Like many others, I learned about yesterday’s tragedy at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs when I turned on the news after church. I had the privilege of preaching at the homecoming service at Tar Heel Baptist Church in Tar Heel, NC. It’s a wonderful church and God is doing a remarkable work through the ministry of Pastor Devon Varnum. The town of Tar Heel has a population of 117, but 250 were in attendance. Open-air services were held under a tent. The worship was enthusiastic and heartfelt. There was a baptism, great music, dinner on the grounds and fun games for the kids.
So when I saw the news bulletin that dozens were killed and dozens more shot at a church in Texas, the same thought crossed my mind that probably crossed yours as well: that could have been my church. One day, it might be my church.
One wishes that yesterday’s tragedy was unusual, but a cursory search of the headlines reveals that the opposite is true. Mass killings are far too common. Last week eight persons were killed in New York, and last month 58 were killed in Las Vegas. Even the fact that the shootings yesterday happened in a church is not that unusual. In 2015, nine were killed during a prayer service at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Just as disturbing: this is the third mass shooting to occur in recent years in a Texas Baptist church. In 1980, five were murdered at First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Texas; in 1999, seven were gunned down at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
In response, churches across the nation will no doubt explore options concerning improving security, but it is too early to predict the full extent of the repercussions. In the light of the new normal, changes must be made. But as we move forward, we Christians must not operate out of a spirit of fear. We can choose to trust God through days of evil and uncertainty — because God is still on his throne. Matthew 10:28 reminds us, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” And Deuteronomy 31:6 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
In June 2015, Dylann Roof faced sentencing for murdering nine parishioners at Emanuel Church in Charleston. As is now often the custom, those impacted by his crimes had to opportunity to speak. Remarkably, one after another, church members and family members forgave Roof. What a powerful witness for the gospel! In dark times, these men and women shared gospel light.
We have an eternal hope that the world desperately needs to hear. Dark times are an opportunity for the light of the gospel to shine even brighter through our lives of love and trust and forgiveness. May God comfort those who have so suddenly and tragically lost their loved ones. And may he use these difficult times to draw more lost souls into his kingdom of grace.
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