Romans 8:28 "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose".
A little over a year ago, on Nov 5, 2017, Devin Kelley, wearing tactical gear and armed with a rifle and two handguns, stormed into the Sunday worship service at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and mowed down 26 people, including an unborn baby.
For this past year, the residents of this small Texas town struggled to recover from an incalculable loss. Can we even put words to the amount of pain, hurt and even hatred that the families of the victims have to cope with? We have to acknowledge that different people process suffering differently, and we must make room for it. So who could have prepared for the flood of media vans and reporters who arrived almost immediately on the scene, intrusively asking, even demanding motives and answers to satiate a 24/7 live news feed? Yet there is part of the human soul that craves to simply know things that are beyond human comprehension: The depths of depravity that human beings are capable of, and an over-arching Plan by a Mighty God who is capable of turning evil into good!
The torrent of news reporters soon dissipated, and it was replaced by people prompted to send money, prayers, and letters of sympathy. Many in that county brought meals and sat with survivors. Some even parked RVs outside the hospital so that family members could properly receive and grieve the notice of family members’ deaths. Life trudged on, in ways unknown to the masses. Sherry Pomeroy tearfully looks through her daughter Annabelle’s phone for the first time since the shooting. Chores that Jenni Holcome’s husband used to do, now require her attention. Plans and venues changed for Thanksgiving. Throughout it all, the survivors of 1st Baptist Church daily felt the loss of nearly half its members. The first celebration of the Christmas season was…different, with 26 worshippers “lost” from their average attendance of 50-60.
Whether or not we’d admit it, the questions still go through the minds of every God-fearer (and some agnostics): Why did God allow this to happen? Could not God have stopped the bullets, or easier yet, stopped the heart of the man going in? (I would say “yes”) Then why? How could God have a purpose for such “senseless violence”? At the risk of offending some, I would say that this church, First Baptist of Sutherland Springs, can also claim the truth declared by Joseph in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
The answer lies in the recognition that the eternal far outweighs the temporal. A deep, rich life in Christ, far outweighs a superficial life of going through the motions. Life on this side is short, and “tragedies” like this can be used by God to reorient those sheep that have strayed, or bring sheep in from other sheep pens (John 10:16). We may even have to ask ourselves whether it is worth it, that the loss of many temporal lives would lead to even one being ushered into an eternal relationship with God!
I think of the coming of our blessed Savior, announced by angels, passed on by the shepherds, and leading…to the slaughter of many babies by a frenzied ruler (Herod), seeking to stamp out this threat to his kingdom. (Matthew 2:16-18). To think that this too, was prophesied/planned by God! With so much weeping and wailing, how could the advent of Christ’s birth be seen as “good news of great joy”? (Luke 2:10) Perhaps this prophecy of Jesus was just beginning to be understood, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)
I even find it comforting, that those closest to our Lord, walking with Him daily, had much to learn on the nature of God’s Sovereignty through suffering: John 9:2-3 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."
So what has come of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs? Stephen Willeford, the man who confronted and chased the shooter, decided to make this his home church, coming around the survivors as “one of them”. Julie Rogers became a Christian through watching the church respond to the tragedy. She was baptized on Christmas Eve. The average church attendance is now around 200, many of whom are from the community, seeking to show support. Sarah Slavin says after a year of grieving, “In my worst moments, when I feel like I’m hanging on by a thread, that thread is Jesus Christ. I have felt the whole time like He’s holding me, and any strength, it’s what He’s giving me…There’s been a lot of support and help and stuff, but when you actually get down to it, no one can get us through this. Only God can do that.”
Can we also trust in him, and cling ever-more-tightly to our Savior during those times of darkness, trusting that God will shine through, in His timing? God is still mightily at work in our world!