“Hand of God.” Image from Flickr via

Most of my days as the rector of an Episcopal church in Austin, Texas, are quite busy, but rather mundane. 

Most, but not all. The days that don’t go as scheduled are the days that make me most love my vocation. Very often, those are the days of an unexpected crisis in a parishioner’s life.

On one early afternoon I was sitting in my office when a woman unknown to me came into my office, asking to see The Pastor. Requests to see The Pastor usually come from someone unfamiliar with the Episcopal Church—and even more often from someone seeking some sort of financial assistance. I was all ready to tell her that my assistant would help her when she said that one of our parishioners, Kristen, was in her car with her 6-year-old son. Her husband had died a few hours before, during a minor outpatient procedure for removal of a salivary stone. At the age of 51 he had gone into cardiac arrest, and they had not been able to revive him.  Kristen wanted to bring her son by the church to talk to me because she was so afraid of saying the wrong thing about his father’s death and about heaven. 

The one thing I know about such circumstances is that there is no single “right” thing to say.  All that is “right” in those circumstances is to be present with the mourners in their grief.  After several minutes of conversation, the little boy suddenly asked, “Where’s the cake?” When asked what cake he had in mind he said, “You know, the cake that says ‘We’re so sad.’” I told him I thought that such a cake was a splendid idea and that perhaps he and his mom could go to the local bakery and have a cake made that said just that. 

The next challenge for this newly widowed woman in her forties was making the funeral arrangements. Her husband was the creative director for the South by Southwest music festival and had a worldwide reputation.  However would we accommodate hundreds of mourners in our church that seats a mere 200? The solution: Don’t include the time or place of the Memorial Service in the obituary, so that the service would be only for the closest of friends and family. Even so, there were more than 300 people in attendance, and the public memorial took place a few weeks later in the large Austin music venue.

The season of Advent (the month before Christmas Day) is a season of expectation. It is marked by lighting candles on an Advent wreath—one for each of the four Sundays in Advent.  In the center of the wreath is the white candle, to represent Christ, the light of the world. On Christmas Eve we will say the following prayer: “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.”

During this season of Advent there has been more darkness than light. This has been a difficult Advent for Kristen and her son as they anticipate a first Christmas without Brent.  And the entire nation’s heart has been broken by the elementary-school massacre in Newtown on December 14. As a parish priest, how do I best address such a national tragedy? Again, I don’t know that there is a right way or a best way, but there has to be some response. What I did was say a prayer and name each of children and adults who were killed. And one week later we rang our church bell 28 times: 20 children, 6 teachers, Mrs. Lanza, and Adam Lanza.  And on January 6, on the Feast of the Epiphany, we will gather in our Parish Hall and we will make snowflakes to send to Newtown so that when the children return to school they will walk into a Winter Wonderland of snowflakes.

Perhaps the question I am most often asked in the face of loss and tragedy is some version of “Where was God?” or “How could God allow such a thing to happen?” I have been outraged by the suggestion that such a thing would not have happened in an elementary school had we not removed God and prayer from the public schools.  God is so much bigger and more present than that. But God is also small and vulnerable, and that is what we are reminded of this Christmas Eve.  God was not present in power and might; God was present in a stable in Bethlehem, in the person of a newly born infant.  This Emmanuel, this “God with us,” came into the world in the least expected way and place. There is darkness, and there is light, and tonight we celebrate light that shines in the midst of the darkness.  What we believe on this Christmas Eve is that the darkness has not, and will not, overcome the Light.

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  • Diane Dettmann December 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Thank you, Rev. Elizabeth Zarelli Turner, for sharing your timely comments about grief and loss. After my husband’s sudden death at the age of fifty-four I questioned why God, a loving God, took him away leaving me alone. I yelled at God for quite a while until I turned to prayer and rediscovered my faith. My family, as helpless as they felt, shared my grief and stayed present in my life, that really helped.

    As a former elementary teacher, I continue to pray for the Newtown families who lost their loved ones in the violent attack on December 14. During this Christmas season of hope, I want to focus on The Light that shines through the darkness in this world and pray for peace among us.