as an expectation of God’s arrival in the midst of a dark world. The secular city places its hope in stricter gun legislation, improved mental health policies, and better school security. These are all good things, but none of them address the root problems which Christians identify as sin and evil. The only power on earth or heaven which can deal with these issues is the Creator.

Even as we wait the coming day, however, we hear the words “the Lord is near” as a comfort in the remaining dark days. Sunday we sang with Isaiah: “Surely God is my salvation: I will trust, and will not be afraid” (Is. 12:2) With Zephaniah we affirmed that God “will calm your heart with his love” (Zeph. 3:17). The God who made the world and everything in it is not far from any of us. And because the Lord is near, Paul can say “be anxious for nothing.” Don’t worry about anything. Paul’s confidence is grounded not only in God’s goodness and might, but also in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Like the children of Newtown, Jesus was an innocent victim of human violence. Unlike the children, Jesus choose to suffer rather than retaliate, and in so doing he left a legacy of peacemaking which has the potential to break forever the cycle of violence and death which characterizes human society. We rejoice that this same Jesus, brother of all victims, will also be the judge of all torturers and murderers.

Of course, one of the fundamental insights of Christianity is that humans cannot be divided into victims and oppressors. The line between good and evil cuts down the middle of the human heart. In its effort to make sense of Friday’s events, the world is looking of a scapegoat – bad politics, failed parenting, lack of awareness. Christians tell a different story however. We recognize sin and evil as the norm, not as an anomaly. We recognize the need to confront envy, violence, and anger within our own hearts – the need to repent and the need to be forgiven.

But we also know that it simply isn’t possible to make sense of tragedies like Newtown. They are beyond understanding because the human heart is complex and dark. Yet because of the confidence we have in God’s power and love, we enjoy “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” Tragedy beyond words is answered by a peace beyond all words, a peace which stretches beyond the tears and grief of the present moment in the knowledge that God has already made everything right in Christ. Though the practices of prayer, communion, and nonviolence (“gentleness” in Php 4:5), we cultivate a peace which can sustain us even through tragedy – Paul says it “will guard our hearts and minds.” From the perspective of the world, it makes no sense for Christians to continue to be joyful in the midst of suffering, yet we are promised peace and joy which don’t make sense, which surpasses understanding.

I pray that the mourning families of Newtown can experience God’s peace. I pray that the world can experience God’s peace. I pray that the Lord come quickly.

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