Where is God When It Hurts at Virginia Tech by Philip Yancey?

Where is God When It Hurts at Virginia Tech by Philip Yancey?

            All the passages below are taken from Philip Yancey’s book, “What Good Is God?” published in 2010.

Six weeks after my accident as I sat in front of my computer screen, now angled to accommodate my neck brace, the telephone rang. A young man named Matt Rogers introduced himself. “You don’t know me, but your book Disappointment with God meant a lot to me when I was suffering from severe depression,” he said. “It helped save my faith. I’ve always wanted to thank you for that—but that’s not the main reason for my call.” He paused and swallowed hard.

“I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s happened at Virginia Tech.” For a week the massacre of thirty-two university students and faculty by a disturbed Korean student, who then killed himself, had filled the news. “Well, I’m a campus pastor there. You also wrote a book titled Where Is God When It Hurts? and that’s the question everyone here is asking. Of the thirty-three who died, nine had some connection with our church, which meets on campus. We’re planning a special service next Sunday, open to the entire community, and we wonder if you could speak on that topic.”

Stalling for time, I asked a few questions about the mood on campus and how the church staff was holding up. “Normally, I would say yes right away,” I told him at last. “I’m honored by your invitation. However, there is one complication…” And then I explained about my accident. “The bones in my neck are still healing, and the neurosurgeon warned against any bump or jarring. I’ll need to get his clearance to fly. I’ll do my best, I promise. What you’re doing there is very important, Matt. I’d love to join you.”

The doctor had misgivings, especially since getting to the town of Blacksburg would require a change of planes. A rough landing might dislodge an unhealed bone fragment, with dangerous consequences. I nearly picked up the phone to give Matt my regrets until a wild thought occurred to me. I knew a man in Denver who worked as a corporate attorney for a large furniture company owned by a Christian known for his generosity. Greg Ruegsegger had gone through an event eerily similar to Virginia Tech: in 1999 his daughter Kacey was shot at Columbine High School along with thirty-six others, thirteen of whom died. Kacey survived, though permanently disabled, and she and her father had spoken publicly about their experience and what they had learned.

They know exactly what Virginia Tech students are going through, I thought. They can offer wisdom and practical help like no one else. I could not suppress a smile as the next thought entered my mind: Plus, Greg’s company has a corporate jet!

Several dozen phone calls later, everything was arranged for me to fly on a private jet to Virginia, along with my wife, a close friend, and four members of the Ruegsegger family. Private jets are definitely the way to travel, I decided. With departure scheduled for 10:00 AM on Saturday, the pilots asked us to arrive at 9:50, saving several hours of airport parking hassles and security lines. Just because I could, I boarded with a small Swiss Army knife in my pocket. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and took off with a roar at a steep angle of ascent. The pilot banked the small jet to give us a view of the sunlight glistening off the snow-covered mountains to the west, then turned and pointed its needle nose toward our cruising altitude of forty-one thousand feet.

During the flight Kacey Ruegsegger recounted her story. She had transferred to Columbine the year of the shooting. After two friends at her former school killed themselves, Kacey had begun talking ominously of suicide. Her parents removed all locks from inside doors, even the bathroom, and for a time made her sleep in their room so they could keep an eye on her. They also sought out a new environment for her to have a fresh start. Columbine seemed the place.

Kacey was reading a magazine in the library when the shootings began that April day, and when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered the room with weapons she hid under a desk, pulling a chair in front of her. She heard them methodically shooting as they made their way to the west side of the library where she and others had hidden. Looking out from under the desk she saw Eric Harris squat down a few feet away and point his gun at the boy hiding next to her. In an instant smoke and noise from a shotgun blast filled the space around her.

Then the gunman turned to Kacey. She covered her ears with her hands, which may have saved her life. The shotgun blast at close range mangled her thumb and destroyed her shoulder but missed her head. She cried out. When the gunman yelled, “Quit your bitching!” she feigned death. Of the first six students shot in the library, only Kacey survived.

