I was pretty glued to the internet last week – taking in stories and press briefings and reports about what happened in Las Vegas. I was reading part of an article to Aaron about a man who was at the concert with his dad and his dad was shot. The son is an EMT and he tried to revive his dad, but he couldn’t. His dad died right in front of him. All they wanted to do was go to a country music concert and have a good time, and his dad died right there in front of him as he tried to save him. I couldn’t even get through the story without choking up. Even the people who weren’t injured but were just there, running for their lives, screaming, seeing all the blood and the people get shot, hearing the noise of gunfire - the raw terror they must have felt.
I was listening to the radio and they were talking about this tragedy and oftentimes the immediate response to something like this is, “Where was God?” Even as a Christian, I can sometimes feel myself asking that question when terrible things happen, whether that's somewhere else in the world, or even just in my own life or the lives of people I know. So the radio deejay had posed the same question and a woman called in and she went on to explain how it's the wrong question to ask because God was there that night. He was there. He was with the husbands and boyfriends and strangers who threw their bodies over the women they loved, or the ones they didn’t even know. He was with the police officers who bravely walked toward the gunfire to make sure no one else got hurt. He was there with the doctors and nurses and paramedics who saved the lives of the injured. He was with the first responders. He was with the injured. He was with those who lost their lives. He was there. Among them. With them.
I was struck by this woman’s words as she explained this to the deejay because for whatever reason, it was something I had not considered in the face of previous tragedy. My default position was one of, “Oh, yeah, God knew it was going to happen. He could have stopped it with a word, but he didn’t. We won’t ever know why. We just have to trust.” Christian platitudes we've all heard before to try and help us understand. But in my head, God was off in the corner watching this happen, knowing it was happening, not orchestrating, but allowing for reasons unknown to us. Do you get what I mean here? That’s always the way I viewed him in tragedy. He was there, but on the sidelines as a spectator to our earthly struggle and sorrow because in his infinite wisdom this is part of the plan, even if we don’t understand it. It just has to play out like this and one day it will all make sense.
Of course part of that is true – we won’t understand it and it is part of the story of the world. God was not caught off guard that Sunday night when this tragedy happened. He was not surprised – his steady hand was unshaken. But I think in the face of tragedy, when we ask the big question, “Where was God?” it’s like our immediate assumption is that because it was ugly and bad he wasn’t there, but that's wrong. You know how everyone loves the quote from Mr. Rogers about looking for the helpers? There are always helpers. And what I’m getting at is rather than asking the question, "Where was God?", we need to look for all the ways that God was there. Instead of imagining big, unapproachable God in the corner not stepping in, imagine Jesus in that crowd crying with those who were hurt. I imagine him now, as those bullets rang out, just pleading, “No, no, no,” as he covered those running for their lives. "No, not this," as terror ran through the hearts of everyone present. Like this lady pointing out on the radio, he was there. He was among them. He was clearing the path for paramedics. He was giving doctors steady hands and wisdom in emergency surgery. Look for the stories of bravery and heroicism coming out of Sunday night. God was there.
We have to remember that this was never the plan. God’s plan was not for sin and death and destruction and evil. God’s plan was for flourishing, communion with him, beauty and perfect peace. He did not will for evil to enter the garden. Just as he does not will for tragedy or sorrow on any scale. He does not sit back and watch our anguish from afar. He reaches down and cries with us. He is present in our sorrows.
I had the wrong picture of God this whole time because apparently I forgot that we are the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. 1 Corinthians 12 says we’re each a part of Christ’s body. We’re here to bring Jesus near. I heard a pastor say one time, “God is never far off, Christian, because you are there. He’s never far from your coworkers because you’re there. He’s never far from your neighbors, because you’re there. He’s never far because he’s placed you in your circumstances around those people.” Christians believe that they have been filled with the Holy Spirit to live and love and be like Jesus. We believe that God is compassionate, he is kind, he is love, he is not far off at any moment and we are called to take him into our every day places. So, yes, Jesus was there that night. He was there in the midst of it all. Was everyone there that acted in bravery a Christian? No, probably not. I'm not suggesting that only Christians can act in courageous love - in fact sometimes they don't. But since God is love, then every act of love and care can only come from him.
I’m reading the book, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. It’s a collection of letters written by Henri Nouwen and while these letters are forty to fifty years old, it’s striking to me how they are still relevant to our current situations. Several times I have stopped and made Aaron read a passage and said, “Doesn’t that seem like it could have been written yesterday?” That’s the thing about truth. When you write about the truth it transcends time and circumstance and especially trends. The truth will always last longer than what’s cool or popular for but a moment.
Well in one particular letter, Henri writes about our source of hope. While it was written in 1981, it’s still applicable to us now, especially in the face of tragedy and pain. We’re tempted to lose hope and live in fear. We’re tempted to stay home because it feels safer now than going to the movies or a concert or even to school. But in this letter Henri is responding to a man who wondered if humanity would survive the century, given what was going on in the world at the time. Henri replied,
“I really don’t know if our civilization will survive the century. Considering the growing threat of a nuclear holocaust, there certainly is a reason to wonder. But important for me is not if our civilization will survive or not but if we can continue to live with hope, and I really think we can because our Lord has given us His promise that He will stay with us at all times. He is the God of the living, He has overcome evil and death and His love is stronger than any form of death and destruction. That is why I feel that we should continually avoid the temptation of despair and deepen our awareness that God is present in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us and that that presence allows us to live joyfully and peacefully in a world so filled with sorrow and conflict.”
It was true in 1981 and it’s true today, in the face of another national tragedy. We have reason to hope. This is not how it ends. His love is stronger than any havoc caused by a single misguided soul. He is with us always. Always doesn't mean every day except in times of mass shootings, plane crashes, and big catastrophes that we wish were avoided. It means always.
So we move forward with hope. We continue to live with hope and not in fear. Because we are the body of Christ and we are called to go – out in the world to always be the hands and feet of Jesus, in good times and in tragedies and in all the places he has called us to go. So we go to concerts and movies and school and stadiums and markets carrying the hope and love that we know well. Jesus is not far off, because you’re there, carrying him as a light into dark places. Carrying something of the divine into a hurting world.