Joel Connealy didn’t realize his first job interview could be so life-threatening.
He showed up at the Jewish Community Center ready to learn how to officiate baseball games. But no sooner had the 15-year-old stepped onto the ballfield when shots rang out. Gunfire took the life of another high school freshman and his grandfather, as well as a third bystander later.
And like an umpire struck by a wild pitch, Joel now views life warily.
With a steady stream of bombings, shootings and natural disasters in our national experience, the murders in suburban Kansas City don’t seem that unusual.
These tragedies can cause us to feel unsafe, unsure about the world. And it’s more than a feeling. The world is unsafe.
Unfortunately, we buy into a sanitized view of life – particularly in the U.S. As folk singer Melvina Reynolds wrote in 1963, we tend to live in “little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky…that all look just the same.”
It’s more than a feeling. The world is unsafe.
We think that we’re insulated from trouble in our little boxes. But we’re not. We often don’t take to heart 1 Peter 4:12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you."
I know I felt that way – surprised. My husband and I had just made the bold move to southwestern France in 2001 to help pioneer a Cru ministry when the 9/11 attacks hit. In a neighborhood full of North African immigrants, we had already felt self-conscious, donning our tennis shoes and pushing a double jog stroller that screamed Americans!
To add to the uneasiness, 10 days after the events in New York City, a local fertilizer plant exploded leaving a 10- by 50-meter crater and 29 dead, with hundreds injured. One was a 15-year-old boy. Foul play was suspected, never confirmed.
I was standing in our living room when the ka-boom came, and two seconds later the glass from 4 French doors exploded inward. My toddler seated on an Ikea rug pushing wooden trains evaded injury only by God’s grace. My three-year-old son, 2 days into life at a French preschool, escaped flying glass as his class played outdoors at the time.
Innocence lost. Our remaining 9 months in Toulouse, I felt a constant low-burner fear. I jumped at sudden noises. I imagined men with guns shooting me through my kitchen window or taking aim at our small courtyard from their highrise subsidized apartments. Not very rational fears, but lodged in my subconscious just the same.
Back in the heartland, Joel and his dad had returned from a missions trip to Guatemala just 3 weeks before the shootings. And yet, they only had to travel 4 miles to the JCC to have innocence stripped away.
How can we all be more prepared for tragedy while not being immobilized by it? Sometimes it just involves a shift in our mental position. Tragedy helps us to:
- Recognize that we can have wrong assumptions of who God is. We’ve being lulled into false assurance. Tragedy reminds us that God never guaranteed safety from all physical and emotional pain. He does promise Christians the enduring presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit and eternity with Him. Tragedy helps our expectations of God and our fallen world to be more biblical.
- See others’ pain. As Americans, we sometimes shield ourselves from the pain that Christians around the world feel daily. We can block out or forget about the teen abductions for trafficking in Thailand, children seized from Christian families in the Sudan, church bombings in Nigeria or pastors imprisoned in Iran and China. Our suffering awakens our heart to the daily pain of those around the world. And prompts us to pray for them more tenderly.
- Long for heaven more. It reminds us that Christ in us is the hope of glory…not that day’s personal victories. (Colossians 1:27). It makes us yearn for the spring of the water of life (Revelations 21:6) and the One who leads us in triumphal procession (2 Corinthians 2:14).
- Embrace that God uses hardship to draw believers and nonbelievers alike to Himself. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
- Discern the Enemy’s schemes. Satan would like to take tragedies and twist them murmuring: See? Your God is absent and impotent! He doesn’t care or act! Instead: “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). A great book to help battle a defeated view is Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey.
But what about the courage to just walk out the door, send your kids to school, or go to the movies when it feels like anything could happen anywhere?
Cru staff member Alan Lyle takes his fears to the Lord in prayer. Right after his 8-year-old daughter gets on the bus every day, he huddles with other parents to pray for her safety. He asks the Lord to “send angels to guard the school doors from evil men.” And if God chooses not to? “The God that calls the stars out by name, that gives us air to breathe and sings over me personally each night,” says Alan in his Tennessee drawl, “is in control of all events in this broken world. And it will not be restored until our Lord’s return.”
Breast cancer survivor and Cru staff member Vivian Mabuni has wrestled with God. “My plans are to die old,” says the California mom of 3. “But God has asked me: ‘Even if you were to go before that, can you trust Me with your kids?’ I want to live out a life that’s Plan A. But only a small percentage of us get to live out our Plan A in all areas. I’m trying to trust that God’s ways really are better.”
Only a small percentage of us get to live out our Plan A in all areas. I’m trying to trust that God’s ways really are better.
And God’s better ways sometimes include suffering.
As goes the oft-quoted interaction about Aslan in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
We follow a good King out into chaos. Back in France, the rambunctiousness of our boys wouldn’t allow us to huddle indoors the days after the explosion. We had to venture out. God had shielded us from harm, and He continued walking beside our wide stroller on those narrow sidewalks littered with broken glass.
Shootings, explosions and natural disasters will keep happening. The Bible says so. But God meets us in our fears and promises to usher believers on to a tear-free eternity.
Consider Joel’s take-away from the JCC shootings: “Everywhere is dangerous, and so we need to tell others about Jesus.” His dad wrote me the day after: “What a world! Jesus is our only hope.”
We, with the apostle John, can say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” But until He does, we need to keep clinging to and proclaiming a God that is good in a world that is just not safe.