Though she must have told this story a hundred times, Kacey still broke down in the plane. The rest of us stayed quiet, newly mindful of the horror we would soon hear about on a campus reeling in shock.

“What worries me about Virginia Tech,” Kacey said at last, “is that those students are leaving their community of fellow survivors. They’re headed back to homes in different states, to be with people who only heard about what happened and didn’t really experience it. I felt the support of a grieving community for many months. I’d go to the grocery store with my arm in a sling and strangers would come up to me with a sympathetic and supportive word. We had a monthly dinner with other victims’ families. We all shared the tragedy, and healed together. These kids are leaving the only ones who can understand.”

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The town of Blacksburg nestles in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and spring was ablaze as we drove from the airport. Blossomy redbuds and dogwoods dotted the greening hillsides and pink crab apple trees brightened the town. We checked into a nearby hotel and walked to the campus. Architects had designed the main university buildings with trademark gray-and-yellow “Hokie stones” mined from quarries nearby. I had not expected such traditional buildings at a high-tech college. Yellow crime scene tape surrounded one of the loveliest structures, Norris Hall, where most of the shootings took place, and state troopers stood guard. Seung-Hui Cho had chained the doors of Norris shut and systematically moved from classroom to classroom, firing at least 174 rounds of ammunition at faculty and students until finally turning the semi-automatic handgun on himself.

Virginia Tech has immaculate grounds, and it seemed surreal to walk among the beautiful stone buildings, edged with beds of tulips and daffodils, and come across improvised memorials to those who had died a few days before. The school had tried to control the sprawl of memorials by erecting a striped tent the size of a tennis court in the middle of the central drill field, a tent which now contained tens of thousands of messages from kindergartens, universities, churches, and individuals. Each of the thirty-three who died (yes, including the killer Cho) had a designated space inside the tent where friends and family could leave personal mementos: a baseball, a teddy bear, a copy of The Great Gatsby, a Starbucks cup.

As I wandered through the tent I realized what the news media do to our perceptions. I had thought of the thirty-three who died as a group, “the worst mass killing in U.S. history” as television kept repeating. Walking past the individual memorials, I encountered Ryan and Emily and Juan and Waleed and Julia—thirty-three individuals, not a group. The handwritten notes underscored this: I love you. I knew you. I did not know you. I wish I knew you. I miss you. I am so sorry. You made a difference in my life. Thank you, God, for saving my son; take care of the 32. Rest in peace.

Across the drill field another memorial site had spontaneously sprung up. This one consisted of thirty-three memorial Hokie stones, along with a placard identifying each person who had died. Visitors had left poems wrapped in plastic, notes on poster board now blurred from weather, photos, American flags, bouquets of cut flowers, Mylar balloons, stuffed animals. The memorials formed a semicircle in front of the main administration building, and at night a ring of candles illuminated the site.

The ambivalence over Seung-Hui Cho showed. No placard marked his name, but people still left notes and flowers. A Hokie stone had appeared at his side, then vanished, then reappeared. I copied down part of a poem that one person had typed up and enclosed in plastic:

My innocence is none on the cross, and you cannot have it. You will not now nor will you ever have power over me.

The truth is I miss you.

I wish I could have shown you His love, His passion, His truth. It has set me free.

I missed you. I’m sorry

Another read, “To Cho: I hope in your next life you do not have to resort to violence to be heard.”

People filed past the memorials mostly in silence, holding on to each other as if in a gale, wiping away tears behind their sunglasses, bending over to read the notes. We stumbled upon even more makeshift memorials in other places on campus: in front of a dorm, by a classroom, on some steps, in a student center. The sweet smell of scented candles hung in the air. Watch the news and you hear reports of one more dreary mass killing on a U.S. campus. Visit in person and you’re struck by the incredible outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from every state in the union and many foreign countries.

