On the morning of October 1, 2015, a young man entered a classroom at Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg, Oregon, and began shooting people. Nine died and ten others were seriously wounded. This is the message Steve Walker gave to Redeemer's Fellowship in Roseburg just days after the tragedy.
I want to speak to you not as a teacher, as I normally do, but as your pastor and shepherd. I hope to give you some words of comfort and direction, and answer a few of the common questions plaguing most of us.
But first, I must say, I'm very thankful for this community. I was born and grew up here, and Roseburg is a wonderful town. Crisis often reveals what we are made of, and I—along with so many others—are proud of and even more grateful for our community in the last few days. I'm thankful for the first responders: everyone from the dispatchers who kept their cool to the law enforcement officers who rushed to the scene. I'm thankful for the medical personnel, doctors, nurses, paramedics—including both retired and off-duty physicians, who, when they heard the breaking news, came without being asked. I'm thankful for all the churches and Christians who are praying for this community and asking for God's wisdom and comfort, and for all who aren't affiliated with any church or faith but who have shown love and support during this dark event. This won't be over soon, but we will come through it together.
Thursday mid-morning, I was sitting in my office when suddenly my phone started ringing, dinging, and buzzing. I wondered initially if there had been an AMBER Alert somewhere, but then someone down the hall yelled that there was an active shooter situation at UCC. Before we could figure it all out, it was over, and we quickly pinged everyone we knew who worked at or attended UCC to check their status. I don't need to tell you that the news was very dark—a number of people had been executed, and there were rumors that the shooter had intended to target Christians.
For me—probably like you—shock set in, and I struggled with what I was hearing: that evil could reach out its finger and touch our quiet community. I have to admit, I found a quiet place in a dark room and prayed, "Lord, I'm not sure what to do or how to respond. So give me wisdom, and guide my steps." It's the same prayer you probably have prayed and will pray again in the coming days.
If this were a memorial service for the victims, we'd probably grieve together; but we're gathered here as the church, and I'm your pastor, so I will speak differently. I need to address the two very frustrating and troubling questions that many of us are asking: "Why did this happen?" and "How should we respond?"
Why did this happen?
When this question assumes center stage in our minds, we aren't really thinking about the shooter's motives: why did he do it? Sheriff Hanlin suggested that at least one motive of the shooter was notoriety—his few moments of fame at the bloody expense of others. Hanlin said he would not speak the shooter's name and thus help fulfill his intentions, and I agree. I would encourage us to follow our sheriff's lead. But whatever this young man's twisted motives, we are at least as troubled at God's motives.
Why did God allow this? Couldn't he have stopped it? This suddenly feels like a very unsafe world, especially if the young man targeted Christians. And here's the truth: it is a very unsafe world. We live in a broken, fallen world. Evil exists in this world. It is very real. It shows up in a thousand ways—some very dramatic and terrible, and some unnervingly personal and internal. So why did it happen? I want to answer that in a way you might not hear from others, but that I think is disturbingly true.
There is a prophecy in the New Testament that provides us with a clue:
The prediction is that times are coming that could only be described as terrible. In the original language in which the New Testament was written, the word described times that were "violent, dangerous, fierce, or evil." Terrible—like last Thursday morning. Whether or not these are the last days is arguable, but that we just experienced the kind of time predicted isn't.
Notice, however, that the prediction also warns us that terrible times rarely happen in isolation. They're part of a larger, darker picture.
Forgive me for being blunt, but we shouldn't be shocked that this happened. We live in a world where an Islamic extremist group routinely chases Christians from their homes and publishes videos of beheading, burning, drowning, and crucifying Christians. We live in a part of the world—the Western world—where we have banished God to the backrooms of public discourse, and we have taught that God (if there is one) had nothing to do with the creation or design of the universe: that this is really a godless universe, and therefore anything goes. And then we wonder why this awful and tragic and senseless thing happened?
Our culture is perfectly designed to achieve the results we now are experiencing. If we want different results, we need to change our culture. We can't tell God to take a hike from our lives and then blame him for the mess that results. Why do these things happen? Because we have slowly accepted a godless culture of death to grow in our civilization, and unless we repent and return to the living God who loves us and sent Jesus as our Savior, we'll likely see more senseless tragedy.
