North Georgia pastors seek to provide comfort in wake of school shooting


    It is one of the most agonizing questions the church has faced since its inception: Why do bad things happen to good people? And, in a similar vein, many believers as well as non-believers often ask: If God is all good and all powerful, why does he allow evil to exist?
      The nature of the inquiry predates the church. Jesus faced a similar query.
      In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, the disciples ask Jesus to resolve a debate. Coming across a man who had been blind since birth, they wonder, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
     We often struggle to make sense out of the things we do not understand, to find reason where none seems to exist.
      Jesus explained to his disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
     Is there any doubt that many people today are desperate for light in a world of darkness? Last month’s horrific attack at an elementary school in a quiet town in Connecticut left a nation in shock and grasping for answers.
      The Sunday after the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, coming in the middle of Advent, presented a particular challenge for pastors to make sense of a senseless act.
    On pages 4-5 you will find the responses of various pastors in the North Georgia Conference who sought to bring light into a situation of utmost darkness.
 In the aftermath of a national tragedy:
Seeking answers, hope through the tears
Pastors across the North Georgia Conference reveal how they responded to the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed 26 lives, including 20 children.
Sacred Tapestry UMC / Atlanta Marietta District
     As soon as I heard the news I emailed the pastor at the UMC in Newtown and told him I was praying for him. I then activated our prayer network and got it out to our Facebook group. 
   Sunday morning, we started our service with a reading from John 1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it," followed by a moment of silence, then with the lighting of the Christ candle.
    I referenced it in my sermon and in our communion liturgy and talked about finding joy amidst suffering. Sunday evening at Elevate, we had communion around one table, cried, prayed for the victims, the shooter, his family, and everyone involved in comforting the families, including the clergy, then we lit candles for all the victims. I've also ordered resources for parents to use when talking to their children about death and will make those available to anyone who needs them.
Suwanee  First UMC / Atlanta Emory District
    We are doing a series called "He Shall Be Called," examining prophecies about Jesus. Sunday was joy. I reworked the message to address my thoughts and reactions, especially as a new dad, and how I thought we could experience joy again. 
    During our pastoral prayer time at each service, we rang our church bell during the prayer, and only prayed for Newtown. We also began with a moment of silence. 
Gainesville First UMC / Gainesville District
       Prior to my sermon on 'Good News 2 All People' I read the names and ages of the victims and made a few comments and then we prayed for the people of Newtown. I addressed it on the front page of our weekly newsletter and posted it that article on our blog with a link to our Facebook page. 
     We also ran notices on our outdoor electronic sign all weekend stating “With Heavy Hearts we pray for the people of Newtown, Connecticut.”
Sugar Hill UMC / Gainesville District
        I asked the congregation to write notes of prayers, scriptures and hope. We gave them cards with the image of the Lion and the Lamb. More than 500 people wrote messages on these cards and brought them to the altar steps. We prayed over these cards asked the Lord to use them to encourage and lift up the people of the Sandy Hook School. 
      We mailed them today to the Newtown UMC pastor, Rev. Mel Kawakami. We emailed a letter to the parents of our academy and the church with resources. The Academy had a special prayer service this morning for the families and the school at Sandy Hook. We also used this time to assure our students that we love them and that they are safe here, that the staff and church is looking after them.
Mt. Nebo UMC / Rome Carrollton District
During the stewardship moment of our service we spoke scripture and allowed everyone to respond by writing a prayer card. Throughout the service we responded with prayer, song and Word. 
   During the message the people were invited to grieve, cry and ask God "Why? Where were you?" We closed the service time by responding with our offering our written prayer cards. The cards were then mailed to Newtown UMC.
Arbor Pointe UMC / Hoschton District
    We meet for worship in a school, so it was particularly poignant. We had a time during the service to light a candle and take some silent moments to invite God's peace and hope to puncture the darkness - both in Connecticut and right around the corner. 
     We also had a mother of two participate in the lighting of the Advent Wreath, and she shared some words about how Joy might be found in tragedy and sorrow.
Ball Ground UMC / Northwest District
     I issued a call to action. My message was what it means to accept the gift of the Christ Child. We are comfortable with the baby Jesus and the resurrected Jesus but it's the Jesus that lived between Christmas morning and Easter morning with which we struggle. 