Campus ministers told us that scores of ministries, some wacky and some healthy, had descended on the campus. Christian musicians flew in from Britain and well-known American evangelists set up tents. Scientologists gave away free copies of L. Ron Hubbard’s books. Crisis teams handed out tracts setting forth their beliefs. Ultimately these gestures produced something of a backlash. Living in the South, Virginia Tech students are accustomed to religious talk but they resist what seems confrontational or exploitative. Formulaic answers did not fit the questions stirred up by what had happened on their campus.

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Saturday evening we met with the staff of New Life Christian Fellowship, our host church. Matt Rogers, who had invited us, said, “As a youth minister, you anticipate weddings, not funerals. We have no playbook for something like this.” Actually, no one does. Yet hundreds on campus had turned to the church for guidance and for solace, and the staff had to respond.

A dozen staff members described what they had been going through, both personally and as they counseled students from the dorm and classrooms where the shootings occurred. It was an intense time of questions, tears, and sharing, and the Ruegseggers offered much practical help. As Greg said, “There is a very small fraternity of people who know what you’re going through. We know. That’s why we came.”

Members of the church had already appeared on CNN, Fox, and every major network news program. “The whole world is listening,” cautioned the pastors. “Don’t respond with hate or bitterness, don’t add more pain to a painful situation. Follow Paul’s rule in Romans 12: `Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”‘

We also had a gathering with students most affected by the trag­edy. The discussion went slowly and tentatively at first until a Korean student opened up. “I was walking in front of Norris Hall as students were jumping out of windows and running. I found out later what happened. As a Korean, I feel shame and guilt. One of my country­men did this! I have nightmares at night and want to sleep all day. I’m exhausted all the time. What do I do with my guilt?”

Kacey responded immediately. “My heart breaks for you,” she said, and didn’t try to choke back the tears. She went on to tell of her feelings after Columbine. She too felt “survivor guilt” even though she had had a shoulder blown off. Whenever she met with the families of those classmates who died, she felt embarrassed. “What you’re going through is normal. You are living with a different normal than before the shootings. Some of you feel anger. I must say, I didn’t feel much anger until recently, eight years after Columbine. I had worked hard to get a nursing degree, but as my shoulder deteriorated further I had to go on disability. Eric Harris took away more than my health that day; he stole my career. I’m still learning what a `different normal’ means for me. Even now, when I see someone wearing an overcoat in a grocery store, I start.”

Some students grieved openly. Some did not want to talk at all. Some could talk about nothing else. As I listened to them I realized again how different it is to watch an event like the Virginia Tech tragedy on television compared to living through it. Reporters capture the drama, then summarize, add statistics, interpret, provide an overlay of meaning. In contrast, many of those who live through it wander around in a fog, bewildered, feeling what they’ve never felt before, having no map of meaning. Emotions shift like the wind.

Later that evening Greg said, “I still worry about what happens next to these kids. Columbine remained at the center of attention where we lived, and we had support all around us. Soon these kids will disperse all over the country, returning to people who don’t know how to treat them. It’s like soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder returning to life in suburbia after fighting a war.”

On Sunday at a student center on campus we held two services, around twelve hundred people in all, 90 percent of them students. Greg shared something of the Columbine experience, and I spoke on “Where Is God When It Hurts?” My publisher had provided a free copy of my book with that title to every person who attended the services. I doubt I have ever spoken to a quieter, more somber audience.

Wearing a neck brace, though it had no connection to what these students were going through, somehow made me feel more at home. All pain is pain, I have learned. A self-destructive teenager, the recurrence of cancer, a broken neck, a random shooting—they all summon up the same basic questions. What can hope offer at such a time? What good is God?

And what answer can I offer? The students, their faces etched with pain, reminded me of small starving birds with their mouths wide open, desperate for some small morsel of comfort.  

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April is the cruellest month.” When T.S. Eliot penned that opening line to his poem “The Waste Land” in 1921, he had no idea how prophetic it would sound in modern America. Oklahoma City, Columbine High School, and now Virginia Tech—on our calendars we remember them all within the span of five days, a week soaked in sorrow.

