The school of suffering contains hard courses. One of the courses in the school suffering is when tragedy occurs. This past week, we all have gone through the course together. There was the quiet, somber mood of grief when a beloved international leader died, although there was some fear that Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s funeral would be marred by violence. One wouldn’t call that a tragedy, but there was a collective emotional energy involved in the passing of former prime minister and all that she meant for the end of the Cold War.
Then there was the Boston bombings. There is no more unspeakable horror—terror—than when inhumane, premeditated mass murderers executed their deadly plans as families gathered for a day of fun and colored balloons on a clear spring day. Here, dreams would have come true for so many as they had come to this great all-American tradition on Boston’s Patriot Day. Then in an instant, their world changed. Our world changed, yes, but not like theirs. Our national conscience is stunned for now. Their personal lives are shattered forever. Victims lost their lives. Parents lost their children.
The horrible stories of improvised explosive devices and their consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan now have come home. Now our cities have been subjected to these same attacks apparently from Islamic extremists. As I write, one of the suspects is dead, along with an MIT campus officer. The other radical, the dead suspect’s brother, loaded with more explosives, is on the run. America is transfixed, once again, as we wait for news of the unfolding events.
Yesterday, we awoke to learn a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded, killing a great number of people and injuring many more. One small town was turned into a scene that resembled a war zone.
In the midst of all of this, we struggle with the challenges of our own individual lives: lab reports return with news we were not expecting; layoff rumors are true; or the vigil is over and your mother is gone.
Tragedy blurs. You become desensitized. You become fatigued by shock, and you have no more adrenaline in your emotional reservoir. You can’t differentiate between emotions. Compassion merges with anger and is swallowed in unbelief and dispersed in an unutterable prayer. Many just want to walk away.
The Word of God is helpful to us. The blur can be clarified, emotions sharpened, and the many overlapping tragedies, national and personal, sorted, if not ever completely understood.
In the school of suffering, we have but one text, and Jesus Christ is the Master Teacher. The pastor, as physician of the soul, after diagnosing the spiritual illness should be careful to dispense the appropriate medicine.
First, the blurring caused by a tragedies such as this is really an overwhelming compounding of competing evils, or a veritable tsunami of a singular evil. This causes the soul to be unable to differentiate between the competing emotions, so an emotional numbness occurs. There are several places the believer can go for help. Here is one:
“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to You, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in Your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of Your wings. For You, God, have heard my vows; You have given me the heritage of those who fear Your name. Increase the days of the king’s life, his years for many generations. May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever; appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him. Then I will ever sing in praise of Your name and fulfill my vows day after day.”
Second, to clarify the blur of tragedy:
1. Pray. Numbness will give way to living tissue of the soul and nameless victims become human neighbors.
2. Plead. “I cry unto Thee, ‘My heart is overwhelmed.'” Honestly plead your case before The Lord. “I want to pray for the families of Boston and West, Texas, but my daughter just got accepted to the college of her dreams. Lord, I don’t know how to differentiate between all of the emotions. Help me to “weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh.”
3. Praise. The psalmist characteristically moves from being overwhelmed and making his plea to ending with worship. This is, no doubt, where these national tragedies will lead us as a people. The president and clergy will gather with grieving families. There will be a community service. The scene we saw just a few months ago in Connecticut will be repeated at MIT, in Boston, in West, Texas. They will sing “Amazing Grace” through the tears. This also will happen in thousands of churches and communities across the nation as private tragedies are brought from prayer to pleading to praise.
Yet this may be the missing step in your heart. You can’t stay in pleading. You must move to releasing the mystery to the place of ultimate mystery, the cross of Jesus Christ. Maybe try singing “Amazing Grace” through the numbness. Read Psalm 61 as an am act of release. Worship. Praise. Feel again.
The numbness will go away. You will grieve again, but as one who has hope.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.