A Pastoral Response to an Unspeakable Tragedy

Sometimes the phrase "it seemed like yesterday" can be viewed as an overused cliché, but in this case it is absolutely accurate.

I'm talking about the April 20, 1999, tragedy at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were killed by two students who later took their lives. The reason it still seems like yesterday is because of my closeness to the situation. I was a youth pastor in Littleton, Colorado, with a youth group made up primarily of Columbine students.

At first the images from that day struck me as a fire at the school, but within seconds the cold hard reality of what was really going on sunk in to my conscious mind. The unthinkable was happening. Of course you remember that day as well … images of aerial shots over the school, children jumping out of windows, and groups of students holding on to each other for dear life. A quiet suburban neighborhood was transformed into a war zone; except instead of soldiers being shot, there were innocent teens going through hell on earth.

Over the next several months I met with each of my students who were there to let them pour out their anger and grief, and somehow try to answer the unanswerable question of why God would allow this to happen. Each teen had a different perspective, but they all shared one thing in common: the loss of innocence and the illusion of safety forever shattered.

Now eight years later—almost to the day—the old wounds are reopened with visceral intensity. It was painfully surreal as I drove by Columbine High School Tuesday morning with the unfolding details of the Virginia Tech tragedy blaring through my radio. Once again I am not only faced with my own questions and fears, but also the ones from those in my family and ministry.

My gut feeling is that you are in the same situation. You are a pastor or church leader who, as a shepherd, has the responsibility of ministering to your flock in the midst of a national tragedy. And as you know, when wickedness is allowed to rear its ugly head (and seemingly triumph) in situations like this, God opens new doors of opportunity to turn what was meant for evil and use it for good. But the question is…how? How do we try and make sense out of senseless violence and discharge our ministerial duties at a time when they are needed the most?

Obviously there are no easy formulas or answers, and every situation has its own unique set of challenges. Yet I believe there are a few words of direction and suggestion I could offer from my experience with Columbine and as a professional counselor that, God willing, may assist you as you walk our brothers and sisters through the valley of the shadow of death.

Suggestion #1 - Let them process and help them label.

As I met with parents and students following the Columbine massacre, my first instinct was to offer as much Scripture and words of comfort as quickly as possible. In retrospect, I might have even been a bit fearful of what might happen if I just let the questions and grief pour out. In fact, some pastors might be hesitant to talk with their congregation about the recent tragedy out of the apprehension that it will only exacerbate the stress and fear already imbedded in their emotions. Yet the truth is that the opposite is actually the case. The profusion of emotions that we all felt over this horrific turn of events need a healthy outlet. Otherwise they will work their way out in negative ways. So help your people put accurate labels on what they are experiencing (stress, fear, sadness, etc.); then talk about ways to address each individual one. For example, if they are feeling sadness, ask them what has helped them in the past with those feelings. If they are anxious, walk them through the whole concept of how God is still in control, so we need not be anxious about the future (see Matthew 6:25-34).

Suggestion #2 - Don't hesitate to seek help.

In the vast majority of cases, a few conversations with your congregation will suffice in getting them through the shock and distress from the recent tragedy. However (and this is BIG however) there may be situations where additional help is required. There are some people who deal with situations like these on a deeper level than pastors are able to access. In no way does this minimize your efforts. In fact the main way you'll be able to recognize this scenario is by making conversational efforts in the first place. One way to be proactive in this case is to ask counselors in your congregation to make themselves available to meet with those who feel the need to process at a deeper level.

Another major area of concern is families with teens and/or young adults. Because of the nature of this devastation—that it involves students—it may have a particularly devastating effect of the young people in your ministry. Encourage your parents to talk through the Virginia Tech situation with their families—again, encouraging them to process, label, and seek additional help if they feel it is necessary. One particular counsel I would have for parents is that while they cannot absolutely guarantee their children that will forever be safe, they can help them process how many students in how many schools in how many cities across the nation go to classes and go home every day in safety—which will help them get the picture of how rare occurrences like these really are. Additionally, advise parents to talk with their children about how the combined efforts of the school and public safety organizations are dedicated to their continued safety, especially in light of the recent events.