     Along with Greg and Kacey and the others who came from Colorado, I thank you for the honor of joining you today. You have invited us into the most tender and profound moment of your lives, something we don’t take lightly.

This morning we gather in an attempt to make sense of what happened on this lovely campus in B1acksburg, still trying to process the un-processable. We come together in church, partly because we know no better place to bring our questions and our pain and partly because we don’t know where else to turn. As the apostle Peter once said to Jesus at a moment of confusion and doubt, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

In thinking through what to say to you, I found myself following two different threads. The first thread is what I would like to say, the words I wish I could say. The second thread is the truth.

I wish I could say that the pain you feel will disappear, vanish,  never to return. No doubt you’ve heard comments like these from parents and others: Things will get better; You’ll get past this; This too shall pass. They mean well, those who offer such comfort, and it’s true that what you feel now you will not always feel. Yet it’s also true that what happened on April 16, 2007, will stay with you forever. Your life has changed because of that day, because of one troubled young man’s actions.

I remember one year when three of my friends died. In my thirties then, I had little experience with death. In the midst of my heartache I came across a two-line couplet from George Herbert that gave me solace: “Grief melts away like snow in May / as if there were no such cold thing.” I clung to that hope even as grief smothered me like an avalanche. In fact the grief did melt away, yet like snow it also returned, in fierce and unexpected ways, triggered by a sound, a smell, a photo, some fragment of memory of my friends.

So I cannot say what I want to say, that this too shall pass. Instead I point to the pain you feel, and will continue to feel, as a sign of life and love. I am wearing a neck brace because I broke my neck in an auto accident. As I lay strapped to a body board, for the first few hours the medical staff refused to give me any pain medication while they tested my responses. The doctor kept probing, moving my limbs, pinching me and sticking me with a pin, always asking, “Does this hurt? Do you feel that?” Each time I answered, “Yes! Yes!” and each time he smiled and said, “That’s good!” The sensations indicated that my spinal cord had not been damaged. Paul offered proof of life, of union, a vital sign that my body remained whole. Medicine falls helpless before a body that cannot feel.

In grief, love and pain converge. Seung-Hui Cho felt no grief as he gunned down your classmates since he felt no love for them. You feel that grief because you did have a connection. Though some of you had closer ties to the victims than others, all of you belong to the same community, the same body, as those who died. When that body suffers, you suffer. Remember that as you cope with the pain. Do not simply try to numb it. Acknowledge it as a sensation of life, of love.

Medical students will tell you that in a deep wound two kinds of tissue must heal: the connective tissue beneath the surface and the outer, protective layer of skin. The reason this church and other ministries on campus offer counseling and hold services like this one is to help that deep, connective tissue heal. Only later will a protective layer grow back in the form of a scar.

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We gather here as Christians, and as such we aspire to follow one who came from God two thousand years ago. Read through the Gospels and you’ll find only one scene in which someone addresses Jesus directly as God: “My Lord and my God!” Do you know who said that? It was doubting Thomas, the disciple stuck in sadness, the last holdout against believing the incredible news of resurrection. Jesus appeared to Thomas in his newly transformed body, obliterating Thomas’s doubts. What prompted that outburst of belief, however—“My Lord and my God!”—was the presence of scars. Feel my hands, Jesus told him. Touch my side. Finger my scars. In a flash of revelation Thomas saw the wonder of Almighty God, the Lord of the Universe, stooping to take on our pain, to complete the union with humanity.

Not even God remained exempt from pain. God joined us and fully shared our human condition, including its distress. Thomas recognized in that pattern the most foundational truth of the universe, that God is love. To love means to hurt, to grieve. Pain manifests life.

