The Reverend Anne Harris, priest-in-charge at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus, sits in her study Friday afternoon. Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson/Dispatch Staff
December 22, 2012 8:31:45 PM
The Reverend Anne Harris has to stop and think a moment about what she said to her congregation last Christmas.
The New Zealand native had just been named priest-in-charge at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus, serving a scant two weeks before she had to deliver one of the most attended sermons of the year. Certainly, new life would have been a theme, and most likely, she says, she found a way to relate it to her own new role.
But this year offers a challenge to clergy nationwide as Americans continue to come to grips with the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
In a season where Christians around the world are celebrating the birth of a child, there is the pall cast by the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children and the adults who tried to protect them.
But God was present that day, Harris plans to tell her parishioners. God is always present in the world he created, and people can receive him at any time.
"Life is a jumble -- a tapestry of good, joyful things interwoven with sad tragic things," she says. "This Christmas will be a very good example of that as we contemplate the good things God has in store for us and see what sad things there are in the world."
At Pleasant Grove Robinson Missionary Baptist Church in Starkville, Pastor George Sanders finds a teachable moment also in the senseless massacre.
Life is based upon sowing seeds, he says. And the seed he hopes to sow this Christmas is a deeper understanding of God's unmerited grace and the responsibility we have to love one another and give that love freely every day of the year.
His Sunday School classes have been talking about the shooting, he says. They are remembering the victims and survivors through prayers.
"For the families, there is a great loss," Sanders says. "There will be children that won't have the opportunity to have a family. They were cut short in life because of this tragedy."
Just as Harris intends to illuminate the good, Sanders intends to point to the things we are given but too often fail to appreciate -- namely, one another.
"This is a time to come together and give," he says. "We take so many things for granted. We don't appreciate one another. We really don't appreciate or see a thing until it is gone."
The answer, he says, is love.
"We need to be more loving and concerned about one another," Sanders says. "We need to look at this and draw closer to our children, because they can be here today and gone today. We need to show them love."
It's important to develop a family faith life, Harris says. And that faith begins at home. But it's not easy in today's world, she admits.
"If a family meets together to pray together -- short, simple prayers -- it becomes evident that God is here all the time," she says.
Though her children are now grown, she understands the tricky line parents must walk when deciding how to talk about Santa Claus -- or whether to involve Santa at all. She remembers being devastated to learn the truth about his origins, along with those of the tooth fairy and so many other childhood favorites.
She took the new information personally, believing her parents had deceived her. In a childlike leap of logic, she asked them if God was real.
When her own children were small, she decided to tell them about St. Nicholas, and how Santa Claus was based upon his life, bringing faith -- and the reason for the season -- back to the forefront.
But even as she prepares her Christmas sermon for those in her congregation, she knows there are many more people who will not attend any type of religious service -- Christmas or otherwise.
"I hear a lot from people who don't go to church because they say church is filled with hypocrites, and I think that's true," she says.
She believes the key lies in recognizing the nature of being human and understanding the purpose of a church -- to find those on similar journeys and join them in mutual support and the desire to live better, more loving, more charitable lives.
"For 2,000 years, the Christian church has held out hope to a world desperately in need of it," Harris says.
This Christmas, it is a message driven home by tragedy, carried in by the season of light.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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