My office is right on the main hallway for our school; I can see into the preschool room from my desk. So every time I go to write about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, my composure is broken by a little one waving to me in the hallway, and I fight back tears. I cannot think too hard about what it would be if someone were to shoot through the door 10 feet from my office. It breaks my heart, as I know it does yours as well. Though I am not their parent, as someone who works everyday with these young people, I love them in a way which words cannot adequately express.
So, what is there to write that hasn’t already been said? I have seen so many excellent pieces done for youth workers about how to discuss the tragedy in Newtown with their students. Writers much more eloquent than I have expressed the shared grief we feel at the deaths of these students and teachers. I will gladly point you to these resources. But for me, what is left is simply what has been on my heart these last few days as I have talked with students and simultaneously prepared for Christmas.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook is a startling reminder that the children we serve in our ministries live in a world where nowhere feels truly safe. They have never lived in a country perfectly safe from attack. We have been at war for most of their lives. They have seen churches, schools, street corners, malls and movie theaters violated by senseless murder. They are as calm about intruder drills as they are about fire drills, since they have done them just as regularly throughout their school careers. These students have never known a world without intense airport security, or metal detectors in schools. They are not startled by a new announcement before the movie about the location of emergency exits in case of a violent intruder.
Perhaps it has always been unsafe, and we are just more aware now. Yet, I mourn the safe world I knew at their age. It is a place they will never get to know. I cry because darkness has reached into yet another place we hoped it would never go.
Yet, as He always has, God uses the darkness to shine a great light, the one light which can bring hope, love and safety to our young people. In this Advent season we wait eagerly for the Word become flesh; a Savior is born whose death and resurrection bring us forgiveness and eternal life. We revel in the love that neither knows bounds nor can be separated from us. We are wrapped in the confidence and hope that Jesus’ death means that all who have faith in Him will spend forever in eternity with Him. No matter what danger, violence or evil we will see in this world, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
A first grade teacher at Sandy Hook, Kaitlin Roig, said in an interview that she didn’t think she or her students were going to survive the attack. “I said to them, I need you to know that I love you all very much and it’s going to be OK, because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear,” Roig said. “I wanted that to be the last things they heard, not the gunfire in the hallway.” Even as I read this for what must be the dozenth time, it brings tears to my eyes. Even in that moment of terror, she wanted love to be the last thing those students knew. This is the true heart of the educator.
Perhaps that is a lesson for us as well. Except that we share a love which is greater than what we ourselves can give. I want my students to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I love them and would protect them with everything that I have. But so much more than that, I want my students to know that God loves them with an unending love, a love so big that He was willing to die for them. It is because of God’s love and our faith that we know that it will be okay no matter how unsafe our world becomes.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). If the love of God is the last and only thing my students learn from me, then the Holy Spirit has truly used me well. May the love of God and the hope of the resurrection be what they hear above the din of violence and uncertainty in this world.