On the morning of October 1st, 2015, a young man entered a classroom at Umpqua Community College, began shooting people, with the result that nine died and ten others were seriously wounded. This is the text of the message I gave to Redeemer’s Fellowship just days after the tragedy.
I want to welcome you here this weekend. The tragedy of October 1st will not quickly fade from our memories, and it’s good to be together today.
If you’ve been attending Redeemer’s during our present series, “Life’s Healing Choices,” we want to assure you that we’ll continue it next week, but today, we thought it better to take some time to talk together, pray together, and be together. Today, I want to speak to you not as a teacher, as I normally do, but as your pastor and shepherd. I hope to give you some words of comfort and direction, and answer a few of the common questions plaguing most of us.
But first, I must say, I’m very thankful for this community. I was born and grew up here, and Roseburg is a wonderful town. Crisis often reveals what we are made of, and I along with so many others are proud of and even more grateful for our community in the last few days: the first responders—everyone from the dispatchers who kept their cool, to the law enforcement officers who rushed to the scene. (It was less than ten minutes from the first shot to the last one that ended the rampage.) I’m thankful for medical personnel, doctors, nurses, paramedics—including both retired and off-duty physicians, who when they heard the breaking news came without being asked. I’m thankful for all the churches and Christians who are praying for this community and asking for God’s wisdom and comfort, and for all who aren’t affiliated with any church or faith, but who have shown love and support during this dark event. This won’t be over by Monday; but we will come through it together.
Thursday mid-morning, I was sitting in my office, when suddenly my phone started ringing, dinging and buzzing. I wondered initially if there had been an amber alert somewhere; but then someone down the hall yelled that there was an active shooter situation at UCC. Before we could figure it all out, it was over, and we quickly pinged everyone we knew who worked at or attended UCC to check their status. I don’t need to tell you that the news was very dark—a number of people had been executed, and there were rumors that the shooter had intended to target Christians.
Probably like you, shock set in, and I struggled with what I was hearing—that evil could reach out its finger and touch our quiet community. I have to admit, I found a quiet place in a dark room and prayed, “Lord, I’m not sure what to do or how to respond. So give me wisdom, and guide my steps.” It’s the same prayer you probably have prayed and will pray again in the coming days.
If this were a memorial service for the victims, we’d probably just grieve together; but we’re gathered here as the church, and I’m your pastor, so I will speak differently. I need to address the two very frustrating and troubling questions that many of us are asking: “Why did this happen?” and “How should we respond?” First:
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
When this question assumes center stage in our minds, we aren’t really thinking about the shooter’s motives: why did he do it? Sheriff Hanlin suggested that at least one motive of the shooter was notoriety—his few moments of fame at the bloody expense of others. Sheriff Hanlin said he would not speak the shooter’s name and help fulfill his intentions; I agree. I would encourage us to follow our Sheriff’s lead. But whatever were this young man’s twisted motives, we are at least as troubled at God’s.
Why did God allow this? Couldn’t he have stopped it? And especially if the young man targeted Christians—this suddenly feels like a very unsafe world. And here’s the truth: It is. We live in a broken, fallen world. Evil exists in this world. It is very real. It shows up in a thousand ways—some very dramatic and terrible, and some unnervingly personal and internal. So why did it happen? I want to answer it in a way that you might not hear from others, but I think is disturbingly true.
There is a prophecy in the NT that provides us with a clue:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
The prediction is that times are coming that could only be described as terrible. In the original language in which the New Testament was written, the word described times that were “violent, dangerous, fierce, or evil.” Terrible...like last Thursday morning. Whether or not these are the last days is arguable, but that we just experienced the kind of time predicted, isn’t.
But notice that the prediction also warns us that terrible times rarely happen in isolation. They’re part of a larger, darker picture.