Suggestion #3 - Make the most of this opportunity.

I realize that the vast majority of pastors will in some way address this unthinkable event on Sunday, but the question is: how can I best tackle this issue in a way that will help my people both process the event and draw closer to God? Again, no easy answers or formulas, but from my experience there are three key points that I would suggest including in your message.

Point #1 - In the aftermath of the worst devastation, God does His biggest miracles.

The time to intellectually address the age-old "problem of evil" is not this weekend. Right now, folks are dealing with these shootings on an emotional level, and therefore need a primary message of hope and perspective. So my suggestion would be to highlight the truth in Scripture that when times seem darkest, the Light of the World shines brightest.

In the pages of the Bible, human tragedy is almost always followed by miraculous transformation. Consider the story of the world-wide flood. When everything on the planet and everyone on it were destroyed by a flood, God brought about a new existence for mankind through Noah and his family. He wiped the slate clean through destruction and gave mankind a fresh start. Every rainbow is a reminder of this. This may be the biggest example, but there are countless more in the Bible...

• Through the ten plagues in Egypt God delivered his people from slavery
• Through the destruction of Jericho came the birth of a new nation in a promised land
• Through the death of Christ came the salvation of all mankind
• Through the horrific judgments in Revelation will come the Eternal Kingdom.

Your congregation needs to focus on the fact that the God who accomplished all these things is the same God who somehow, some way, will accomplish good in the midst of evil.

Point #2 - Every human tragedy has its root in humanity's fall, but evil will one day be eradicated.

I believe it is important to highlight the Biblical worldview tenet that when Adam sinned, he planted the seed that will continue to produce the weeds of murderous people in society. As the Bible states in Romans 5:12:

When Adam sinned; sin entered the entire human race. Adam's sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.

Think about that last phrase, "death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned." The real catastrophe is the chain reaction of transgression that Adam unleashed on this planet when he ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Up until then there was no death or tragedy. Yet someday God will contain the disastrous presence of sin in the darkness of hell. Every particle of evil will be compressed into the Lake of Fire where every sinner (apart from the grace of God go I) and every fallen angel will suffer the ultimate, eternal catastrophe. Your congregation needs to know that we cannot expect the "not yet" in the "now." Until that day, there will continue to be shootings and tragedies, but praise God—there will be an ultimate end to the grieving and tears.

Point #3 - True hope can only be found in Jesus Christ.

In a sense, this Sunday may very well feel like a national memorial service. You and the church will meet and grieve the senseless loss of life and pray for all those affected directly and indirectly. Most importantly, people will be thinking through the issues of life that matter most. Questions of what is truly important will be in the forefront of their hearts and minds. Thus in the midst of this, we have a holy opportunity to share the most marvelous hope of life in the universe! Close your message with the offer of eternal life for those who trust in Christ for salvation. Your congregation needs to know that while there is no guarantee of safety in this life, there is a guarantee of salvation in the life to come, in Christ. Jesus Christ left his place of safety in heaven and entered into this dangerous world of wars and school shootings to give us hope by subjecting himself, and being the victim of a tragedy. The only innocent man to ever lived died the most undeserved death - and the Father knows the pain of the loss of a son. Your congregation needs to know that while there is no guarantee of safety in this life, there is a guarantee of salvation in the life to come.

The bottom line in all this is that, while we cannot change the horrendous events in Virginia, we can be used by God to bring about a Kingdom victory in such a time as this! My thoughts and prayers are with you brothers and sisters. I leave you with this very appropriate Pauline benediction from Ephesians, chapter three:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

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Lane Palmer is the Youth Ministries Specialist for Dare 2 Share Ministries in Arvada, Colo., where he works with to provide resources for youth leaders and students. Dare 2 Share exists to energize and equip teens to know, live, share and own their faith in Jesus. For more information on Dare 2 Share Ministries or the GameDay youth conference tour, please visit www.dare2share.org. Send feedback to lane@dare2share.org.