     Too many in the church have not fully accepted the fullness of Jesus Christ (He is either Lord of all or not Lord at all). And that has led to the church not being the city on the hill we are called to be. It is time for the church to be the church. And that requires that we accept the fullness of Jesus. The corporate affect of our sins is destroying our world. It is time for the church to repent and become the city on the hill again, to take our light out from beneath the baskets. 
      We ended the service with a time of prayer. I asked for all the children and youth to come down to the front of the church. I then invited the congregation to come down front. The entire congregation came. I prayed over our children and youth, the families in Newtown, our schools, our parents and for the churches. I then invited the congregation to pray. 
    After my prayer I stepped away to pray silently. After about five minutes I opened my eyes to see that about 90 percent of the church remained down front praying. The church stood in prayer and worship for about 15 minutes. Tears were shed. Prayers were lifted. The Holy Spirit moved. It seemed to be a great release for everyone.
Aldersgate UMC Augusta / Augusta District
     I preached on the Slaughter of the Innocents and spoke directly to the issue of Theodicy. We read the names and ages of the victims at the end of the sermon while Amazing Grace played in the background
    Meaningful, cathartic, few dry eyes.
Mt. Pisgah UMC / Atlanta Roswell District
We built our whole service around 'What can we do?' and invited worshippers to grieve and give. Respond with Compassion and generosity like God responds. Our people made 869 care cards in worship and then gave $37,000 in a special offering which we over-nighted to Pastor Mel and the Newtown UMC in Sandy Hook.
    During the stewardship moment of our service we spoke scripture and allowed everyone to respond by writing a prayer card. Throughout the service we responded with prayer, song and the Word. 
     During the message the people were invited to grieve, cry and ask God "why? where were you?" We closed the service time by responding with our offering and our written prayer cards. The cards were then mailed to Newtown UMC.
Starrsville UMC / Atlanta Decatur Oxford District
     The Sunday after the tragedy was the Christmas Cantata at Starrsville UMC. The order of worship did not include a sermon. It did include the pastoral prayer. At the beginning of the prayer I quoted Isaiah 9:2-6, and I simply stated that in the face of the evil tragedy in Newtown, Conn., we have no way of understanding it.  As faithful Christians in the waiting, watching and darkness of Advent we know that the light of the world always overcomes darkness and does not abandon us. 
      We join our prayers for the families and friends of the 27 who died. I then lit a separate small pillar candle that was on the worship center table in their memory--you could have heard a pin drop. Then I simply said that we were here today to worship and praise God for the gift of God's son – Jesus -- God with us, our salvation, and invited them to join in praising and worshiping God who will get us through these days.
    After the prayer, I made available for the congregation postcards with the address of Newtown UMC on them. They were encouraged and invited to write a note to this congregation letting them know that they were praying for them during this tragedy.
     This was received well as many people expressed appreciation in the simplicity yet moving moment of lighting the candle along with having an action they could take to express their care and concern by sending a postcard or using the address to send a card or letter of their choice.
     I have also posted links and blogs on my own Facebook page and on the church Facebook page that, in my opinion, are helpful in encouraging people to think in a theological and thoughtful way to this tragedy.
McEachern Memorial UMC / Atlanta Marietta District
We completely reworked all of our services that Sunday. I did a message addressing the mixed emotions we had after the events of Friday, and at the end of each service we had a powerful time of corporate prayer together. It was overwhelming seeing hundreds of people at each service packed together at the altar and in the aisles praying, sobbing, and releasing. 
St Mark UMC Atlanta / Atlanta Emory District
We posted a link to on our website so that our members could post prayers for the people in Newtown. 
    We were having our annual musical program that Sunday but we began the service with a moment of silent prayer for the people of Newtown. We also had prayer for them at our evening service that night. 
    We have many school principals and teachers in our congregation and they needed a chance to pray without too much commentary.
Faith UMC Cartersville / Northwest District
    We wove our response throughout the service. First we lit the Advent candle of Joy in Christ, and also designated it as a candle of Remembrance for the victims.  The Pastoral Prayer was an acknowledgement of our many conflicting emotions - and how God's Word to praise and be thankful in all things challenges us so deeply. 