Forgive me for being blunt: but we shouldn't be shocked that this happened. We live in a world where a major religion, Islam, routinely chases Christians from their homes and publishes videos of beheading, burning, drowning and crucifying Christians. We live in a part of the world—the Western world—where we have banished God to the backrooms of public discourse, and have taught that God (if there is one) had nothing to do with the creation or design of the universe—that this is really a godless universe, and therefore anything goes. We live in a world where selfish desire is enthroned, and where Planned Parenthood promotes abortion, the murder of innocents, and secretly sells body parts of human beings, and then we wonder why this awful and tragic and senseless thing happened? Our culture is perfectly designed to achieve the results we now are experiencing..and if we want different results, we need to change our culture. We can't tell God to take a hike from our life and then blame him for the mess that results. Why do these things happen? Because we have slowly accepted a godless culture of death to grow in our civilization, and unless we repent and return to the Living God who loves us and sent Jesus as our Savior, we'll likely see more senseless tragedy.
This is a world that desperately needs a Savior. And it has One. He said, “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. But I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) What we saw in horror Thursday is the work of the thief who kills and destroys life. Our alternative is to turn to Jesus to find life.
We’d love a world with no violence, no murder, no theft, no lying, a world in which people love and care for each other, and accept our differences, and walk hand in hand with their God. It’s just that we don’t have one like that. We have a world in transition, a world that is going somewhere, but isn’t yet there.
Most of the late-night infomercials hawking everything from appliances that slice and dice to hair in a can end with that tantalizing tagline: “But wait! There’s more!” And we wait to hear...more. We want...more. In this case, our hearts yearn for...more.
The tragedy of Thursday shouts to us all of us that we live in an imperfect and broken world—that despite how beautiful and wonderful life is (and it is), there is a streak of heartache and evil and death through it that begs for redemption, for setting things right someday. Jesus claims to be that Redeemer, that Savior. He takes us as we are, forgives our sins, and restores our relationship with God, and begins to work on us from the inside out.
But wait! There’s more!
He intends to fill our life with meaning and purpose, and promises to never leave us or abandon us. He promises to stay with us in life, to take us to the end, no matter how frightened we are, or how ugly it gets.
But wait! There’s more!
He promises that there is a new world coming, one in which there will be no more tears or sadness, no sin or failure, no death or disease. He will right every wrong, make all things new, and we will live forever with Him in His Kingdom.
But let me remind you what he has never promised. A trouble-free long life. This is what’s weird: we didn’t ask to be born. But once born, we assume God owes us at least 80 mostly happy, pain-free years before we exit this stage of life. And we’d like a little forewarning, please. But not too much.
In one of my favorite Psalms, King David makes this statement:
“All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16)
David affirms that God witnessed our first breath and knows our very last gasp, and in between is closer to us than we can imagine. It’s very important for us to remember, “But wait—there is more!”
The Bible never gives us exact reasons why things happen the way they do; we think things should make sense, the pieces of the puzzle should all fit together better, the tragedies should be fully explained; more often, we’re left with gaping holes in our understanding and in our hearts. What the Bible does affirm is that the world is in transition; that it needs a Savior, a rescuer; that we have the One and Only Savior in Jesus; and that someday through Him God will make all things new and wipe every tear away. Until then, we need to trust Him that there is indeed more.
Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
You will have trouble... Like Thursday morning. Trouble. Awful trouble. Life and death trouble. It’s been like that for some time, and will be like that until his Kingdom comes.
But Jesus tells us to take heart...because He has overcome the world. He knows what it’s like to be targeted, and persecuted, and even executed; and he knows what we yet don’t know—what resurrection is like. Death is not the end of this story, nor of the stories of many who lives were taken or changed forever. There is another chapter coming. There’s more.
It’s probably not enough to stop the hurt; but perhaps it’s enough to hold onto so healing can begin. Then:
HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?
We all feel like we should be able to do something to change what happened, to swamp evil with good. That’s why we light candles, or gather in parks to pray, or give money for victims, or pay for the coffee of the next guy in line. But the truth is, a lot of things are out of our control. And nothing we do can change what has happened. But there are some things we can do.
When I left the office on Thursday, I had three encounters that spoke to me:
1) As I stepped out of my car to get gas, I overheard a loud and passionate exchange between two guys who were talking about guns, gun control and what they will do if anyone decides to do what this shooter did. I just paid my bill and left. I didn’t have energy to engage.
2) Then at the bank, after some brief chit-chat, the teller looking down at my deposit slip quietly asked, “Everyone in your family OK?” I said, “Yes. Thank you for asking. And yours?” She paused, said one of her daughters attends UCC but that she’s OK.
