Sometimes I think we live in an illusion of safety, especially those of us who call on the name of the Lord. Almost as if it's a given that because we have the Holy Spirit living on the inside, we are immune to the forces of darkness on the outside. And so when shocking and sickening news reports break through that illusion and break our hearts once again, it calls into question some of the core assumptions we have about life.
This past week, we were assailed with those headlines once again. Once again the gunman with a weapon in his hand and murder in his heart shattered families and lives. Once again we shake our heads and try somehow to make sense out of completely senseless violence.
First the shootings in Omaha, Nebraska. Innocent men, women, and children doing their holiday shopping in what you would typically think of as a safe place. Then murder in a Youth with a Mission dormitory that is literally walking distance from Dare 2 Share Ministries. And just as you begin to process these horrific events, more death occurs at New Life Church in Colorado Springs- a place that you would definitely think of as a safe place.
I remember when my illusion of safety was first shattered. It was April 20th, 1999, as I watched the news coverage at Columbine High School that looked like a war zone. Columbine was a few miles from my home at the time, and on campus were more than two dozen students in my youth group. That defining event and subsequent ripple effects in our church and community forced me to redefine and reshape many of the theological and cultural "cubby holes" that could no longer hold the barrage of reality being thrown mercilessly my way.
So how can we as Pastors and Christian leaders help those who are feeling incredibly helpless after their worldview has been assaulted and perhaps splintered as well? Let me offer a few suggestions from my past experience that (God willing) may perhaps give you insight into assisting those who are unsure or unable to process the recent tragedies.
Suggestion #1: Let people express what they are thinking and feeling
Many times the temptation to "correct" emotionally laden statements overpowers our responsibility to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Interestingly, the Greek root for the word "weep" pictures someone who is wailing out loud as a child might. So the idea is to meet people at their level of grief and connect with them on an authentic level. Obviously people "weep" in different ways, but often there are questions raised and statements made that might make us uncomfortable (which often happens when illusions are shattered), nevertheless we need to get everything on the table if we are to help them "rebuild." For example, events such as the ones we've witnessed over the past few weeks paint a huge question mark over the sovereignty of God. When young people training to serve the Lord as missionaries are gunned down and innocent people at a place of worship are killed, the moorings of omnipotence feel like they are detaching from the source and we are drifting into a sea of chaos.
I think if we are honest, we feel like that as well. Only in our heart of hearts we know that the truth of Scripture isn't defined by the circumstances of life. That's the truth we eventually need to deliver to those who are in doubt, but the path to that place goes through some very dark places.
Suggestion #2: Use these events to help people evaluate their spiritual condition
At first glance, this may seem like a manipulative tactic that piggybacks an agenda on top of a tragedy. Yet this is the very method that Jesus used when He was approached by those who must have had their illusions shattered in His day:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13:1-4)
Few facts are known about the exact nature of the first tragedy - suffice to say that it is very much akin to the recent killings at YWAM and New Life Church. Pilate murdered Galileans and mixed their blood with the their sacrifice offerings. Thus, (like today) an attack in a sacred setting caused a widespread and distressing emotional response - especially in the community of faith. So Jesus is approached with questions from shattered people. Yet instead of processing through philosophical issues, He gets straight to the heart of the matter:
The mortality of life because of the sinfulness of humankind.
Jesus first addresses the false notion that those who die tragically somehow "deserve" it, then He paints the larger picture of how sin in general is the root cause of all death. In other words, the reason we have evil people and evil events is foundationally rooted in our falleness and separation from God. That is why He takes a public assumption about the causes of tragedies and turns it into a public reflection. The critical issue here is not the timing or cause of death, rather that only a restored relationship with God can bring hope into a hopeless situation.
Suggestion #3: Be a truth teller about the nature of truth
It is nearly impossible not to see the direct parallels between our culture's departure from a belief in absolutes and an increase in these senseless murders. For years great Christian minds like Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson have warned against the implications of relative moral truth as a widely accepted worldview, and now we are seeing the fruit appear on the branches. America is quickly becoming a culture of death, and when the Judeo-Christian ethic of "thou shall not kill" is removed as a societal underpinning, all hell literally will break loose. That's why we need to get this message out early and often. We need to equip believers to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have" (1 Peter 3:15). One of the big reasons we have hope is the fact that there is absolute truth which is founded on God's eternal and unchanging nature. We also need to help people understand the chilling consequences when individuals and societies decide that all truth is relative and life is expendable.
We have a huge task before us, to try and make sense out of senseless situations and speak hope into hopelessness. Yet we can rest assured that God who hung the stars in place and breathed life into the nostrils of humankind can rebuild shattered lives and heal the deadly wounds from the thief who only wishes to "steal, kill, and destroy" God's created ones. My thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families impacted by these horrible events, and also with you as you personally process the grief and seek to help those whom Jesus has placed under your tender care.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.