A couple of weeks ago our nation experienced another mass shooting. This shooting was different, in that the shooter had victims lie on the floor and then asked them to stand up one at a time. When one stood, he asked if he or she was a Christian. If the answer was yes, he shot to kill; if the answer was no, he shot to injure. It reminded me a little of the shooter in Columbine High School who also had asked his victims if they were believers, shooting them when they said yes.
As I viewed the news stories about Umpqua, my heart hurt because a small community suffered so many losses and it will hurt for years to come. I also grieved because those who were present that day suffered a horrible trauma and trauma forever changes the lives of those who experience it. Many people will have to work way harder at living because of one person's hate-filled actions.
I found myself contemplating many things that day--What drives a person to hate believers enough to shoot them? What gives people the courage to say, "Yes," when it will cost them their life? How will those who denied their faith deal with their shame? And how do I deal with this seizing fear that wells up in my own heart as I think of those I love possibly dying because of their faith?
There is and will continue to be a lot written about the psychology behind mass shooters by people way more qualified than I to write on that topic. I find myself drawn to write about the questions I have been pondering, but I do so with fear and trepidation because when lives are lost for the sake of Christ, I feel like I am standing on Holy ground and want to write in a way that honors God, honors those that were martyred, and honors those who suffered tremendous loss.
First the hatred people feel towards believers goes way back. The Bible is full of accounts of hatred, first, towards Israel and then towards Christians. Some who hate believers may have cause for their anger--some may have been spiritually abused by legalistic people who covered their own shame by shaming them. Some may have been victimized by believers who judged and shamed them for their sin, rather than showing them God's grace. Some may have been sexually, psychologically, emotionally, or physically victimized by someone claiming to be a Christian while church leadership remained passive in the face of their pain. Maybe they had the gospel forcefully crammed down their throats with out experiencing Christ's love through those bearing the message. Maybe they were simply overlooked and ignored and treated as invisible individuals, not worthy of acknowledgement.
On the other hand, maybe they hate believers because we remind them of the God-hunger etched in their hearts by the Creator. Maybe, that hunger is what triggers shame that they cover with anger and hatred. Maybe that shame was inflicted on them by others or maybe they donned it themselves by the choices they made, choices they regret and can't undo. Maybe they hate believers because their shame runs so deep they can't face the pain of it long enough to look into the loving face of the Savior who frees humans from the shame they bear. Maybe they hate believers because they see something in them they desperately want, but are afraid to seek. Maybe they hate believers because giving up the pride of trying to control life is too scary. Maybe they hate believers because admitting they need a Savior feels too vulnerable and unsafe. Maybe believers lives expose the darkness in their own souls and they hate that. So, they hide, they blame, they hate, and they murder.
There was also the very real possibility that the shooters hatred was fueled by the Enemy who is ever seeking to devour, destroy, and demolish God's people. Unresolved issues in people's lives leave them open to all sorts of demonic influences that distort the thinking, causing destructive thoughts, destructive patterns of behavior, and the making of ungodly vows that drive hateful behavior. Those distorted perceptions blind people to the Truth.
When I think of the courage it took for the students at Umpqua to stand and say, "Yes," I feel humbled. I thought of a guy I was interested in during my sophomore year in college. He asked me if I was a Christian. I admitted that I was, but I played down the importance of my faith, because I feared he would reject me. The guilt and shame I experienced afterward have helped me stand firmer in my faith since that time. But here were students the same age as I was who were staring down the barrel of a gun when they were asked the same question and they did not waver. When the first person was shot for saying yes, I think it would have required even more courage for the second person to say yes, and then the third, and then the fourth...
When I think about what gave them the courage they displayed, my thoughts are drawn to Stephen who was also martyred for his faith. In Acts 6 Stephen was described as a man who was full of grace and power. He was known for speaking with wisdom and for having a bold Spirit that offended nonbelievers who were in rebellion against God. Acts 7 tells us those nonbelievers responded to Stephen's last sermon by becoming enraged to the point that they were gnashing their teeth at him and they immediately dragged him out of the city where they stoned him. But the Lord graciously gave Stephen a vision of the Jesus standing at the right hand of God. As they stoned him he commended his spirit to Christ and then in a gracious act cried out for mercy to be shown to the crowd. That same Spirit that indwelled Stephen indwelled the believers who stood firm in their faith at Umpqua. I wonder if God gave them the same vision?
