What do we do in the face of terrible news? Another shocking act has occurred where people’s lives were taken from them, and we are left wondering why, what we could have done, and what can we do now?
As I write this, the news is fresh and incomplete about the shooting deaths of 26 or more people at a small Texas town, as they worshipped God in their small Baptist church. It’s heartbreaking news. Our hearts break for them. And God’s heart breaks for them, too.
When Jesus learned about his friend’s death he wept for Lazarus. God continues to weep for us as these heartbreaking things happen. And God was with those innocent people as they died, as surely as God is with us now.
We often wonder why God would allow such things to happen, especially in a church on a Sunday morning. As I have grown up in the faith I have never been taught that there is some special protection that comes with being faithful. That did not prevent Dylan Roof from killing nine people in a church on a Wednesday evening after they had welcomed him and prayed with him for at least an hour. And it didn’t happen here. In some ways, faithfulness calls us to be more in touch with the terrible things that happen around us because God calls upon us to respond to the pain of the world. God calls us to be engaged in confronting the brokenness of the world in order for things to be made better. When we do those things we may be at more risk rather than less.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked about some terrible things that happened. In chapter 13, Pilate had apparently had several people killed while they worshipped and offered their sacrifices. Jesus talked about that and the deaths of innocent people when a tower being built fell and killed several others. He recognized that terrible things happen. They happen to good people who are doing the right thing. They happen when someone decides to be cruel or vicious. They happen when accidents take place that were not the fault of the people who died. And God’s heart breaks at each of those instances.
In Harold Kushner’s groundbreaking book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” he wrestles with what it means for terrible things to happen. It’s worth noting that in our collective memory we sometimes get the title wrong. It is not “Why Bad Things Happen…,” but “When Bad Things Happen.” If faith offered a sure protection against bad things happening, who wouldn’t take up the offer. Faith, instead, offers us a way of dealing with bad things when they do happen. When they happen, people of faith are to be a part of putting lives back together, of mending the broken places, as well as it’s possible to do. That’s what love does. Love takes risk to mend broken hearts and broken lives.
It’s early in the week as I’m writing this, and I’m doing so as I finish up a mission study trip in Thailand, through the Church of Christ in Thailand, which is partnered with Presbyterians, Disciples if Christ, and American Baptist Churches from the Unites States. We have visited with people who work with refugees who have fled impossibly bad situations in neighboring countries; with a ministry that works to help young girls who have been forced into sexual slavery begin to claim a life for themselves through education and new opportunities; with schools that offer hope to families through education and advancement. All those things happen through ordinary people, guided by God’s spirit, who chooses to be with people in the midst of bad things. God chooses to do so in the flesh.
God calls people to respond when bad things happen. God calls some people with extraordinary skills to respond, and God calls ordinary people to respond with extraordinary love to mend broken hearts and broken lives in the flesh. As Fred Rogers of Mr Roger’s Neighborhood, and a Presbyterian Minister, often said, “When terrible things happen, always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers there.” God calls you and me, ordinary people, to do those things.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He obtained a degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma before attending McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives in Sherman with his wife and three sons.