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.
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