    Finally, I ended the sermon “Come Home to Chaos” with the story of Fred Rogers, and how when he was a child his mother told him that during a tragedy, “Look for the Helpers” - and that today, we are the helpers when we pray. 
     The altar was open, the response was overwhelming, and our prayers ended the service.
Northbrook UMC / Atlanta Roswell District
We had a service on Sunday, Dec. 16th - "The Whole World Sings" - as a celebration of Advent and Christmas music. All the participants dedicated their gifts of music in memory and honor of the victims of the shootings in Connecticut. Right at the outset we offered resources to all parents whose children might be asking hard questions in the wake of the violence.
     The following Wednesday the church had a prayer session at 6 p.m. for the families affected by the Connecticut shooting, as well as for our children and their schools.
      Lastly, I rewrote some lyrics and added new verses to the song "I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day" for us to sing as part of our service on Dec. 23. Longfellow's original poem was written in response to the violence of the Civil War and in response to tragic death in his own family. It was a meaningful spiritual exercise for me personally to wrestle anew with the language of the hymn, asking myself, "how can I sing these lyrics - some of my favorites of all the Christmas songs - in the wake of this violence, suffering, and darkness." 
     It helped me - and I am hoping that sharing and singing it may help others.
Druid Hills UMC / Atlanta Emory District
     Coincidentally, we were half way set up to respond that Sunday. We were doing "Faith is patience in the night," spoken and performed, not sung.
      I completely rewrote my sermon, speaking about no matter what songs (Advent, Christmas, or lack thereof) we sing today we call lament. We prayed together Psalm 130, then I continued saying that we needed to sing for one another when our brothers and sisters can’t. I reminded our congregation that we belong to two kingdoms: one where people are ill, where we don't watch over one another in love. But we have another citizenship, where swords are beaten into plowshares (and assault weapons are melted down) and tears will be dried. 
     Following service, people wrote notes to people of Newtown. We send notes in bulk to Newtown UMC.
Locust Grove UMC / Griffin District
   We had a special time of prayer at the altar. I preached on the Luke 3: 7-18 text from the angle that we have the Divine Opportunity to experience Emmanuel, God with Us, this Christmas. It may mean rearranging our lives to make room for the Christ to be with us. 
       It also means that we have the opportunity to be the presence of Christ to someone else, especially when they are hurting so much that they cannot feel the presence of Christ. It may be one who is cold and looking for warmth, hungry and needing food, unfairly treated and searching for fulfillment, or grieving and needing someone to simply cry with them when no answers to the "Why?" question will suffice right now.
      Like others we are planning on writing notes to the people of Newton and I have sent a note to the minister of Newtown UMC.
Dalton First UMC / Northwest District 
     I preached the Luke 2:8-20 text that we had planned but also added Herod's slaughter of the male children. I talked about the tension that we have always lived in between joy and sorrow. It was even a part of the first Christmas. Then we read the names and prayed for each family
Bold Spring UMC / Athens Elberton District 
We had an Advent Lessons and Carols service planned. At the beginning, before the prayer, we lit a candle on the altar in memory of Newtown. Then, during the children's sermon, we talked about lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath, and bringing light into the darkness is one of the most powerful things you can do, and that is what is coming at Christmas. 
     Then, instead of the short devotion I was planning on the power and importance of singing Christmas carols, I spoke directly about the Newtown tragedy. And hit everything head on, like prayer in school, separation of church and state, acts of heroism and horror, gun control, mental illness, and through all of it, the hope we continue to witness to in our lives. Then, the entire church gathered at the altar and prayed together while we sang Angels We Have Heard on High.
North Springs UMC / Atlanta Roswell District
     We thankfully had an infant baptism already scheduled which was certainly a sign of hope for our congregation. We also prayed for the victims during the pastoral prayer.
    Just before our anthem, I took five minutes and addressed the tragedy directly. My main point was that evil exists in the world and this young man chose to act on his will and not the will of God. The first heart to break on Friday was Jesus' own. For God is against evil. The best thing we can do during this time is to overcome evil with good. After this message, we had a moment of silence before the choir sang an appropriate and healing anthem.