The Jews, schooled in Old Testament prophecies, had a saying, “Where Messiah is, there is no misery.” After Jesus you could change that saying to, “Where misery is, there is the Messiah.” Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, and those who hunger and thirst, and those who mourn—that’s us, today!—and those who are persecuted. Jesus vol­untarily embraced every one of the states he called blessed: he knew poverty and he felt hunger and thirst; he mourned; he was cruelly persecuted.

Where is God when it hurts? We know one answer because God came to earth and showed us. You need only follow Jesus around and note how he responded to the tragedies of his day: large-scale tragedies such as an act of government terrorism in the temple or a tower collapsing on eighteen innocent bystanders; as well as small tragedies, such as a widow who has lost her only son or even a Roman soldier whose servant has fallen ill. At moments like these Jesus never delivered sermons about judgment or the need to accept God’s mysterious providence. Instead, He responded with compassion—a word from Latin which simply means “to suffer with”—and comfort and healing. God stands on the side of those who suffer.

I wish I could answer other questions this morning. I would like to give you an answer to the question, Why? Why this campus rather than Virginia Commonwealth University or William and Mary? Why these thirty-three people Instead of you or me? I cannot give you an answer, and I encourage you to resist anyone who offers you one with confidence. God did not answer that question for Job, who deserved an answer as much as anyone who has lived. Nor did Jesus attempt an answer to the “Why?” questions swirling around those who died from accidents and terrorism. We have hints and partial explanations, but no one knows the full answer.

What we do know with certainty is how God feels. We know how God looks on the campus of Virginia Tech right now because God gave us a face, one streaked with tears. Where misery is, there is the Messiah. Three times that we know of, Jesus wept: when his friend Lazarus died, when he looked out over the doomed city of Jerusalem, when he faced his own ordeal of suffering. “The tears of God are the meaning of history,” concluded the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, disconsolate after losing his son.

Not everyone will find that answer sufficient. We want more decisive, satisfying answer. When we hurt, sometimes we want revenge. One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, said, “I am not the Almighty God, but if I were, maybe I would in mercy either heal the unutterable pain of the world or in mercy kick the world to pieces in its pain.” God did neither. Rather, God sent Jesus, joining our world with all its unutterable pain in order to set in motion a slower, less dramatic solution—one that crucially involves us.

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Even though my hair has turned gray, I still remember life as a college student. The future lies ahead of you and you are just awakening to the fact that you are an independent moral being. Until now other people have been running your life. During your childhood, parents tell you what to do and make decisions for you. Then in elementary school, teachers order you around, a pattern that continues through high school and even in college. You inhabit a kind of way station on the road to adulthood, waiting for the real life of career and perhaps marriage and children to begin.

What happened in Blacksburg on April 16 demonstrates beyond all doubt that your life—the decisions you make, what you believe, the kind of person you are—matters now. Indeed, we can count on nothing but the present moment. Twenty-eight fellow students and five of your faculty have no future. For them, life has ended.

That reality came starkly home to me exactly two months ago when I was driving on a winding road in Colorado. Suddenly I missed a curve at 60 mph and my Ford Explorer slipped off the pavement and tumbled down a hill. I spent seven hours that day strapped to a body board, with duct tape across my head to keep it from moving. A CAT scan showed that a vertebra high up on my neck had been shattered, and sharp bone fragments were protruding right next to a major artery. I had one arm free, with a cell phone and little battery time left, and I spent those tense hours calling people close to me, knowing it might be the last time for me to hear their voices. It was an odd sensation to lie there helpless, aware that though I was fully conscious, my brain intact, if indeed the artery had been pierced, at any moment I could die.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged … it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” I must tell you that when you’restrapped to a body board after a serious accident, that also concentrates the mind. When you survive a massacre at Virginia Tech, it concentrates the mind. As I lay there, I realized how much of my life focused on trivial things. Trust me, during those seven hours I did not think about how many books I had sold, or what kind of car I drove (it was being towed to a junkyard anyway) or how much money I had in my bank account. All that mattered boiled down to a few basic questions. Who do I love? Who will I miss? What have I done with my life? Am I ready for what’s next? Ever since that day, I’ve tried to live with those questions more at the forefront.

