Minister’s forum: A message of grace and hope
This past week I appreciated syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly’s opening paragraph on the school killings in Nickel Mines, Pa.
“The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape. Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany – about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives, chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge. Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?”
Some people say that religion is first of all about compassion, and I must respectively disagree. That may be true for those who see religions as merely a psycho-social phenomenon and think they can distill them all down to a lowest common denominator.
Christianity is first of all about God, and for those who will accept the fact that God has spoken, and has acted on behalf of His creation through Jesus Christ (the big word is atonement), it’s also about grace and hope, and a relationship with the living Lord and a life that reflects the character of God. Compassion is merely an effect!
What has so impressed me this week has been the message of grace and hope that has been expressed by this curious and often misunderstood community of Christians. I’m placing the surprisingly gracious Amish response and “hope” together this way because the amazing forgiveness and concern expressed by these victims toward the killer of their little girls – and Christ-compelled love (read “compassion” if you must) toward his family – come naturally from their hope in God and the eternal life they have through Christ.
They must forgive because they too have been forgiven. Along with every other Christian in the world, they too pray “Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others” – even killing our children. The Christians of Nickel Mines know that God desires justice, but also shows mercy and they believe that these are not contradictory things.
Whatever power hate and revenge might have had in the lives of these Christians has been cancelled out and rendered powerless by their willingness to put their own lives and the life of the killer back into God’s hands.
The sad life of the killer is a testament to the destructive power of guilt. We think of guilt like it’s got Velcro hooks that glom onto our fuzzy souls and we just can’t tear it off.
So we go through life making excuses. But guilt is what happens when the sin in our life goes unconfessed and we fail to receive or acknowledge God’s forgiveness – guilt is the fool’s burden. Often we hear in response to our prayers of confession that “God is faithful and just and will forgive our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”
Suicide notes are usually attempts to deal with deep guilt through explanation, but they don’t change anything. To lay hold of the forgiveness that God offers is the only means of removing guilt. Tragedies happen. Evil does its worst through willing hearts. However, we need to remember that goodness abounds. We’re horrified because, in part, there is so much good in the world. Evil is the aberration, not goodness.
Out of this tragedy the world has witnessed the human testament to the miracle of God’s grace. It cost God the Cross of Jesus Christ before He could forgive sin. God’s forgiveness and putting within us the disposition of Jesus Christ and drawing us into His fellowship awakens the deepest wells of gratitude in the human heart. The amazing spectacle of grace instead of hatred, of forgiveness instead of revenge, is the natural fruit of grateful lives.
While the non-believing world stands in awe and incredulity at the spectacle of forgiveness, those who claim Christ as Lord are reminded of the power of our certain “hope.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “Hope … means … a continual looking forward to the eternal world. … It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next. … It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
– Steve Blocher is pastor at Lake Tahoe Community Presbyterian Church.