An Anchor Through the Storms of Sandy Hook

Anne B. Doll

On Friday, December 14, 2012, a heavily armed gunman breached the security system of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and began firing. Within five minutes, six educators and 20 children had lost their lives in the second worst school shooting in U.S. history.

One of the victims, a six-year-old girl, was a Sunday School classmate of Pastor Rob Morris’ oldest son at Newtown’s Christ the King Lutheran Church. Within the week, the Gordon-Conwell alumnus would officiate at her funeral in this same Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod where he had been ordained and installed as pastor four months earlier.

On that never-to-be-forgotten Friday, Pastor Morris was enjoying his normal day off with his wife, Christy, and two sons, Elijah and Isaiah, when the phone rang at 9:30 a.m. It was the Newtown School System alerting the Morris family of a lockdown at Sandy Hook Elementary. He says that initially he “wasn’t thinking that it was anything like it turned out to be.” A previous incident at a downtown bank had also sent the schools into lockdown.

Then a church member reported a shooting at Sandy Hook. Rob immediately headed to the church, where his administrative assistant was already assembling a list of church members with links to the school. “I started calling all the families on the list. Fortunately, I was able to reach most of them and find out that their children or the adults at the school were safe.”

But Rob also learned that the parents of one child had gone to the school and could not find their daughter. So he headed to a firehouse staging area where families could connect with children, teachers and staff members. And thus began a vigil with an anguished father and mother that eventually moved to their home and lasted until after 1 a.m. the next morning.

What does a pastor do and say in such times of abject horror? “You pray, you sit with them, you share Scripture and offer comfort and support in any way you can,” Rob replies.

During that long vigil, he also shared his own experience of waiting and grief. “In our case,” Rob explains, “our youngest son, Isaiah, attends a special needs preschool (in the Newtown School System) because he has epilepsy. The first time he had a seizure, he went off in the ambulance with Christy and I had to stay home with our son, Elijah. I didn’t know whether I would ever see Isaiah alive again.

“I explained to the parents that while my circumstance wasn’t the same as the one they faced, here was how God had comforted me: that our children are always in God’s hands. They’re a trust from him; they don’t belong to us. A situation like this, when there is literally nothing you can do, is a very strong and difficult reminder that he’s in control, that whatever the circumstances were, their daughter was in God’s hands.”

That evening, while Rob waited with the parents for final confirmation from the police that their child had died, his church held a prayer service. Joining them were all the pastors of the local Missouri Synod circuit and the district president. Members would later describe it as “a beautiful and very mournful time of prayer and Scripture.” Similar services were held for the next six evenings, and now take place on the 14th of each month.

On Saturday, Rob met with a second family who had requested a Lutheran pastor, because their young son had been baptized a Lutheran. He conducted that child’s funeral the following Monday.

His church had to take immediate action on other fronts as well, such as developing a policy for responding to media from around the world, and instituting numerous security measures because of threatening calls directed at public places. “For about two weeks,” he says, “it was very surreal.”

Prior to the tragic events at Sandy Hook, the church had scheduled a children’s Christmas pageant for Sunday, December 16. The leadership decided that this pageant should take place—as a way to honor the children still with them, to maintain some sense of normalcy for the young people, and to convey that the church remained a safe place.

At the beginning of the service, Rob announced that during the worship time, he would not address directly the events of the preceding Friday, but would comment after the pageant and his children’s sermon. Parents could determine whether their children should remain, or be dismissed to the fellowship hall. Waiting there would be comfort dogs provided by Lutheran Church Charities. That organization takes trained dogs and their handlers to the site of emergencies and tragedies. “The children could go hang out and pet the dogs,” Rob explains. “It was kind of fun and comforting to have some trained dogs around.”

The words of comfort and assurance the pastor then shared on that first Sunday have become a theme of sorts for subsequent sermons and adult Bible studies.

“Our hope,” he said, “lies not in our own behavior or emotions, but in the certainty of what Christ has accomplished for us on the cross and delivered to us through his means of grace. Through his Word and sacraments, he has joined us to him in that resurrection life. That becomes the solid point, the anchor. In our society, an anchor is usually a negative image. But it certainly isn’t to anyone who has been on a ship during a storm. In that circumstance, you need a fixed point outside the boat, outside of yourself, that can anchor you. The reality of what was accomplished on the cross was just as true on Dec. 15 in Newtown as it was on Dec. 13 in Newtown. While our confidence may be shaken, our hope has not because of our certainty that the historical fact of Christ’s death and resurrection, the historical fact of our baptism into that resurrection life haven’t changed one bit by what happened on that day.”

Surprisingly, Rob cannot recall a single instance when someone asked the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” He suspects the absence of the question may relate to the degree to which Lutheran theology “is grounded in the fact that we are all sinful. Human nature is sinful; and evil, sickness and death in this world are all the result of that sin. God does not create or condone sin.”

The appropriate response in confronting sin and its effects, he adds, “is to recognize that they are the same sinful behaviors and sinful nature that Christ has saved us from, that this world is certainly not what God intended it to be, and not the way his perfect creation will be once again after Christ’s return.”

Pastor Rob says that in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting, the grief that he and his church family experienced was overwhelming. “You can’t grasp what has happened, and even the small portion you can grasp is just crushing. There was a lot of weeping. It was probably a month before I could go through a service without needing a box of tissues on the pulpit. “

That first Sunday, he told the congregation that the verse to remember was “Jesus wept.” The appropriate response, he said, “was not to come up with an explanation, or even necessarily to assign blame, but to recognize that when heartbreaking and shocking and horrific things happen in life, the only proper response is to do what Jesus did—to lament.

“From the very beginning, I tried to let the congregation know that there’s no one right way to grieve, to feel. We’re not all going to feel the same thing at the same time, so be honest about where you’re at and be patient with one another. Expect that sometimes you’re going to weep and sometimes you’ll laugh.

Sometimes when you expect to weep, you won’t; and sometimes when you expect to feel good, you will find it unbearable. There’s no one right way to process what has happened.” He noticed this even in his seventh and eighth grade confirmation class when he met with them a week later. “Some of them,” he says, “would still tear up as we talked about Sandy Hook, and others would say, ‘We don’t think it’s right to be sad about this all the time.’”

Shortly after the events of Dec. 14, the synod provided Rob’s church with a licensed counselor who specializes in disaster response. A month later, that individual returned for a week, during which he met with the church council, held an event for congregation members and was available to meet one-on-one with affected family members and those in care-giving positions at the church.

Rob says that one of the greatest blessings to emerge “from a horrific situation” is the degree to which the congregation has warmly supported each other. “The biggest thing I see is people hugging and loving one another, being with one another, interacting with each other and wishing to help. People come early and stay late. And they ask if there is anything they can do, anything at all.”

As a pastor, Rob has learned much, and is still learning from the events of Dec. 14. Hearkening back to his theme, he observes: “I think there are many very faithful Christian believers who root some of their certainty in the Christian life in subjective feelings and experiences—that you’re a genuine Christian if you’re growing in your emotions and exhibiting more and more of ‘fill-in-the-blank.’ While there’s some truth to that, that there’s a growth pattern in the Christian life, your absolute certainty can never be rooted in those things, but in facts that are unchanged. Otherwise,” he says, “when new, horrific facts come along, the response can be ‘I don’t feel like I’m supposed to feel and am not behaving the way I’m supposed to behave, and what does that say about me as a Christian?’

“What we look to is the certainty of what Christ has done for us, never to our own hope,” he adds, “because when an occurrence like this comes along, it strips you of every other source of hope.”

Anne B. Doll is Senior Communications Advisor and Editor of Contact Magazine at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.