The day after a gunman joined praying members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before gunning them down in a shocking act of racist hate, Sen. James Lankford and Senate Chaplain Berry Black Gathered on Capitol Hill with congressional members, aids and friends to pray for family members of the murdered. As the week unfolded, multitudes of similar prayer gatherings were held across the nation. In light of such a great and tragic loss of life, such prayer is required and should be encouraged.
However, the fact that the murders in Charleston happened in the midst of prayer raises significant moral questions. How do we make sense of the fact that people who trust in Christ as Lord were brutally killed immediately after approaching the throne of grace with petition and praise? How are we to explain mothers, fathers and friends praying with a brutal traitor who intended to turn their prayer into a blood bath?
Tragedy After Tragedy
In 1993, my wife, my four children and I moved to the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa. On July 25th, I was in Cape Town, giving a series of lectures at the Bible Institute of South Africa.
Within a couple of hours of my arrival, a friend of my host called with the horrible news that a massacre had occurred at a nearby church. During the evening worship service of this multi-ethnic congregation, four men armed with M26 hand grenades and assault rifles attacked the worshipers, killing eleven and injuring 58 others. Some of the survivors were my students who later shared the details of the assault: A church full of worshipers intent on honoring God. Congregants injured by rapid gunfire and exploding grenades.
As a consequence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the attackers—some of whom were arrested, tried and convicted—were not required to serve time. It is true that South Africa and its path to democracy is complicated. But when a worshiping body is met with such cold-blooded murder, the temptation to cynicism is hard to resist. How do we explain the contradiction of people being attacked while engaging in peaceful faith activity?
Two and a half years after the St. James Massacre, we lived in the northwest side Oklahoma City. On the morning of April 19, 1995 after dropping my children off at school, I drove through the city center, considered attending a prayer breakfast that was being held there and decided against it. Not long after returning home, I heard the incredible blast that destroyed the Murrah building blocks from where I had just driven.
I was a safe distance from the explosion, but that wasn’t true for everyone.
Capt. Michael R. “Randy” Norfleet was the Marine Recruitment Officer in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He had served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield as a Marine pilot. He also had been deployed to NATO exercises in South America and Africa. Randy, his wife and his two children were members of the First Baptist Church of Stillwater.
Since networking was an important part of his job, Randy decided to attend the Oklahoma City Metro Prayer Breakfast, which started at 6:30 am. He woke up at 4:30, kissed his pregnant wife goodbye and made the hour-plus drive to the Myriad Convention Center where the gathering of some 1,200 attendees would take place.
The annual breakfast includes leaders from both the city and state government along with many others from the business and education communities. It is an occasion for prayer and Scripture reading with a keynote speaker who challenges the listeners with the significances of trusting Christ. Immediately after the closing prayer, he decided to stop by the Recruiting Station located in the Murrah Federal Building. He wanted to see his commander and pick up any packages or paperwork waiting for him. Counting himself lucky, he found a parking spot in front of a big yellow moving truck parked in a loading zone.
He recounted later that it seemed odd to him that the driver of the Ryder truck ran across the street instead of going into the building, but ran across the street.
After parking directly in front of the truck, Norfleet headed into the Murrah Building and took the elevator to the sixth floor. A few minutes later, the 5,000 pound fertilizer bomb detonated and the Federal Building was reduced to a pile of ruins.
Severely injured, with a large piece of glass lodged in his forehead and right eye, somehow he was able to make his way to the back of the building and down the stairs where he was taken to St. Anthony’s Hospital, but the death toll reached 168 with another 800 severely injured. People lost limbs, lost sight, and will suffer physically and emotionally for the rest of their lives.
How do we make sense of this kind of tragedy?
Many of the people of South Carolina are deeply oriented in the historic truths of Christianity. These are people who believe in the importance of prayer, with a belief rooted in the Old and New Testament of the God of the universe. Meeting for Bible study and prayer was nothing unusual for the ten men and women whose humble prayer was rewarded with an act of mass murder on June 17, 2015.
How are we to understand the significance of this?
Looking for Sense After Betrayal
Twelve hours earlier, 140 people gathered in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., for the Seventh Annual South Carolina Prayer Breakfast. The crowd was made up of Senate and House members, their staffers, and many others from the state. I had worked with the congressional staffers to plan the details of this event, including basing its theme upon Isaiah 61:1-3. As you entered the breakfast that morning you were greeted with the following words:
For many, the picture of people from South Carolina reading Scripture and praying for the health and well-being of their state will seem foolish when it is answered with a betrayer taking the lives of nine believers. Why should these betrayed people think there is any value in prayer or in any part of their faith? Christians in worship and prayer being met with horrific tragedy is not unheard of. It happens, but why? How are we to make sense of it?
I am not sure I know the answer. What I do know is that 2,000 years ago, thirteen men gathered for fellowship and worship in a upper room in Palestine, just before one of the welcomed friends betraying the group’s leader. Within hours, the one deceived was sentenced to death and brutally executed.
I think the answer is found in that passage from Isaiah.
CONFUSION, PAIN AND DESPAIR
We live in a broken world that is in turmoil and needs healing. That’s why Christ accepted the betrayal and its consequence. Through his bold humility and suffering, we can have true freedom from all that this fallen world will give. The circumstances met by those in Cape Town, Oklahoma City, and recently in Charleston, are confusing and seem senseless. Yet the gospel leaves us with more than just confusion, pain and despair.
Confusion and pain are to be expected. Paul reminds us that we live in a world that is engulfed in spiritual warfare. Scheming and violence impact Christians and non-Christians alike. Tension seeps into every facet of life, leaving physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. In some cases, our intense discomfort is a direct result of our rebellion against our Lord. In other cases, it may be the consequence of the rebellion and hate of others.
But our suffering and pain could also have nothing to do with waywardness. It can also be part of God’s sovereign purposes of redemption. This is very much at the heart of what the writer of Hebrews meant when he said, “Consider him (Jesus) who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:3)
By focusing on Christ and his intense suffering, we are reminded by our own suffering that we belong to one who is both “author” and “perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
No one knows pain like Christ. His ministry of comfort is for those who seek it so that they can be in a better position to provide ministry to others who are in need ( 2 Corinthians 1). Regardless of the circumstances, God’s gracious purposes are always being worked out.
WHAT COMES NEXT
It is worth noting what took place after the horrific events in Cape Town, Oklahoma City and Charleston: Not just gatherings to corporately grieve, but gatherings to corporately worship. The survivors, their family and friends, came together, seeking the suffering servant (Isaiah 53), acknowledging his sovereign grace and receiving his comfort. They extended forgiveness and expressed a desire for reconciliation. And those who were being transformed by the risen Savior also expressed the desire to see him receive the glory.
I suspect that for many, the picture of worshipers praying before and after a horrific event is bewildering. The picture of those people praying is not a picture of confusion, but the reality of hope. It is the consequence of the gospel.
So, in the midst of these tragedies, we give our full attention not to our present suffering, but to the one who endured the cross. We remember his historic suffering for our benefit, and in this time of need we draw from his grace, which is given to us so that we can give it to others.