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I would like to promise you a long life and a pain-free life, but I cannot do so. God has not made that guarantee and not even Jesus was granted those favors. Rather, the Christian view of the world reduces to a simple formula. The world is good. The world is fallen. The world will be redeemed. Creation, Fall, Redemption—that’s the Christian story in a nutshell.

You know that the world is good. Look around you at the glories of spring in the hills of Virginia. Look around you at the friends you love. Though still overwhelmed with sorrow just now, you will learn to laugh again, to play again, to hike up mountains and kayak down their streams, to love, to rear children. Yes, the world is good.

You know, too, that the world is fallen. Here at Virginia Tech in April of 2007 you know that as acutely as anyone on earth. The author and Nobel laureate E1ie Wiesel had a conversation with a renowned rabbi and asked him the question that had long been haunting him, “Rabbi, how can you believe in God after Auschwitz?” The rabbi stayed silent for a long moment then replied in a barely audible voice, “How can you not believe in God after Auschwitz?” The shootings here on campus, as well as the mega-evils like Auschwitz, show what humanity on its own can produce. “Apart from God, what was there in the world darkened by Auschwitz?” asks Wiesel.

The final chapter of the Christian story asks us to trust that the world will be redeemed. This is not the world God wants or is satisfied with. God has promised a time when evil will be defeated, when events like the shootings of Amish children at Nickel Mines and of students at Columbine and Virginia Tech will come to an abrupt and stunning end. More, God has promised that even the scars we accumulate on this fallen planet will be redeemed, as Jesus bodily demonstrated to Thomas.

After my own accident I heard immediately from Joni Eareckson Tada, whom I first met almost forty years ago, shortly after the accident that left her paralyzed. “Not knowing how seriously you were injured, we put you on our special quadriplegic prayer list,” she wrote. I felt in good company. For a few hours I had contemplated life as a quadriplegic, and I now marvel at the triumphant way, though not without agony, in which Joni and others have redeemed disability. The sufferings of Jesus show us that pain comes to us not as punishment but rather as a testing ground for faith that transcends pain. In truth, pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed.

I once shared a small group with a Christian leader whose name you would likely recognize. He went through a very hard time as his teenage kids got into trouble, bringing him sleepless nights and expansive legal bills. To make matters worse, my friend himself was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Nothing in his life seemed to work out. “I have no problem believing in a good God,” he said to us one night “My question is, What is God good for?” We listened to his complaints and suggested various answers, but he batted them away like pesky insects.

A few weeks later I came across a phrase buried on page 300­something in a book by Dallas Willard. It read, “Nothing irredeem­able has happened or can happen to us on our way to our destiny in God’s full world.” I went back to my friend. What about that? I asked. Is God good for that promise—that nothing is Irredeemable? “Maybe so,” he answered wistfully. “Maybe even this can be redeemed.”

I would like to promise you an end to pain and grief, a guarantee that you will never again hurt as you hurt now. More than anything, I wish I could make that promise. Alas, I cannot. I can, however, stand behind the promise that the apostle Paul makes in Romans 8, that all things can be redeemed, can work together for our good. Later in that chapter Paul spells out some of the things he has encountered in life, including illness, beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck, and kidnapping. As Paul looks back, he can see that against all odds God has redeemed even those crisis events.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us,” Paul concludes. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Terrible things will happen on this planet, yet we have access to a “peace that passes understanding” that can calm both heart and mind in the midst of tragedy. God’s love is the foundational truth of the universe, and I pray that you do not let your grief obscure that fact.

Ten days before the shootings on this campus, Christians around the world remembered the darkest day of all human history, a day in which evil human beings violently rose up against God’s own Son and murdered the only truly innocent human being who has ever lived. We remember that day not as Dark Friday, Tragic Friday, Disaster Friday—no, we commemorate Good Friday. That awful day made possible the salvation of the world and also Easter, an echo in advance of God’s bright promise to make all things new.

