Nothing can ever fully redeem the massacre at Virginia Tech. The tragic loss of so many lives is too great a price to be paid for any gain. But if we can learn from this terrible situation, if we live better lives individually and corporately because of what has happened, then the loss won’t be completely in vain.
Learning from this tragedy can and should happen in a wide variety of ways. In my recent posts I’ve been trying to help folks learn how better to respond to people who are grieving. I’ve put my effort here because this is something I know something about as a pastor, and therefore may be able to contribute positively in the learning effort. There are many lessons to be learned about which I have no expertise, and so won’t say anything in public. I doubt you’ll find me weighing in on issues of gun control, school security, treatment of mental illness, or how to deal with a person who seems to be emotionally disturbed in a major way. I’ll leave these important conversations to others who have things worth saying.
Today I want to address one significant kind of learning that comes when we encounter suffering in general, and death in particular. I know something about this not only because I’ve experienced personal losses, like the death of my father when I was 29, but also because, as a pastor, I’m regularly involved with people who are dying and their families.
When I serve as a pastor for a memorial service, my chief concerns are to bring comfort and hope to the family and friends of the one who died, and to help them experience God’s presence and peace. Yet after every memorial service I attend, whether I’m in charge or simply a member of the congregation, I find myself thinking about my own life. I wonder what, in the end, my life will add up to. I ask myself if I’m living for what truly matters, or if I’m squandering my days on petty and trivial things. (You might think that pastors have it easy here, and perhaps we do in a way. But I sometimes get caught up in the tiny details of church life, forgetting the big picture and obsessing over that which has little or no eternal value. And in my personal life, I can get disproportionately upset by things like my car breaking.)
What I receive from being present in more memorial services than most people is the chance to have my perspective on life altered. I’m reminded of what life is really all about. I’m confronted with my own tendency to waste my life rather than living it to the fullest. Thinking about death, even and especially my own death, gives me the opportunity to think about life, real life, abundant life.
For example, on Monday when before I heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech, I was fretting about the normal stuff of life. One might even say I was feeling pretty cranky about next to nothing. But then I glimpsed the headline that spoke of a shooting at Virginia Tech. Soon that headline spoke of twenty deaths. Then thirty. All of a sudden the things that were bugging me found their proper place in my consciousness. They didn’t really matter at all. But I had been letting them rob my joy and keep me from being the kind of person I really want to be.
Chances are I won’t be able to make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering because of the tragedy in Virgina, other than by praying for them, which counts plenty in my book. But I can make a tangible difference in the lives of people in my own sphere of influence. I can hug my own children a bit tighter. I can do a better job overlooking their trivial shortcomings and prize them for the wonderful people that they are. I can pause to be thankful for my wife, even though our anniversary passed a few days ago, so the time period for official gratitude has passed. I can treat her with an extra measure of kindness. I can look around me for people who are having a hard time fitting in, the kind of people who aren’t easy to talk to or be with. I can reach out to them with grace even if they can’t return it. I can try to share the love of God with them, not just in words, but mostly in deeds. Moreover, I can focus my life more on the things that really matters, issues of justice, peace, truth, and love.
Nothing can make up for the pain that has now invaded hundreds of lives because of the senseless killings in Virginia. But if we let this tragedy help us to live more significantly, more graciously, and more lovingly, then something good will have grown out of something horrible. This is my hope, for myself and others, even as I continue to pray for God’s presence and comfort for those who are grieving today.