April 18, 2007
Death in the Morning
Pastor and professor Scott Wenig understands the profound responsibility church leaders face in the aftermath of a tragedy. Nine years ago his community was devastated when two teenage gunmen entered Columbine High School. Wenig shares the wisdom he gained after that heartbreaking event with church leaders now struggling to respond to the murders at Virginia Tech.
"Death in the morning," the eighteenth century lexicographer Dr. Johnson said, "powerfully clears the mind." Just as they did nine years ago at Columbine, our minds once again got tragically cleared this past Monday with the dreadful slaughter of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech. In light of this horrendous event, pastors, teachers and other Christian leaders will seek to provide some words of comfort and understanding to those under their spiritual care. What can they affirm that might supply some solace? And what should they avoid lest they unwittingly hurt rather than help?
First, I would suggest that we avoid well meaning words of unintentional foolishness. Telling our listeners that those who were murdered are now "in a better place," or that "God needed him or her for a job up there" or that "Someday we'll know why this happened" may not be true and almost certainly cannot heal hurting hearts. In our desire to minister, let us be pastorally reflective rather than theologically sentimental.
Second, I would suggest that we avoid any sort of theological pontification.
As evangelicals, we're heavily influenced by the Puritan tradition (which I personally admire) but that can sometimes tempt us to provide a jeremiad whenever evil rears its hideous head in public. Confusing America with ancient Israel, we occasionally wonder if, in some strange way, God is judging us in events such as Oklahoma City, Columbine, 9/11, and now the slaughter in western Virginia just as He did those disobedient Hebrews. And while that could be true, how would we ever know for sure? And if so, what does that imply about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing slaughter of Sudanese Christians, or the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s?
Third, I would suggest that we recognize the reality of evil in the hearts of men and women. In doing so, however, I believe our focus should be as much on ourselves as on anyone else, including unbelievers. When word was brought to Jesus about the slaughter of some innocent men by Pilate and the corresponding death of others by a falling tower, he told his audience to repent ?lest you too?perish' (Luke 13:3,5). Evil needs to be named ? both in the world and in our own hearts.
Fourth, I would suggest that we encourage people to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus' tomb, Jesus wept at the ugliness of death, and we must allow others, especially those who feel the pain of such horrendous losses, to do the same. The fact that Jesus wept not only reveals that God understands and cares about our pain but it also shows that it's good for us to grieve, to acknowledge that things in this world are not as they're supposed to be.
Fifth, I would suggest that we strongly affirm God's gracious and sovereign power. Certainly He saw this tragic event from eternity past and could have done something to stop it but mysteriously, He chose to not too. Apart from the fact that He allows a certain degree of freedom to fallen human beings, we may never know why. But we do know that He is already working in and through this excruciating episode to bring about redemption because that is what He does! As Joseph was finally able to tell his brothers, ?You meant it for evil but God meant it for good that the lives of many might be saved' (Genesis 50:20). In the midst of enormous suffering, we need to look upwards in faith and boldly proclaim His redemptive power.
Sixth, I would suggest that we act in accord with the apostle's admonition to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Just as happened in the days following the devastation wrought by Katrina, the loss of life at Virginia Tech serves as an opportunity for the evangelical community to once again visibly show our love to those in need. Obviously, what that looks like will depend on the needs of families in that community as well as on the level of our own personal and parish resources. But following Columbine, I can attest that there are innumerable emotional, physical and spiritual needs which God's people can certainly meet. No doubt this is true among the survivors at Virginia Tech as well.
Spurgeon once told his congregation about some visitors observing two sets of paintings in the Palace of Versailles. Bored by the one set of portraits, their sagging interest was revived when they saw the second because those pictures depicted people in action. As he noted, ?[It is] not the people but their actions that engross attention?If we would impress, we must act. The dignity of standing still will never win the prize?.' Given the horrendous events of this past Monday, now is the time to act with the love of Christ. May we proclaim that to our people and then, together, practice it with them.
Scott Wenig is the Haddon Robinson Professor of Applied Theology at Denver Seminary and the Lead Pastor of Aspen Grove Community Church in Littleton, Colorado.