In times of senseless violence, where do you go for understanding?
What happened at Virginia Tech in April 2007 was a horror: An undergraduate went on a shooting rampage, killing 32 and wounding 17. Seven young people from FPC were students there, and fortunately they all escaped injury. But emotional and spiritual wounds go very deep, and their healing took years.
The students and faculty of Westfield High School were feeling pain as well, since the shooter and two of his victims came out of that school. All of us who were residents of the area at that time struggled to make sense of the tragedy, and to figure out how to respond.
The day after the shootings, a friend told me about a scene from the film Blood Diamond. The movie is set in 1999 Sierra Leone, where a civil war rages, fueled by conflict diamonds. People are kidnapped, raped, and shot, and at one point a character says, “Sometimes I wonder — will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other? Then I look around and I realize. God left this place a long time ago.”
That’s how some were feeling after the massacre at Tech. Such carnage shatters our peace, wakes us from sleep, interrupts and irritates and saddens and shocks. We end up wondering, like the character in Blood Diamond, if indeed God hasn’t left this place a long time ago.
But the promise of Scripture is that God has not abandoned us. A colleague pointed me to Psalm 73 after the shooting — a biblical song that asks God to free us from oppressors. The writer of the psalm is feeling pained and punished by the violence of others, and he says, “But when I tried to understand these things, it just seemed like hard work until I entered God’s sanctuary” (Psalm 73:16-17).
Hear those words — he was maddened by what he saw until he “entered God’s sanctuary.” The truth of God is deeper than our own, and we cannot always see it until we step away from the world and enter into worship. This is the role our church services and communities play in the aftermath of horror. Church provides us time and place to think about the truth of God.
Soon after the shootings, members of FPC gathered for an evening of conversation and prayer with Virginia Tech students, family members, and friends. We needed to respond to the tragedy as a community, and see where God was at work in the aftermath of violence and death. We wanted to affirm that God always gives the gift of new life, just as he gave Jesus new life after the crucifixion.
We wanted Virginia Tech to be reclaimed by God as a place for young people to grow in knowledge and in faith. After feeling weighed down and punished, we came together at church and found that it was “good for [us] to be near God” (verse 28).
Draw me into community, Lord, where I can gain new insight and peace. Amen.