Rather than offering false optimism, I hold before you the high challenge of trusting a God who can redeem what now seems irre­deemable. Bruno Bettelheim, another survivor of the Holocaust, describes three different responses he observed among his fellow inmates. Some simply felt debilitated. A second group put up a shield of denial, attempting to resume life as before. The third, most healthy group sought instead to reintegrate with life, incorporating into their “different normal” state lessons they had learned from the camps.

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Once at a book signing a man came up to me and said, “You wrote a book called Where Is God When It Hurts?, right?” Yes. Well, I don’t have much time to read. Can you just answer that question for me in a sentence or two.” (As an author, you love people like that.) I thought for a minute and said, “I guess I’d have to answer that with another question, `Where is the church when it hurts?”‘

Here is where you the students of Virginia Tech come in. Whether you like it or not, the eyes of the world are trained on this campus. You’ve seen the satellite trucks parked around town, the reporters prowling the grounds of your school. You’ve seen your own pastors and this very church featured on CNN. What happened here was so horrible that for many of us everything else stopped. When a disaster happens—Columbine, 9/11, a tsunami or an earthquake, a rampage on a College campus—time slows down. The moment exposes our shallow, celebrity-obsessed, entertainment culture and forces us all to face what matters most. I went on the university Web site and read some of the spontaneous comments that poured in, thirty-eight pages full of e-mails on April 16 alone. The world is watching us here today.

Last fall I visited Amish country in Pennsylvania very near the site of the Nickel Mines school shootings. Just as happened here, reporters from many countries swarmed the hills looking for an angle. They came to report on evil and instead ended up reporting on the church. To the media’s surprise the Amish were not asking, “Where is God when it hurts?” They knew where God was. With their long history of persecution, the Amish were not for an instant surprised by another horrifying outbreak of evil. They rallied around, ministered to one another, and even embraced the killer’s family. In sum they healed wounds by relying on a sense of community that had solidified over centuries. The world took notice. One college professor told me he had identified two thousand four hundred articles from around the world that focused on the response of the Amish people, especially on the theme of forgiveness for the killer.

From what I have seen, something similar has taken place among you in Blacksburg. I heard the president of South Korea say that if an American had done something like this in his country, hundreds of thousands of angry protestors would be marching in the streets. Nothing like that has happened on this campus. You have shown outrage against the evil deed, yes, but sympathy and sadness for the family of the one who committed it. As, I strolled among the memorials that have sprung up like wildflowers across this campus, I found several for Seung-Hui Cho.

                   + + +

I flew in yesterday and will fly out today, accompanied by a family who survived the shootings at Columbine, an event with uncanny parallels to what you have endured. We will be available this afternoon to help you, as best as we can, process what no one your age or any age should have to process. Then we will leave, and you will remain. In a few days you’ll go to your homes and try to work out the long, slow process of redemption in a most personal way.

I ask you to honor the grief that you feel, a pain that results from your connection to those who died, your friends and classmates and professors. Grief proves love. The pain will dull over time, but will never fully disappear.

Cling to the hope that nothing that happens, not even this terrible tragedy, is irredeemable. We serve a God who has vowed to make all things new. J. R. R. Tolkien once spoke of “Joy beyond the walls of the world more poignant than grief.” You know well the poignancy of grief. As healing progresses, may you know too that joy, a foretaste of a world redeemed.

Finally, do not attempt healing alone. Rely on the people in this room, the staff of this church, other members of Christ’s body in your hometown. True healing, of deep connective tissue, takes place in community. Where is God when it hurts? Where God’s people are. Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and now on earth the Messiah takes form in the shape of the church. That’s what the body of Christ means.

I close with a kind of benediction, from 2 Corinthians 1: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”

May you students, parents, staff, administrators, pastors, townsfolk—you Hokies—know that God of all comfort, and let that transforming knowledge overflow to others. [16-35]

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