I still remember the sense of shock and awkwardness I felt forty years ago in my first official duty of helping a church family deal with tragedy and loss. I was preaching at Drakesboro Church of Christ in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Herb was my age, with a wife and baby. We’d gone to school together for one year as freshmen at Sturgis Junior High in Union County. He was a cheerful, friendly fellow, well-liked as a kid and as a young adult. He worked as an electrician in the coal mines.
One day, he got confused about whether or not he’d shut off the power on a 600-Volt line. He started back to the breaker box to check, snapped his fingers and said, “No, I already shut that breaker off.” He went back to where he was working and cut into the line. His confusion killed him; the power had not been shut off and he was electrocuted as soon as he cut into the line.
What do you say to grieving parents and sister? What do you tell a twenty-two-year-old woman with a baby that she will now raise alone? What comfort do you bring?
Over the space of the next forty years, I continued to deal with similar questions in a variety of situations that all shared one commonality: the death of a loved one. In some cases, the death was a blessing, the release of a soul imprisoned in an aged body racked with pain and agony. In some, it was sheer tragedy: for instance, a young man whose ultra-light plane crashed in the backyard and view of his parents. To lesser degree, a man who’d talked fondly of retirement for several years and died of a heart attack less than three months after his retiring.
Many of those who passed on were more than casual acquaintance, some were close friends. A few times, I tried to help others deal with the aftermath of suicide by loved ones. I was sometimes called on to do funerals for people I’d never met.
In all of those situations, I tried to honor the memory of the deceased and ease the pain of those who grieved them. This week, I will try once again, though in completely unfamiliar territory: death by murder.
As always, I feel keenly the sense of inadequacy, though more deeply in this case. I cannot trace out the finer good in this, no notion of sparing, no sense of higher purpose. All I can see at this point is the brutal impact of an ex-husband’s vengeance, the stupidity of hatred. The confessed shooter will likely spend most, if not all, of the rest of his life in prison. His own wife and his family are already scarred by his actions. His own young children will know, for the rest of their lives, that their father tried to kill their mother, leaving her bleeding and disfigured in her own home and her boyfriend dead.
How do I make all of that make sense to those who loved Andrew and who love Amanda and her children?
In the end, it has never been my primary purpose to make sense of the particular timing of loss and death. That is often a fool’s game, I think, and doesn’t really do that much to make grieving people feel better about things. It’s not lack of faith on my part; I absolutely believe that God is at work in all things for those who love him.
Rather than trying to convince Andrew’s mother and father, his sister, his friends, his relatives that this is what God desired for him and them, I will try to honor the memory of this gentle giant, point out to them what a great number of people share their sorrow and care about their grief and pain. I will pray fervently that none of us give in to wrath and vengeance, bitterness and hatred.
In my own inadequacy, I will count upon that far greater Strength and Wisdom upon which I have always relied. I will pray and believe that God’s Holy Spirit will continue to minister the comfort and consolation that I have witnessed again and again over the six decades of my life thus far. Even to people who don’t believe in that ministry.