The Bible says the death of the saints in precious in the sight of the Lord (Psalm 116:15). It says that the spirit who is behind the martyrdom of believers will ultimately and completely be destroyed (Revelation 17)! The believers who were killed in Umpqua join a great cloud of witnesses found in Hebrews 11:35-38. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release so they could rise to a better life. Some suffered mocking, beatings, imprisonment, and death by stoning, sword, being sawn in two, and we could add guns. Some lived destitute. Some were afflicted. Some were mistreated. And God said of them that the world was not worthy to have them.
I also believe the precious Saints at Umpqua are with those mentioned in Revelation 6:9-11. John saw them in His vision when the fifth seal was opened and he wrote, "I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been." (ESV) God will honor both their faith and their deaths. The last part of that passage seizes this grandma heart of mine. It indicates there will be more deaths of believers who bear witness of Jesus. It could be me or you or those we love.
A part of me prays for my loved ones' protection, and another part of me prays that God will instill in them and in me a faith so strong we could stand firm and say, "Yes!" even while looking down the barrel of gun.
The faith of martyrs in precious to God. It stands in the Faith Hall of Fame with-- the faith of Abel and his acceptable sacrifice, the faith of Enoch who never saw death, the faith of Noah and his life-saving ark, the faith of the nomadic Abram, the faith of Sarah and little "Laughter" who suckled her post-menopausal breast, the faith of Isaac and blessings he spoke over Jacob and Esau, the faith of Joseph and his bones returned to Israel to wait for the resurrection, the faith of Moses and the first born Hebrew children who escaped death by keeping the first Passover, and the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets all of which conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped mouths of lions, quenched power of fire, escaped death, or became made mighty warriors despite plaguing weaknesses, and the women who received back their dead by resurrection.
It remains a mystery why one's faith results in a miracle and another's faith results in death. But we know God notices faith. He saw the martyrs Umpqua and He cared. By their testimony they showed that God is real, that God saves, and that this life is not all there is. The enemy would have us believe he won that day and that their deaths prove that God doesn't care. But, the truth is because of their faith the enemy has lost yet another battle in the war he has waged on God.
I will be praying for those who lost sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, teachers, or friends. I long for God to fill them with His peace and His love. I long for Him to make His presence very real as they grieve their losses--the loss of people, the loss of a sense of safety, the loss of future holidays, graduations, weddings, children and grandchildren. I pray that they would be able to work through their anger and fully forgive, not because the shooter deserves it, but because they want to honor the faith of their loved ones and the God of which they testified. I pray that in spite of the deep pain they experience they will be able to eventually reconnect to joy. I pray they will be surrounded by people who understand grief, who won't rush them or speak wounding platitudes to them.
I wonder if there might be victims who denied their faith to preserve their lives. I fear that if there were some, they might bear much shame. Some will say they could not have been "real" believers because they denied the faith, but I suggest that Peter's story tells us something very different. He denied Christ three times in one night and the Lord Himself sought him out and restored his calling. If some denied Him, I pray their faith would be strengthened and their shame transformed. We can all learn from their stories just like we learn from Peter's. God can use this event to strengthen their faith--just as He used Peter's cowardice to help him become a humble preacher who went on to preach some of the most powerful sermons ever voiced in the face of great adversity. Our God never gives up on His children.
Finally, I pray for us who believe and still live--that we would be strengthened by the testimony of the witnesses in Umpqua whose testimonies included the giving of their lives--that we might live with hearts fully devoted to Christ. I desire for others to see our "Yes!" by our words, by our actions, by our attitudes, by our lives, by our deaths, and by our loving obedience to Jesus, who gave His own life for us.
Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!