A day will come in the distant future when life at Virginia Tech will return to “normal.” But what if normal will never be the same again? Already the Church has been playing a role in the events this week in Blacksburg. There have been memorials and vigils. The funerals are soon to follow. But what can the Church uniquely provide in these and the coming days? I’d like to suggest at least three contributions of the Church during times of crisis.
Only the Church can pray all that is on God’s heart. Surely people in Norris Hall were praying even as Cho Seung-Hui was in the building shooting innocent men and women. But there is ample evidence that the Holy Spirit moves others to pray at vital moments, even before the public is aware of the need. I believe that before Cho ended the violence by taking his own life, the prayers of God’s people were making a real difference. The power of these prayers may never come to light on earth: a faculty member finding courage and strength to resist the gunman; students who kept their wits and found safe exit or hiding—these can be the results of prayer that will not be known this side of heaven.
Prayer also gives strength to others after the fact. Part of the mission of the church is to intercede for others, especially in times of crisis. The Washington Post missed the point when they titled one video report “Finding Solace in Prayer.” The believers who gathered at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to pray were not praying for themselves, or to “find solace,” but in order to ask for strength for others. Victims, family, police and school administrators have need of what only the Church can truly give: prayer to the true God who comforts and guides those in need.
The need for presence is so obvious that we could be tempted to see this as the Church’s only role during times of crisis. Parents and friends streamed into Blacksburg to simply be with those who are suffering. That’s the root meaning of compassion, to suffer with someone else. No one should suffer alone. But the Church will be uniquely equipped to provide a comforting presence in at least two ways:
The people of God bear His presence into such a situation. There is human comfort, and then there is divinely inspired comfort. The comfort of the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the arms of God’s people as they hold others, in the tears of believers who will cry alongside of those who are crying, in the ears of Christians who have the good sense to listen to those who simply need to spill out words. In one sense, anyone can be present, Christian or non-Christian. But there is a spiritual reality that only God’s people can bring the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, in a way no one else can. Foolish Christians will try to engage the horror of this massacre intellectually, but as Michael Card has observed, “the answer to lament is not reason, but presence.”
Second, the people of God, through the Church, will cause the presence of God to remain in Blacksburg. Right now the whole world is present: investigators, journalists and broadcast media. The day will come when media and police will eventually pack up their gear and leave. The attention of the nation will turn elsewhere. But the Church will remain. Day after day, week after week, for months and even years, the Church will maintain. And if the churches of Blacksburg are wise, they will engage in the ministry of remembrance through humble service to those at Virginia Tech, remaining constant in prayer and even through preaching the gospel. The gospel can remind us of the ultimate reality that life is fragile, our lives are short and that each of us will meet a merciful and righteous Judge at the end of our days.
This is a dangerous thing. When Job suffered misfortune through no fault of his own, his friends thought that their counsel gave perspective. They were wrong. The religious mind always seems to be in a hurry to “explain” the most difficult questions of life. We are frequently wrong, because even the wisest among us do not have God’s perspective on specific events. How could we? Who knows all the individual factors that combined to create that horrific Monday? But the Church does have God’s perspective on the most important questions everyone must face: Who is God? Who am I? Why was I created? What is my destiny?
C.S. Lewis once remarked that events such as World War II (or the Virginia Tech shootings?) served to draw us back to the most basic and ultimate issues—life and death, eternal destiny and our relationship to the Creator. Gone are issues of career, ambition or power: this very day my life may be required of me. It does not matter if I am 20 years old or 80. If we are wise and gentle, here is where the Church can give a gift of perspective. Part of the gospel is a call to proclaim what matters most in life, namely a relationship with our True Father. Whether the residents of Blacksburg know it now, this question will find its way into their hearts in the coming months and years. Norris Hall will ask the question every time a student walks by.