This is a world that desperately needs a Savior. And it has one. That Savior said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). What we saw in horror on Thursday is the work of the thief who kills and destroys life. Our alternative is to turn to Jesus to find life.
We'd love a world with no violence, no murder, no theft, and no lying: a world in which people love and care for each other, accept our differences, and walk hand-in-hand with their God. But we don't have one like that. We have a world in transition, a world that is going somewhere, but it isn't yet there.
Most of the late-night infomercials hawking everything from appliances that slice and dice to hair in a can end with that tantalizing tagline: "But wait! There's more!" And we wait to hear … more. We want more. In this case, our hearts yearn for more.
The tragedy of Thursday shouts to us all of us that we live in an imperfect and broken world—that despite how beautiful and wonderful life is (and it really is), there is a streak of heartache, evil, and death through it that begs for redemption, for setting things right someday. Jesus claims to be that Redeemer, that Savior. He takes us as we are, forgives our sins, and restores our relationship with God, and he begins to work on us from the inside out.
"But wait! There's more!" He intends to fill our life with meaning and purpose, and he promises to never leave us or abandon us. He promises to stay with us in life, to take us to the end: no matter how frightened we are or how ugly it gets.
"But wait! There's more!" He promises there is a new world coming, one in which there will be no more tears or sadness, no sin or failure, no death or disease. He will right every wrong, make all things new, and we will live forever with him in his kingdom.
But let me remind you what he has never promised: a trouble-free, long life. This is what's weird—we didn't ask to be born. But once born, we assume God owes us at least 80 mostly happy and pain-free years before we exit this stage of life. And we'd like a little forewarning, please, but not too much.
In one of my favorite psalms, King David makes this statement: "[A]ll the days ordained for me were written in your book / before one of them came to be" (Ps. 139:16). David affirms that God witnessed our first breath and knows our very last gasp, and in between he is closer to us than we can imagine. It's very important for us to remember: "But wait—there is more!"
The Bible never gives us exact reasons why things happen the way they do. We think things should make sense, that the pieces of the puzzle should all fit together better, that the tragedies should be fully explained. More often, however, we're left with gaping holes in our understanding and in our hearts. What the Bible does affirm is that the world is in transition: that it needs a Savior, a rescuer; that we have the one and only Savior in Jesus; and that someday, through him, God will make all things new and wipe every tear away. Until then, we need to trust him that there is indeed more.
Jesus said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). "You will have trouble"—like Thursday morning. Awful trouble. Life-and-death trouble. It's been like that for some time, and it will be like that until his kingdom comes.
But Jesus tells us to take heart, because he has overcome the world. He knows what it's like to be targeted and persecuted and even executed. He knows what we yet don't know—what resurrection is like. Death is not the end of this story, nor of the stories of many whose lives were taken or changed forever. There is another chapter coming. There's more.
It's probably not enough to stop the hurt, but perhaps it's enough to hold onto so healing can begin.
How should I respond?
We all feel like we should be able to do something to change what happened—to swamp evil with good. That's why we light candles, gather in parks to pray, give money for the victims' families, or pay for the coffee of the next guy in line. But the truth is a lot of things are out of our control. Nothing we do can change what has happened. But there are some things we can do.
When I left the office on Thursday, I had three encounters that spoke to me.
As I stepped out of my car to get gas, I overheard a loud and passionate exchange between two guys who were talking about guns, gun control, and what they would do if anyone decides to do what this shooter did. I just paid my bill and left. I didn't have the energy to engage.
Then, at the bank, after some brief chitchat, the teller looking down at my deposit slip quietly asked, "Everyone in your family okay?" I said, "Yes. Thank you for asking. And yours?" She paused and said one of her daughters attends UCC, but that she's okay.
Then, while ordering coffee, I caught the barista's eye and said, "You okay?" Tears rimmed her eyes, her bottom lip quivered, and she said something like, "I wish that guy would have died a slow death. I wish he would have suffered." She's a student at UCC, and the shooting shattered her confidence and sense of security.
So how do we respond? I want to give you three words to remember.
Love. Engage with each other. Ask how another is doing, and take time to listen. We probably need each other's love and encouragement more than we need each other's answers. Most of us are pretty wobbly right now. Our emotions are pretty close to the surface. Jar another, and you'll probably hear passion, anger, fear, or frustration. It's probably a great response just to nod and love the person. Be there for each other.
