I had nightmares after Newtown.
Some of it is the anxiety surrounding my first Christmas on staff at a church. But most of it is the news, with its stories of children hiding in closets and gunshots fired in school. I went to sleep and dreamed about children being abused, hurt, and me not able to stop it. I woke up, heart racing.
“It was like a nightmare,” people said after Newtown, “the worst thing you could imagine. But we were awake.”
I have always loved the poetry of the 121st Psalm. “He who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will never slumber or sleep.” But now I shivered. God was awake for all of it. Who could stand to be awake for this, twenty children gunned down in school?
Newtown. Aurora. Tucson. I realized it then: All of God’s nightmares are waking nightmares.
The South Bronx, the South Side of Chicago. State College, Pennsylvania, and Swat Valley, Pakistan. The streets of Baghdad, the streets of the West Bank, the streets of Syria. Who can stand to be awake for this?
I do what I do when I have no answers. I read poetry, Jane Kenyon, writing about Christmas in war-torn Serbia in 1993:
On the domed ceiling God
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new.”
This year, peace on earth, goodwill to men, the baby God, all of it seems foolish. Christmas does not seem like enough.
A leader in our children’s programs, Ms. Barbara, falls at the yearly Christmas Open House and dislocates both her shoulders. She spends December in the hospital, then the nursing home. “I’m sorry I can’t be there to help for the Christmas party,” she tells me sincerely, and I just shake my head.
We make cards for Ms. Barbara the week after Newtown. I cried when I heard about the shooting on the radio, and Obama’s voice broke. I went home and looked at their pictures, smiling blonde girls and mischievous looking boys. Kids with missing front teeth. I looked at them for a few minutes, but I couldn’t stand to look again.
I have been working with children for three months now. Smiling blonde girls and sometimes-mischievous-looking boys. I know which ones dance in the aisles in church, which ones love mustaches and Cake Boss and “Gangnam Style,” which ones play soccer and which ones play Minecraft.
They write messages on the cards in gold glitter and stickers. “We love you.” “I’m sorry you’re sick.” “We miss you!”
We meet at the nursing home the next week with those glittered cards. They trickled in, one by one. Trailed glitter as they took their decorated cards from the table and put them in Ms. Barbara’s lap. She wiped her eyes as they walked up to her, one by one, to pat her hand and give her a gentle side hug.
“This is just what I needed,” she said. “Just what I needed.”
Then, when there were about twenty of us, we sang. “Jingle Bells” first, then “Silent Night.” “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Joy to the World,” in one big mashup of sacred and secular. A blonde five-year-old moved as we sang, spinning around the room, dancing circles around the wheelchair. A man and a woman wheeled down the hall and smiled as they watched us.
Ms. Barbara cried, and the kids gave her tissues, and the pastor held her hand. And I thought: Who could stand to be asleep for this?
Christmas ended for us this past Sunday, twelve days after it began. The wise men bring their gifts to the child on the Epiphany, and we bring baby blankets and sheep.
We traced a sheep on tracing paper a few weeks ago. A group from Heifer International came, and we talked with the kids about giving, about poverty, about self-reliance. “One sheep costs one hundred twenty dollars,” we told them, and passed out banks to collect change. They roll out salt dough for ornaments and glue paper cutouts on Christmas cards to sell. “I’m gonna need a hundred twenty dollars to buy a sheep,” a five-year-old announces matter-of-factly to the woman that comes to pick her up.
We count the money, from ornaments and cards and the offering, from the kids’ banks. 480 dollars. We trace three more sheep on foam board.
They carry the sheep forward with five-year-old hands to lay before the baby Jesus. Blonde-haired girls and mischievous-looking boys. There are already dozens of blankets laid around the manger, knitted by ladies in the congregation. They will go to Mexico, across town, to downtown San Diego. Warm blankets, made by ladies who say with a wink that a cold baby needs a blanket, not gold, frankincense, or myrrh.
God’s nightmares are waking nightmares, yes. But God’s dreams are wide-awake dreams.
They are small as mustard seeds, small as baby blankets, small as five-year-old hands, small as glittered cards, small as the child in the manger. For a second, I can believe the foolish Christmas hope: that this is as real as gunshots and graves. Maybe it is realer.
I think: Who could stand not to be awake for this?