I will always remember the summer of 2014 as one bookended by two tragedies that struck close to home. The first happened on the evening of May 30. As 17-year-old Mark Rodriguez was driving home from his Christian school’s graduation, he was shot and killed by a madman firing randomly. The madman then killed a police officer and wounded another before being shot and killed himself. That terrible evening in Norfolk, Virginia, seemed particularly tragic for Rodriguez, the son of a pastor and Christian counselor.
What’s amazed me in the wake of that tragedy is watching the way Jesus has shone so brilliantly through that young man’s life, testified to by his parents as well as his own writings and photography on his blog, most notably a post on heaven. As his parents grieved in the days after his death, they graciously accepted interviews during which they spoke of their clear hope in the resurrection:
Our son is not dead; he’s alive, and we believe we will see him again. Mark wanted nothing more than to be a worship leader. And you know what? He got exactly what he wanted.
As I sat and watched his family and the local Christian community grieve, find hope, and paint a picture of a young man wholeheartedly devoted to Jesus, I asked myself two questions.
First, how could I live a life like Mark’s—completely surrendered, longing for Jesus, true through and through—so that those who know me best could say, as his mom did upon reading his journal, “This person was even better than you thought [s]he was. Not because of [her] goodness, but because of [her] Savior to whom [s]he was surrendered”?
Second, when I’m cut, will I bleed gospel like Mark’s parents Carlos and Leigh Ellen did? Their interviews were compelling because of the gospel that flowed out through their pain. They showed that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection anchored their hope.
I follow Mark’s parents to find comfort in the God who hates death and sin and brokenness. He hates it so much that he allowed his only Son to be murdered so that the curse would be defeated and we would know that holy love wins through an empty tomb. In the very midst of the broken and the tragic, this hope frees a community to grieve, knowing there is joy to come.
Just two months later, on the afternoon of July 23, tragedy struck even closer to home with the murder-suicide of a mother and daughter from my church community. Only a broken and shocked father and 11-year-old daughter survived. How does life go on? Can it? My husband, a pastor, and I were asked to stand on the front lines with the hurting. We accepted the call to walk onto that sacred ground of deep, life-shattering grief. We witnessed and supported both father and daughter as he recounted to her the news she couldn’t possibly grasp. No wonder, for it’s something we adults cannot wrap our minds around either, even we who have been formally and informally trained to walk alongside the suffering and broken in the dark valleys of the shadow of death. How do we walk and not fear evil? We only do so by keeping a steady view of the Good Shepherd who not only walks alongside us, but who has walked through the darkest places ahead of us and for us. He endured the depths of hell, experiencing the abandonment of his Father—even his predestined murder—so that we who walk in the shadow of tragedy would never be abandoned. The Suffering Servant, the intercessor familiar with grief and well-acquainted with sorrows, goes ahead of us so that we can know he is always with us.
And Jesus was there, in that worst of moments, as this father shared the worst of news with his bewildered and brokenhearted daughter, telling her that her mother and sister were dead. As they wept, the father preached the most powerful sermon I’ve ever heard. Through wracking sobs, he said: “Remember, we are Easter people. . . . We live on this side of the resurrection.” It was a holy moment, for I saw into the depths of sorrow unimaginable and also the equally undeniable presence of a God who is there, who is always there, and who will be there as this family and our church continues to weep and mourn. It’s the only way any of us can expect to carry on and jump back into a routine that feels forever altered by the intrusion of tragedy.
Tragedy does not—cannot—leave those who witness it the same. Life returns to “normal,” for it must, but for us touched by tragedy (and who isn’t in a broken world?), we will be changed forever. We will either become bitter, unbelieving, despairing people, or we will become those who hope against hope in the reality of a God who brings life after and out of death. Truth be told, we will be both on different days. I’ve been angry, confused, and overcome by the paralysis of a grief that cannot ever be “processed” properly.
I’ve had days of sadness, days I wished for cleansing tears of sorrow. And I’ve had moments with my Savior when he’s met me with his Word and given me exactly what my heart was desperately searching for—not answers but presence, comfort, hope, and life.
“For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isa. 49:13).