During the course of the last several years, a graduate of one of the district's high schools--the same school from which our two children graduated--was kidnapped by sectarians in Iraq and has been missing ever since; a middle school vice principal left her child in an SUV on a hot summer day, killing the child; and a beloved elementary principal inexplicably took her own life.
Although the West Clermont district is the nineteenth largest of Ohio's 600-plus school districts, the suburban Cincinnati area retains its rural sensibilities. These tragedies have had an impact on more than the households of district's 9100 students or the staff of its thirteen schools and its main office.
"I've seen you at numerous school functions and you preached at the community memorial service for Eileen Murphy [the principal who took her own life]," the reporter, Cindy Kranz, told me as we spoke by phone last week. "I wondered what you thought about how the district handled these tragedies." I told Kranz that I thought that the district's administration, under the leadership of Superintendent Gary Brooks had done a fantastic job in dealing with all of them, striking the proper balance between compassionate engagement and sufficient distance to allow the district to move on in the face of each tragedy.
Then, Kranz asked me, "I've always heard that God never gives you more than you can handle. But all of this seems like an awful lot for Dr. Brooks and the district to handle. What do you think?"
I told Kranz that I've never subscribed to the notion that God metes out tragedies for us to handle.
In fact, I don't believe that tragedies come from God. Those come from three sources, identified in The Small Catechism, the classic statement of faith which generations of Lutherans have studied, as "the devil, the world, and our sinful selves."
In fact, it's been my observation that the severest tests in life come to those who are closest to God. Because misery loves company, I believe that the devil and the world strive to tear us from God's hands. Because accepting God's forgiveness and new life entail surrender to Jesus Christ, I know that our sinful natures rebel at the thought and seek to do things to keep us from following God. Severe tests and tragedies often result from these realities.
One of the notable aspects of life in the West Clermont Local School District was its openness to the religious community. They afforded that community no special treatment. They accorded non-Christian persons respect and they would have been loathe to force Christianity down people's throats. (Several of its leaders, in fact, were members of religious groups not recognized by most Christians as being part of the universal Church.) But the district recognized the desire of Christian people to help the district, in part because of Jesus' command that Christians love their neighbor. The administration would turn to the clergy, for example, just as it turned to other professionals in the community, seeking support and advice. For several years while I was there, the district welcomed an annual prayer gathering to which everyone in the community was invited and where we asked God to keep students, teachers, administrators, and staffers inspired and safe through the school year. (In fact, I note with sadness that all these tragedies befell the district after we clergy, not the administration, dropped the ball and stopped holding these annual events.)
When you hear of a tragedy, don't be quick to judge the victim. People close to God and people open to God may be the likeliest victims of tragedy.
Jesus once encountered a group of people certain that those who had fallen victim to sudden tragedy were somehow spiritually deficient. But Jesus would have none of such notions:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)"Life comes at you fast," the current ad campaign for an insurance company says. So does death. So does misfortune. Tragedy comes because we live in an imperfect world.
The question in the face of such events isn't so much, "Why?" No one I've met is smart enough to answer that.
The real question is, "Are we ready?" Are we ready for tragedy? Are we ready for death?
The only people truly prepared for such events are those who turn from sin and receive Jesus Christ as Lord over their lives.
I don't believe that God sends us tragedy. But I do believe that He can help us cope with tragedy. And I believe that He can give us hope beyond any tragedy we may encounter.
Turn to Christ and you will be ready for anything!