What words can we speak in times of tragedy and great suffering? Words never seem enough to express the grief and pain in our hearts. Last week our community experienced tragedy upon tragedy, grief upon grief. After twelve beautiful and innocent lives were lost to a senseless shooting in Thousand Oaks, fire ripped through our neighborhoods destroying homes. Two lives were lost in the fires of southern California, and 85 lives were lost in the northern fires. What words can we offer as comfort to the families who have experienced such loss? My heart breaks for the shooting victims’ families and for those who have lost their homes.
St. Paul’s words express what we may feel in times of great tragedy, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Yet, he offers us hope, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
Ironically, it is during times of peril when heroes rise up. Heroes are not crushed. Rather than being driven to despair, they are driven to action. They save lives. We witness such courage time and time again. Heroes jump into the line of fire to save those still in danger. Firefighters, who themselves had lost their homes, continued working to save the homes of others, neighbor helping neighbor, victims saving victims. Thousands have heard God’s call and have offered donations and have even offered their homes for those who have lost theirs. God raises up His army to bring light into a dark world.
In 2 Corinthians 1:4-5, St. Paul explains that those who suffer are comforted by God, so that in turn, they are equipped with the empathy necessary to comfort others. These saints become our examples. I, for one, am in awe at the strength and courage of such heroes and saints. They are humbled by their experience, but their humility is what gives them strength. They do not think of themselves, but rather their first thoughts are to come to the aid of others. They are selfless. They rise out of the ashes of destruction and become beacons of light.
I was struck by the words posted by the Thousand Oaks shooter during the incident, “Yeah... I'm insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is 'hopes and prayers'... or 'keep you in my thoughts'... every time... and wonder why these keep happening...” These are words from the devil himself. This man was not insane. He was filled with evil and hatred. He spewed words to create despair and to deny the power of prayer. These words are straight from the pit of hell, intended to deceive. The only thing that has the power to defeat evil is God’s love and the prayers of those who love Him.
God always shows up in times of tragedy. People cry out to Him in prayer, and He sends His army of believers. Strangely, it is during these times, when our true nature manifests. God created us to love, and it is love that comes to the rescue. Some believe we are basically evil creatures, and it may seem that way when we see such evil in the world, but our true nature comes to the forefront when disaster strikes. Our true humanity is revealed through our love for one another, even toward those who are strangers to us. Our hearts are touched by the suffering of our fellow human beings. We see tragedy unfolding in the news daily, and we are brought to tears. We weep and wish we could do something to stop all the evil.
St. Paul, who knew suffering throughout his ministry, reminds us, “we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day”(2 Corinthians 4:16). He reminds us that our afflictions are momentary compared to the eternity we will spend in “glory beyond measure.” He reminds us to live with our hope in Christ, who sends others to comfort us and ultimately saves us. Christ reminds us that He has prepared a place for us and He “will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 4:3) and He “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:4-5).
In the meantime, God sends us to support and comfort one another. The love, kindness and compassion that we offer to the next person we see suffering and in despair may save lives. It may be that very person in despair, who may have been thinking about causing harm and destruction to others. We do not always know how the love of God we share with our neighbors will affect their lives.
May God bless you and keep you safe!