3) Then while ordering coffee, I caught the Barista’s eye and said, “You OK?” Tears rimmed her eyes, her bottom lip quivered, and she said something like, “I wish that guy would have died a slow death. I wish he would have suffered.” She’s a student at UCC, and the shooting shattered her confidence and sense of security.
So how do we respond? Let me offer three words to remember:
Engage with each other. Ask how another is doing, and take time to listen. We probably need each other’s love and encouragement more than we need each other’s answers. Most of us are pretty wobbly right now. Our emotions are pretty close to the surface. Jar another, and you’ll probably hear passion, or anger, or fear, or frustration. It’s probably a great response just to nod and love the person. Be there for each other.
The Bible is a library of ancient books all telling the larger story of who God is and who we are. And one of the oldest books in the Bible is the book of Job. It is a book about a man who lives through the most agonizing form of suffering any of us can imagine: in a series of seemingly meaningless and purposeless tragedies, Job lost his possessions, his health, even his children. When his friends heard what had happened, they came to him together, and they wept with him, and they just sat there with him, not speaking a word for seven days, Scripture explains, because they saw how great his suffering was.
Jews today call it sitting shiva (the Hebrew word for “seven”). You sit there, be there, and don’t correct or even answer. The NT encourages us to weep with those who weep. You’ll know when to do just that.
For your own sake, trust God that there is more, that the Bible isn’t lying or mistaken about what’s coming. Trust God to take care of you. Few verses in Scripture have spoken to me more often or more powerfully than two from the prophet Isaiah. In the first one, God is reassuring Israel of His presence and care despite their being in an impossible situation:
“Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
I hear God’s voice to us in Isaiah’s words. The second is Isaiah’s prayer to God reminding us that peace comes when our focus is on God and not on the disturbing, dark events around us:
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:3-4)
We need that kind of trust. And so do others. They need to hear us speak of trust and hope as well. In the past few days, I’ve said many times something like this: “If this world is all there is, I'd be pretty down, but I'm so grateful there's more..." I’ve said, “It won't always be like this. This world needs a Savior, and has one. He will make things right in the end.” Hope is contagious, as despair is infectious. We need to speak of the hope we have, to remind each other not to despair, and encourage each other especially when days grow dark.
Let me leave you with the prayer most of us know, a prayer the Lord gave us to pray, a prayer that speaks volumes to our situation right now:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)
Notice how encouraging and instructive this prayer is:
Our Father in Heaven: He is our Father who loves us, who has given us life, and cares for us.
Hallowed be your name: Hallowed is a $5 word that isn’t in our daily vocabulary, but it simply means to honor to someone or something. Jesus is nudging us to pray that God brings good out of what is evil, that He brings honor to His name in the midst of these terrible tragedies.
Your Kingdom come: It’s a confession of our hope, a resetting of our perspective, so that our gaze is not fixated on this present darkness, but on the coming Kingdom of joy and light.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven: As we ask it, we submit to it in our own lives, and try as best as we can to be responsive to Him in all things. Evil does exist; clearly not everyone does what God directs. Jesus encourages us to ask God to accomplish his will even when everything feels evil and out of control.
Give us this day our daily bread: By so asking for today’s needs, we recognize how uncertain life is, that tomorrow is promised to no man. We live the gift of today, but recognize the uncertainty of tomorrow.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors: We admit we are imperfect, broken people who need forgiveness; and we ask for it. But we also must forgive others—and never let grow inside us the very anger, resentment, frustration, bitterness and disregard for life that poisoned that young man. We let God be the judge, and we forgive as we have been forgiven.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: We recognize the pull of evil in us, the temptation to use others and be selfish, and go our way without God. We know we could fulfill that terrible prediction of people who let go of God and enthrone themselves; and we ask that we would not do any of those things. But we also confess that evil exists in this fallen world, and so we entrust ourselves to God to deliver us from it. We cannot escape the presence of evil in this world; at times God may protect us from it; at other times, we may be hurt by it; but whether we live or die, God will not leave us or forsake us, but will bring us into His presence, where evil will never touch us again.
For now, we love others deeply; we trust God for ourselves and our community; and we pray in the midst of darkness that we don’t contribute to the darkness; but instead look forward to his kingdom when all will be made right.