Ways of Thinking About Tragedy

Sunday will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. No resident of this town can forget where they were at the moment this awful event occurred. 168 people lost their lives, 19 of the little children. Over 500 people were injured. 30 children were orphaned. 219 were left with one parent.

For the last several months, local media have been offering daily tributes to those who were killed and injured, to firefighters, police, volunteers, to doctors, nurses, and EMTs, and to community leaders.

Friends of mine, Dr. Charles and Jean Hurlburt, respected members of the medical community, died in the blast. Another friend, Robin Jones, wrote a book, Where Was God at 9:02 A. M.? published by Thomas Nelson. The Rev. Billy Graham and President Bill Clinton spoke in a memorial service attended by thousands a week after the bombing.

The perpetrators, convicted on multiple counts of murder and conspiracy, were Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. This was considered to be the worst act of domestic terrorism on American soil before 9/11, and it was carried out by American citizens.

In remembrance, I have been re-reading the commemorative volume, In Their Name, commissioned by Governor and Mrs. Frank Keating. It has reminded me of the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament. Lamentations were written to mourn one of the most wrenching tragedies in the history of Israel, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army.

The author was an eyewitness to the slaughter of civilians and soldiers, the destruction of the city walls, the mass deportation of survivors, and the desecration and destruction of the Temple of the Lord, built by King Solomon. Into his writings he poured his personal anguish, describing the depth of his nation’s suffering. Tradition tells us the book was written by Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet.”

The author was inspired to write a dark epic poem that Christopher Wright has called, “the powerful poetry of grief.” It gives us ways to think about tragedy. It is well suited for what our nation is confronting now as we face the deaths of thousands of our fellow-citizens and the sufferings of thousands more in the Coronavirus plague. Here are some lessons learned from reading Lamentations.

1. Express your grief. The author of Lamentations described the horrors he had witnessed. He did not hold back. He told us how he felt about the tragedies he had seen. He complained to God, who in judgment on his people Israel, was letting them bear the consequences for their sins. He said he felt cut off from God (3:8).

2. Confess your sins. Confession is always appropriate. This is especially true in times of trouble. Tragedy has a way of turning our attention from the trivial to the eternal. As we seek God (3:25), we discover the need to examine ourselves (3:40), and honestly confess the ways we have offended him (3:37-42; 4:12-13; 5:7).

3. Recognize God’s sovereignty. The writer never gave the impression that the overthrow of Jerusalem was a meaningless accident of history. He did not imply that God was powerless to prevent it. Rather, he bluntly stated that God not only knew what was going to happen, He permitted it to happen. See if you don’t come to the same difficult conclusion as you read Lamentations 2:1-8, 2:17 and 4:11-17.

4. Remember God’s mercy. The centerpiece of the book is a profound declaration of God’s great faithfulness to his covenant people (3:22-23). This cuts like a laser through darkness and hopelessness. While his holiness requires letting sin’s consequences run their course, God’s love shines through. We are told that no matter what happens (3:38), God is good and his judgments are righteous (3:25). His love reaches us under the rubble.

5. Patiently wait for God. We should be careful about making glib pronouncements about matters beyond our understanding. Sometimes it is best to sit in silence and think about God (3:28). A time of waiting can teach us that God has a plan for our lives. That is why “we are not consumed” (3:22). It teaches us to examine ourselves and repent of our sins ((3:40). A time of patient waiting shows how the Lord rewards those who seek him (3:25; Hebrews 11:6).

On Sunday, April 19, I intend to read Lamentations again. I will think of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. I may do some lamenting of my own as I think about the thousands now who are dying in our nation and our world. I will pray for those who are suffering the effects of COVID-19 and for their families and caregivers.

And I will try to remember some of the lessons of Lamentations: to express grief and to ask God to give me greater empathy for others; to examine myself and confess my sins; to remember that though God does not take pleasure in the suffering of his people (3:33), he has a purpose in what he allows to happen, and his purposes are good. He has slowed me down. He has stymied the nation. Maybe one reason is so we will draw near to him (3:24).

Pastor Randy Faulkner