Last Sunday tragedy struck close to home.
As you may know, Matthew Murray, 19, barged into New Life Church here in Colorado Springs just two miles down the road from Focus on the Family. His goal? He desired to inflict mass casualties. Armed with three weapons, including a powerful assault rifle and two semiautomatic handguns, Matthew took the lives of two teenage sisters, Stephanie and Rachel Works (pictured), in the parking lot after the worship service.
This Christmas, there will be two empty places around the dinner table in the Works home – a painful reminder of a nightmare no family ought to experience. I cannot fathom the grief they must be suffering. My heart aches when I consider that the annual Christmas celebration for this family will be forever marked as a bittersweet time of remembrance. For them, the Good News of Christ’s birth will be tempered by the profound sense of loss of life.
Without a doubt, the Works must be wrestling with a host of questions: “Why, God? Why were our daughters snatched away? Why wasn’t this killer stopped before my children were taken? What possible good can come from such a senseless crime?”
About a hour north of Colorado Springs, the families of Phillip Crouse and Tiffany Johnson are likewise grieving this Christmas. While working at Youth With A Mission in Arvada, Colorado, Phillip and Tiffany were gunned down twelve hours before by the same shooter. I’m sure their parents and families must be struggling with the same “Why, God?” questions.
And let’s not forget the grief that the parents of Matthew Murray must be experiencing. What does a parent feel when their child has done such damage to others? Not only have they lost a son, I’m sure they feel the weight of Matthew’s choices and actions.
Without taking anything away from the suffering each of these families are facing, allow me to go one step further. I think you’d agree it doesn’t take the murder of a loved one for you and I to have our faith shaken to the core. Each and every one of us has had – or one day will face – a personal crisis that provokes a flood of tears.
Maybe it’s a drunk driver that claims the life of a spouse. Or a sudden illness that strikes, cutting the life of a loved one down to mere days. Perhaps a note left behind by a teen who decided they couldn’t cope anymore before taking their own life. During these times of tragedy, we’re quick to beat on the doors of heaven wondering whether or not God is listening. Is He?
At the risk of sounding simplistic, one thing is unmistakable: Jesus is not a stranger to our pain. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described Him as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” As strange as it may sound, Jesus, whose birth and life we celebrate during Christmas, faced a life of suffering that eclipses anything we can humanly imagine. Listen to what He shared with his closest friends just hours before dying on the cross: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death . . . stay here and keep watch.”
Two things strike me about His words. First, Jesus clearly understood the depth of human suffering. Yours. And mine. He didn’t float through this life oblivious to pain. He experienced both physical torment and personal rejection. And yet, here’s the fantastic news of Christmas; Jesus was born to put an end to pain, suffering and even death itself! While we will experience these things in this life, heaven will be a different story indeed.
The second observation is this: Jesus longed for His friends to stand with Him during this blackest of nights. He desired the company of human companionship. In a way, He modeled how we ought to behave in the face of suffering. If you know someone is struggling through a personal tragedy, why not “keep watch” with them. Be there to support them. Ask how you can serve them. You might find providing a copy of Dr. Dobson’s book, When God Doesn’t Make Sense, a place to start the process of healing.
Can I explain what higher purpose the deaths of Stephanie, Rachel, Phillip, and Tiffany will serve? No. This side of heaven we may never know. But rather than be crushed by these out-of-control events, I believe this is the time for us to lean hard on the only One who has ever been in control. The One who endured a brutal death.
The One who rose again so that we can have new life.
Emmanuel. God with us.