Worshippers holding flickering candles streamed from Christmas Eve services. They faced evening shadows, singing, "Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright."
As 2012 ends, these lyrics paint a pretty picture which doesn't square with life's jarring reality. After the carnage in Connecticut, we might wish to bend the lyrics: "Stormy night, hellish night! All is chaotic, all is blight."
Folks in Newtown, Conn., a bucolic village where a shooter slaughtered children and murdered adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, find it difficult to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night." They wail because of broken hearts. Multiple funerals replace festive Christmas gatherings.
2012 isn't on firm footing. It limps toward New Year's Eve.
Life's a mixture of mirth and murder, sunshine and shadow, gaiety and grief. Don't duck this reality when singing "Silent Night, Holy Night."
A deranged killer executed children merely three days after another thug went berserk shooting up an Oregon Mall. Such havoc has been repeated in 2012, with fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, Tulsa, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a theater in Aurora, a coffee nook in Seattle and on a California college campus.
Those adamant that the only way to protect citizens from the next carnage is to amass guns for personal defense aren't silent. Really! Will living in an armed camp like the state of Israel has become preserve our freedoms? Don't such lethal arguments trigger the death of common sense?
Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist preacher, offers a religious answer to the slaughter of innocent children. He traces it back to banning prayer in public schools.
"Should we be surprised," asks Huckabee, "that schools would become a place of carnage?"
Are we to believe that the serial killer wiped out young children because Sandy Hook's school halls weren't filled with prayers prior to his assault? Such lunacy on Fox News snuffs out reason, sensitivity and good manners in the face of tragedy.
How do we cope?
Thomas Jefferson learned from his mother how to survive life's storms. At 37, Jane Randolph Jefferson found herself widowed. She and eldest son Thomas, 14, faced dire problems. Jane cared for her eight children, one of whom was daughter Elisabeth. This girl appears disabled in the historical record, though evidence is sketchy. Then a house fire roared through their Shadwell home, destroying a prized library.
For Thomas, losing precious books stung like repeated deaths. "The most fortunate of us ... in our journey through life frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us," he wrote. "To fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes should be one of the principle studies and endeavors of our lives."
Jefferson pinpoints the challenge but doesn't tell us how to deal with sorrow, chaos and slaughter.
Life is precarious.
When tragedy strikes, I turn to a hymn sung in my boyhood church at the Old Year's Eve service. We took communion and sang Isaac Watts's classic hymn, "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past."
This hymn isn't about neat answers and tidy religion. It offers, however, firm ground beneath our tread when killing sprees profoundly shake us.
"Our God, our Help in ages past
Our Hope for years to come,
Our Shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal Home."
Such convictions don't dry tears or offer instant solace. We trust in their promises, even as the natural impulse is to rail against God. The God who inspired this hymn isn't a fair-weather friend. He knows how terrible it feels to have a child die. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem marked him for an early death. The manger had the stench of animals. And King Herod's goons killed male Jewish babies, gambling that one of these infants might be Jesus.
Our God heads the line of the brokenhearted. Anne Lamott in her book "Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers," writes, "There are no words for the broken hearts of people losing people, so I ask God with me in tow to respond to them with graciousness and encouragement enough for the day."
We are God's bandages to heal wounded hearts.
The biblical God isn't the success icon an NFL star salutes with the sign of the cross after scoring a touchdown. Nor is scripture's God our lucky charm, as some who win the lottery attest. The God who bent over Bethlehem doesn't shield us from pain. Nor does he promise residences in villages where kids grow old and guns are used only at firing ranges.
Ken Jones, a clergy colleague at Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, encountered it all in New York: murders, mayhem and maladjusted folk. He'd often weave into prayer the admonition to "lean on God's everlasting arms." Sometimes, all we can do is collapse in them when faith wanes and misery wins.
Trust that God's arms aren't broken. Lean on the everlasting arms of the broken-hearted one who is our past help and future hope.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.