Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

I Don’t Know

On Tuesday, February 5, while many were voting in the Super Tuesday primaries, a series of killer tornadoes ripped through the south, killing at least 59 and wounding hundreds more.  In rural Macon County, Tennessee, 14 people were killed and many more left homeless.

Pastor_welchRev. Michael Welch, pastor of the Lafayette United Methodist Church mobilized his congregation to serve, opening the church as a family crisis center.  The pastor spoke several times to reporters on Wednesday about his desire to help the suffering. He went first thing in the morning to the command center to offer his services, and was quickly put to work, designating his church as the place where families with missing loved ones could gather and wait for word of their loved one’s fate.

The next day, the Lafayette congregation was mourning the loss of their pastor and his family.  Pastor Welch, his wife Julie, and their two daughters, Hannah and Jesse, were killed when a tractor trailer struck their van as it was stopped in congested traffic. Ironically, the truck that killed the Welch family was carrying donated relief supplies.

The 160-member congregation was looking forward to Sunday, when their pastor would help them grapple with the inevitable “why?” that arises when a tragedy strikes such as the killer tornadoes.  Instead, the pulpit was filled by a Methodist Conference official, and the LUMC family now also has to deal with the sudden loss of a beloved pastor and an outgoing, wonderful family.

Ruth Stafford, a part-time secretary at the church said, “We’re all just numb in disbelief. We want to wake up from this nightmare.”  She, too, was looking forward to Sunday’s worship.  “I felt like Michael had this all under control, and he would make everybody feel better on Sunday,” Stafford told a friend.  No one felt better on Sunday.

Mike Pennington, Director of Missions for the Bledsoe Baptist Association, talked to Pastor Welch about disaster relief efforts several times on Wednesday.  It’s hard for him to believe his friend and co-laborer is gone.  “It’s just heartache on top of heartache,” Pennington said.

What can you say when faced with such a senseless loss, especially one that is heaped on top of a already heartbreaking situation?  Surely this is a case where there are no words.  In John 11, Jesus was faced with the loss of his friend Lazarus and he wept.  He didn’t weep for Lazarus – He knew He was about to speak three words and Lazarus would be restored to life.  Jesus wept because He felt the pain, hurt and anguish of Mary, Martha, and those who loved Lazarus.

God’s word tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Sometimes we try to come up with words when there really are no words.  Only tears.

A few years ago, Fonda and I were asked to sing at the funeral of a small child who had died suddenly of SIDS.  We stood at the front of the church as the family came in.  The sight of the funeral director coming down the aisle carrying the tiny casket in his arms was devastating.  Seeing the anguish and despair on the faces of the parents was almost too much to bear.

What can you say in a situation like that? 

Ben Hatfield, our Pastor Emeritus, was asked to preach the service.  Everyone there had the same question on their hearts: Why?  I’ll never forget Ben’s words:  “There are times when the most loving, compassionate, wisest thing that you can say is ‘I don’t know.’  This is one of those times.”

I know we live in a world broken by sin, and natural disasters are a part of that brokenness.  But I don’t know why the lives of every student at Union University were spared and yet 59 other people died in the surrounding areas.  And I certainly don’t know why an already grieving congregation had it’s pastor taken from them so suddenly and so tragically.

But God does.  He sees the whole picture where we only see in part.  And, in the words of Spurgeon, where we cannot trace His hand, we can trust His heart.

The message on the church sign in front of Lafayette United Methodist Church this week says it well: “Our loss is heaven’s gain.  We will miss you, Pastor.”

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