A dark shroud seemed to envelope America in the last few weeks of 2012. From the constant media chatter about the fiscal cliff to the coverage of trauma and heartache in Newtown, CT, the days were filled with painful reminders of our human failings and fragility. The darkness seeped into my own family with the death of my paternal grandfather a few days before Christmas. A committed public servant and military man, his private life was permeated with fear and distrust. Mourning him also meant coming face to face with how that way of living had affected those who loved him.
Daybreak on Christmas Eve arrived with another national news story, this time unfolding mere miles from my childhood home where I was settling into a holiday visit. A gunman had lured first responders into a death trap in Webster, NY. Flames licked at vacation cottages along the banks of Lake Ontario. Lives were lost at the hand of a very disturbed man.
What should have been a celebratory Mass on Christmas Eve night began instead with a somber recognition of the lives that were affected by the Newtown and Webster shootings. As the priest asked us to remember the victims before the Mass commenced, I wondered how we collectively—as a nation, as a generation—could make sense of tragedy and brokenness. How might we walk into the New Year with confidence? How do we maintain hope when all around us we see despair?
These questions became less rhetorical the longer I sat with them. Seeking answers, I turned to a recurring source of sustenance, a small faith community to which I belong that meets regularly to pray together, fellowship, and support one another in navigating decisions about vocation, family, and church life. The group is inspired by one belief: the love of God is at work. While seemingly simple, this belief, when acted upon, is a game changer.
We use a framework of four questions to guide our actions: 1) Who is God calling me to be? 2) Who is God calling us to be? 3) How can we live in relationship with those on the margins of society? 4) What is beautiful?
In our day-to-day lives, asking these questions looks like this: If I believe the love of God is at work, then how does that love affect important decisions related to how I spend my money? Perhaps God is calling me to be more generous with charitable gifts or with my time. My gift of time might not yield an America free of violent crime, but a collective investment of our time might bring about safer streets and more accountability between and among neighbors.
When it comes to “us” as a group, we share intentional time together in discussion, prayer, and meal-based fellowship with the hope of building a joy-filled community that invites members to use their gifts and talents for the common good. In practice, this translated into those with more catechetical experience preparing and leading a memorial prayer liturgy in my living room to mark my grandfather’s passing. Their gift of language expressed what I could not. Their expression of friendship put flesh to God’s love for me.
The third question was originally shaped by our experiences with the materially poor in the US and those in developing countries. However, in light of shootings in Newtown and Webster, in Colorado and Arizona, I wonder how a collective awareness of the effects of isolation and estrangement can impact access to mental health services. How can I live in relationship to those who might be economically affluent, but are marginalized socially and emotionally?
Believing that the love of God is at work also means thinking about how we process the physical world in which that love exists. Despite the pain, despite the brokenness, there is an essential beauty among us that inspires and rejuvenates. One of the first things we heard the day after the Newtown shooting was that memorials were being erected near Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are a visual generation and a place-making people. What can we learn about God and ourselves by encountering and creating works of art, film, music, poetry and prose?
The Apostle John wrote, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” May we be light-bearers in 2013, illuminating God’s love at work in the world.