The Bible is a library of ancient books all telling the larger story of who God is and who we are. One of the oldest books in the Bible is the Book of Job. It is a book about a man who lives through the most agonizing form of suffering any of us can imagine. In a series of seemingly meaningless and purposeless tragedies, Job lost his possessions, his health, and even his children. When his friends heard what had happened, they came to him together, and they wept with him. Scripture explains that they just sat there with him, not speaking a word, for seven days, because they saw how great his suffering was.
Jews today call it "sitting shiva," the Hebrew word for "seven". You sit there, be there, and don't correct or even answer. The New Testament encourages us to "mourn with those who mourn" (Rom. 12:15). You'll know when to do just that.
Trust. For your own sake, trust God that there is more—that the Bible isn't lying or mistaken about what's coming. Trust God to take care of you. Few verses in Scripture have spoken to me more often or more powerfully than two from the prophet Isaiah. In the first one, God is reassuring Israel of his presence and care, despite their impossible situation: "So do not fear, for I am with you; / do not be dismayed, for I am your God. / I will strengthen you and help you; / I will uphold you with my righteous right hand" (Isa. 41:10). I hear God's voice to us in Isaiah's words.
The second is Isaiah's prayer reminding us that peace comes when our focus is on God and not on the disturbing, dark events around us: "You will keep in perfect peace / those whose minds are steadfast, / because they trust in you. / Trust in the Lord forever, / for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the rock eternal" (Isa. 26:3-4).
We need that kind of trust, and so do others. They need to hear us speak of trust, and of hope as well. In the past few days, I've said something like this many times: "If this world is all there is, I'd be pretty down, but I'm so grateful there's more." I've said, "It won't always be like this. This world needs a Savior, and it has one. He will make things right in the end." Hope is contagious, as despair is infectious. We need to speak of the hope we have to remind each other not to despair and to encourage each other, especially when days grow dark.
Pray. But for what?
Let me leave you with the prayer most of us know: a prayer the Lord gave us to pray, a prayer that speaks volumes to our situation right now. Notice how encouraging and instructive this prayer is.
"Our Father in heaven": He is our Father who loves us, who has given us life, and cares for us.
"Hallowed be your name": "Hallowed" is a five-dollar word that isn't in our daily vocabulary, but it simply means to honor someone or something. Jesus is nudging us to pray that God brings good out of what is evil, that he brings honor to his name in the midst of these terrible tragedies.
"Your kingdom come": It's a confession of our hope, a resetting of our perspective, so that our gaze is not fixated on this present darkness, but on the coming kingdom of joy and light.
"Your will be done, / on earth as it is in heaven": As we ask it, we submit to it in our own lives, and we try as best as we can to be responsive to him in all things. Evil does exist; clearly, not everyone does what God directs. Jesus encourages us to ask God to accomplish his will even when everything feels evil and out of control.
"Give us today our daily bread": By so asking for today's needs, we recognize how uncertain life is—that tomorrow is promised to no man. We live the gift of today, we but recognize the uncertainty of tomorrow.
"And forgive us our debts, / as we also have forgiven our debtors": We admit we are imperfect, broken people who need forgiveness, and we ask for it. But we also must forgive others—and never let grow inside us the very anger, resentment, frustration, bitterness, and disregard for life that poisoned that young man. We let God be the judge, and we forgive as we have been forgiven.
"And lead us not into temptation, / but deliver us from the evil one": We recognize the pull of evil in us, the temptation to use others and be selfish and go our way without God. We know we could fulfill that terrible prediction of people who let go of God and enthrone themselves, and we ask that we would not do any of those things. But we also confess that evil exists in this fallen world, and so we entrust ourselves to God to deliver us from it.
We cannot escape the presence of evil in this world. At times, God may protect us from it; at other times, we may be hurt by it. But whether we live or die, God will not leave us or forsake us, but he will bring us into his presence, where evil will never touch us again.
For now, we love others deeply. We trust God for ourselves and our community. We pray, in the midst of darkness, that we won't contribute to the darkness, but instead look forward to his kingdom, when all will be made right.
Steve Walker is the Lead Pastor for Redeemer’s Fellowship in Roseburg, OR, loves Macs, anything with two wheels, hot black coffee, and a good story told.