when tragedy strikes, where is God?

I awoke to a clear blue sky sunny with the cheery light of early summer. I texted my friend, “What a beautiful day for your wedding!” We slowly woke up on this Saturday morning in June.

And then peace was shattered as I heard of a shooting from the evening prior that left a 17-year-old and a Norfolk police officer dead. What chilled me was both how close it happened to our home (ten minutes away), and that the boy who died, Mark Rodriguez, was the son of acquaintances – a fellow pastor and his counselor-wife, Carlos and Leigh Ellen. Carlos pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, a church planted by the church where my husband is one of the associate pastors. We’ve often prayed for the Rodriguez family and their young church. And now. How to process?

Empathy is helpful to me as a counselor, yet it also means I can feel the emotional impact of an event that does not personally affect me. And I can be weighed down by it. Such as a national tragedy or the nightly news. And this. Well, it’s shaken me. I wonder how on earth I would ever get through such a tragic loss as a parent. And I feel angry at a world in which a high school rising senior would be killed while driving home to make it in time for his 11:00pm curfew. How did his parents get the news? In an extended interview, Carlos talks about retracing his son’s route when his son did not get home in time despite a text to his mom saying he’d dropped off his friend and was headed straight home. He speaks of seeing the car, the ambulance, the police and sirens and flashing lights. He speaks of crying out, “Where is my son?!” And finally getting the answer from the detective, “He’s deceased.” Then of calling his wife … and their stunned disbelief. A car accident with some injuries is what he first thought – but this. It’s a thousand times worse. More tragic, more apparently senseless, more awful. To be randomly shot by a madman with a gun from inside his car. That’s losing your son to the very worst and most irreversible brokenness of this world: murder.

I went to the Christian school’s memorial service for Mark Rodriguez on Sunday afternoon (two days after his death) to be on hand as a grief counselor. I was, instead, counseled by many who are grieving with hope the life of a remarkable man. I saw a picture of a young man wise beyond his years, with the secret of this wisdom being no secret at all: it was the Lord to whom he was surrendered. The God he loved to lead others to worship. His mom said, “All he ever wanted to be was a worship leader,” and fellow students spoke of his joyful (even goofy at times) way of leading them in worship. His mom, Leigh Ellen, spoke of his blog post about heaven – his last one, written less than two months before he died. She talked about his journal that revealed someone “even better than who we thought he was. The Mark you remember is the real deal.” For the mother of a teenager to speak these words – that alone communicates volumes as to the character and integrity of Mark Rodriguez. I was comforted to hear both parents hold in tension the reality of grieving their son’s death (no minimizing or denying this reality) with a deeper seated hope in resurrection life. His father, Carlos, said that there is no question that Mark is alive and with the Savior he loved. They even asked this Christian community to reach out to the family of the shooter, to offer comfort for their grief. They hold no malice (although I am sure there are questions) because they are resting in God’s sovereign goodness over every detail of their son’s life. Psalm 139 that speaks of every day ordained for us before our lives start – this is how a parent can say, “Mark got exactly what he wanted – to be with the God he loved so much. God took our son home, and he did not live one minute shorter than he was supposed to.”

It raises the question for me – well, so many questions actually. There are the typical ones about why and how come and this is not fair. But the questions I want to live with moving forward are these:

(1)  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, “She was even better than you thought she was. Not because of her goodness, but because of her Savior to whom she was surrendered.”?

(2)  When I am cut, will I bleed gospel like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? For that’s what’s so poignant. It is the gospel flowing out in their pain that is so compelling. But don’t take my word for it. Watch their interviews here. It is worth every bit of the 20 minutes for all four parts.

How can I live like Mark? And grieve like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? Through drinking deeply of the gospel. A gospel that shows that God’s in the very middle of the tragedy. He is the God who’s not only sovereign in it, but faithful through it. He is the God intimately acquainted with grief. The God who knows what it is to lose a son to senseless murder. For isn’t that the story of the cross? He is the God who hates death and sin and brokenness so much that he allowed Jesus to be murdered that death and sin and its brokenness might be reversed – eradicated – that love would win through an empty tomb and a stone rolled away. Resurrection. Life after death. Hope amidst tragedy that frees a community to grieve and laugh and hope again.