This afternoon our entire nation is focused on the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The latest numbers report 26 people dead, many of them children, and many of those likely kindergarteners.
Every time another headline broadcasts another school shooting, I’m drawn back to November 15, 1995, the morning a 17 year old senior walked into Richland High School in Lynnville, Tennessee, and opened fire in a crowded hallway. In the aftermath, a 16 year old student and a teacher were killed. Another teacher was critically wounded.
Richland was just up the road from my hometown. It was one of our county schools that housed students from kindergarten through 12th grade. My aunt had taught there for years. Two of my cousins graduated from there. And as the brand new student pastor at my home church, we had more than our fair share of kids who attended there.
As the news spread that morning in our tiny town, more details emerged and more connections were made. One of the girls in our student ministry had just stepped out of the hallway when the first shot rang out. She’d been standing beside the student who was killed. Many more of our students had seen or heard the chaos as it unfolded. My mom was friends with the injured teacher, whose son was my age. As a matter of fact, they shared a hospital room the week that we were born.
I’d just started serving as student pastor on the Sunday before the shooting, but I was asked to be a part of the grief counseling team when the school reopened. To say I was in way over my head is a vast understatement. There was no category for what we were experiencing. The first “nationally televised” school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi didn’t happen until almost two years later, so we had no precedent for what should happen. I was sitting in a room with professional psychologists and psychiatrists from all over the state who had come to help. We were told in no uncertain terms, “You’re here to listen. You’re here to give counsel. You’re here to bring comfort.”
And yet, the unspoken rule was that we were to bring comfort outside of “organized religion.” We were in a public school, so sharing the gospel was discouraged. I know the other pastors in the room felt the same internal alarms going off that I did. But Richland was a rural school in a rural community full of rural, God-fearing, church-going teachers and administrative staff, so we conveniently overlooked the regulations being handed down by the professionals.
The reason is simple: when I sat in the room with a couple of dozen high schoolers that day, I knew there was absolutely no hope outside of the cross. There was no explanation outside of sin. And there was no comfort outside of Jesus.
Even on this day, the professionals have taken to the radio, TV, and internet, discussing how we can explain these situations to our kids and how we process them with each other. I have a friend that I’m currently walking through the gospel with, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time we’ll talk, he’ll bring up today’s shooting. Theologians call it the problem of evil: how do you reconcile the horrific crimes and pains of the world with an all loving God? How can my friend trust a God who allows children to die? How can someone be so deranged, so evil, that they would walk into an elementary school and start shooting?
The only answer is sin. The only remedy is the cross. The only hope is Jesus.
As the people of God processes this day, let us not fall into the trap of naming issues that are not issues. Let us not discuss gun control or early warning signs or tighter security in schools. While all of those discussions have a place, we must take the time to call evil evil. We must point people to Jesus. And we must give people space to ask hard questions and be satisfied that we will not know all the answers.
I dare not presume to explain the problem of evil, because I’ve asked those questions myself. I’ve asked those questions today. But my finite understanding does not negate an omniscient God. My inability to see the larger picture does not mean a picture isn’t being painted. My failure to see good does not invalidate Romans 8:28.
This world is dark and our days are grim. It has been that way since our first parents chose their own desires and became rebels against the kingdom. Our sin was the reason that Jesus came. Our rebellion was the catalyst that caused him to die, and his cross was the meeting place between God’s wrath and our depravity.
But it was his blood that covered that depravity. His blood removed our sin. His blood provided the great exchange between our life and his.
It’s only at the cross that we find hope for our souls. And it’s only the empty tomb where we can find hope out of death and tragedy.
Don’t squander the opportunity you will have to make much of the cross and the empty tomb this weekend. Don’t fall into the entrapping cycle of empty arguments.
Point people to Jesus, for it’s only in him that we will find true peace on earth.