I did not have a good week last week. For a few days it was nothing more than a vague feeling of being out of sorts. On Wednesday I had an appointment with a massage therapist, who is a very wise and intuitive young woman. She said, “Something’s different today. I feel as if your body is holding on to something, and it’s sticking to you. Do you have any idea what it is?”
I couldn’t put my finger on anything until Thursday morning while listening to the prelude at First United Methodist Church in Battle Creek before Bill Myers’ memorial service. I was holding on to a profound sadness. It began Sunday morning when I received the call about Bill’s untimely death. Such a fine pastor. So many lives touched. Tremendous grief for his family. A huge loss for Battle Creek First UMC.
Then, on Monday, we heard the unspeakable news of 32 college students and professors at Virginia Tech killed by a deeply troubled young man, Cho Seung-Hui. In a culture where violence almost seems normal, this tragedy penetrated to the core of our national being. Innocent young people randomly gunned down just as their adult lives were beginning. Dashed hopes and dreams. A university forever changed.
I was especially sad for our college students across the country, who were deeply affected by the killings. Our youngest daughter called several times last week, saying that she felt compelled to watch all of the news reports and read about the students who died. “Mom, did you know that one of the girls was a United Methodist?” she asked. “Her church is in Illinois. She even went on an Appalachia Service Project mission trip. Can our church send a prayer card to her church? I think that would be a good thing to do.” First Church is sending the card today.
Two days later, the horror intensified as the media released the video Seung-Hui made of himself between the two killings. We tried to fathom how a young man could be filled with so much anger. He said, “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.” Jesus died for the 32 people who died, but Jesus also died for Seung-Hui, even as he chose a different path than Jesus to inspire the weak and defenseless.
The sadness continued when I learned that President George Bush would be delivering a major foreign policy address on Iraq last Friday at East Grand Rapids High School, where our three children graduated. I found myself lamenting, “The tragedy at Virginia Tech is repeated almost daily in Iraq, Darfur, Zimbabwe and other places around the world. How long, O God? How long will innocent women and children die in Iraq? How long will our men and women in the armed forces die?” While it was an honor for our town to host President Bush, I pray that he will listen to the citizens of our country who are saying, “It is enough. We must find a way to begin withdrawing our troops.”
On Thursday morning, when a packed Battle Creek First Church sang, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” I was overcome with both grief and joy. At that moment I realized that, by myself, I don’t have enough faith to cope with so much sadness. But when we sing together in community as followers of the risen Christ, we find the courage and strength not only to care for each other and move on, but to actively work for peace and justice for all people. As Rev. Harvey Prochnau preached so well, death teaches us that what matters most is relationships. One of Bill Myers’ greatest gifts was his ability to make people feel special, to build them up and empower them to be in ministry.
My profound sadness was replaced by profound joy and hope on Thursday morning, for death will never have the last word. Life is an incredible gift, and we are called to make the most of the short time we have on this earth by living lives of grace, peace and reconciliation. But we are also left with challenges.
- How do you care for the least, the last and the lost in your church?
- Do you embrace young people who are troubled and offer help, or do you push them away because they might be a bad influence on the “normal” youth?
- How can we advocate for reasonable gun control so that we don’t have such ready access to deadly firearms?
- How does your church reach out to your college students, especially in times of crisis? Did you send them emails last week, letting them know that you were thinking of and praying for them?
- Do you advocate for mental health and substance abuse benefits in health insurance policies that are equal to those for physical illnesses?
- Do you offer prayers in worship for our service personnel and also for the people of Iraq?
- Knowing how fleeting life is, when was the last time you told those you care about the most that you love them?
“O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come;
Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.
Under the shadow of thy throne, still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone, and our defense is sure.”