Monday, December 24, 2012

My unexpected pilgrimage to Newtown, CT

My family is in Connecticut this week, spending Christmas with relatives. In addition to those we are staying with, a certain beloved great-aunt lives nearby. We decided to have lunch with her at her retirement community.

In this age of digital helps, we did not consult a map to find her. We merely plugged her address into our GPS app and said, “Go.” It told us the journey was a mere 45 minutes, so we allotted the proper amount of time, and off we went. I didn’t know in particular in what direction we were driving. I knew that Newtown was somewhere east of Danbury, but not being used to a state as tiny as Connecticut, I figured it must be some distance.

So I was surprised when the GPS directed us to exit at Newtown Road. Next thing I knew, we were driving right through Newtown, Connecticut, site of the school shooting that has shocked our entire nation. It has only been a week and a half since it happened, and the final funeral was two days ago.

A feeling of foreboding came over me as we began driving through Newtown. Occasionally we saw collections of little U.S. flags stuck in the ground. We saw green ribbons on mailboxes, and banners, both hand-painted and professionally made, that read, “Pray for Newtown.” Little stenciled signs read, “Trust in God … no matter what.” Businesses had hung out signs saying, “Our prayers are with you.” Another said, “We are Newtown strong.” A large sign with a green ribbon announced a Newtown grief recovery project. And we drove right past the Episcopal church where at least two of the slain children were members. Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, MD, the church where I'm doing my seminary internship, has just raised and sent $9,000 to this church for the rector’s discretionary fund.

On the journey we were listening to an episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It wasn’t appropriate to the scene, but it did act like a sort of a buffer. Maybe by listening to something kind of fluffy, we could keep the reality of the town from touching us directly. Plus, our 7-year-old was reading in the backseat, and we didn’t want to call attention to our surroundings. She knows about the shootings in general, but she hasn’t asked us further questions, and we didn’t want to frighten her unexpectedly.

For it occurred to me that we were probably passing some of the very homes these children lived in, homes that on this Christmas Eve contain no joy whatsoever—nothing but bleak loss and numb disbelief. Some of the people inside, well trained by our Christmas-loving culture, may be rehearsing the trite phrases, spoken by well-meaning neighbors and family: “It’ll all be OK in time.” “Your child is with God in heaven.” Or worst of all, “God just decided it’s time.” Some people speak truth, and others speak nonsense. But in a time like this, everything hurts, and that makes all of it nonsense—all of the words, that is. The presence of loving people is not nonsense—people who listen without judgment to any and every feeling that surfaces. They are God’s presence in the situation. They are the only way to go on.

The last thing we saw as we left town was a giant construction sign that read, “Thank you to our heroes … God bless our angels.” Crossing outside city limits raised my spirits a bit, and we went back to focusing exclusively on our podcast. I wanted to forget, but of course, I knew that wasn’t possible. I felt that I’d been on an unexpected pilgrimage, and I hadn’t engaged it as fully as I could have. In a way, I am writing this now as a kind of penance, because I did nothing to help. Ridiculous, I know. But maybe it’s not so ridiculous: I want to take some of the grief from Newtown and spread it among as many people as possible, to dilute it as much as I can.

Later in the evening, we attended a Christmas Eve Eucharist at St. Stephen’s in Ridgefield, CT. We were blessed by the music of the children’s choir, and we got to sing all the old familiar favorites. I was taken aback by how much I appreciated, perhaps for the first time, the later stanzas of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
The tidings which they bring
O hush the noise and cease your strife
And hear the angels sing.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Amidst all the feelgood Christmas cheer, I noticed that this is not a feelgood song. If anything, it feels more like an Advent song: it’s about waiting. It is a realistic assessment of what the world is really like, and it engages it on its own terms. The hymn does not expect us to fool ourselves into believing that all is well with the world. In fact, it just won’t let us. But it is, as are all good hymns, hopeful. It looks forward to a time when things will be different than they are now … no matter how long it takes.

And again I think of those little stenciled signs: “Trust God … no matter what.” Yes, I will. I will do that. Not because I am able to, but because I must. In the wake of the past couple weeks, God is all we have left. “O hush the noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.”


  1. Helpful and comforting, Josh. Thanks. Have a peaceful holiday.

  2. This was very touching, to say the least. Thank you for sharing.