By David Lee Jones
May 24 was like any other day, until I heard the riveting music from TV news that signals a tragedy. I heard of multiple fatalities in Uvalde, Texas, only three and a half hours from my home in Austin.
I sensed an inner voice nudging: “You should go. Pack a suitcase and go right now.” But indecision prevailed. I should call someone before I just drive down there — find out if they need chaplains or grief counselors. So, I called for three days — to the police department, superintendent’s office, and several local churches. They were all swamped but gracious. Once I found a hotel with an opening for several nights, I packed my bag and left.
The Ministry of Presence
I arrived in Uvalde around 5 p.m. on May 26, donned my collar, and walked directly to the Willie de Leon Civic Center, the epicenter of community grief counseling. It was closing for the day just as I arrived. I introduced myself to one of the school counselors, who thanked me for coming and asked me to find her in the morning.
Something told me to linger at the Civic Center. I chatted with two Department of Public Safety officers. Eventually a woman and her young daughter came seeking counseling. I’ve learned in times of trauma that what is needed most is not our words, but rather our irenic presence and capacity to listen calmly and patiently.
As soon as I saw the little girl’s lifeless eyes and her stoic, flat affect I knew she was traumatized. I’ve seen that look before. She explained that she encountered the gunman firing his rifle as he entered Robb Elementary School. She hid by herself for an hour and twenty minutes, terrified he would return to kill her. I spent almost three hours with her and her mom. As I prayed for them, she buried her head in my chest and sobbed.
I have learned this universal truth: after tragic events, human beings seek spiritual and existential meaning amid trauma. Three thoughts usually surface: (1) Why did this happen to us? (2) If only this or that had happened (or not happened) this tragedy wouldn’t have transpired this way. (3) How can we transform the negative into something positive?
In John 11:21, Martha says to Jesus: “If only you had been here, my brother Lazarus would not have died.” Jesus answered Martha with just five words: “Your brother will rise again.” In the midst of trauma, tragedy, and evil, it is pastorally and homiletically helpful to acknowledge these two competing narratives.
First, we must offer voice and the space for people’s painful laments and questions. Second, the gospel compels us, when the time is right, to remind our flocks and the entire world: “Your loved one will rise again.” Third, we must encourage persons to discover creative ways to find hope where there is despair, through spiritual practices like building crosses, praying, lighting candles, and donating our time, talent, and treasure.
Going Through Good Friday
A clinical supervisor often reminded me that human beings possess an innate drive to bypass painful experiences and find immediate relief and resolution. A nurse once told me: “The deeper and dirtier the wound, the more it should be left open.” Her point is that if you suture a deep, dirty wound before it has been thoroughly flushed and debrided, it will become infected and you’ll have to open it again.
Trauma counselors remind us that people grieve in their own ways in their own time. In our anxiety as pastors, we often want to apply chronos (our time) to bereavement when it needs to unfold in kairos (God’s time). One former professor’s admonition, “You have to go through Good Friday before you get to Easter,” rings true. We must learn to be still and walk non-anxiously with hurting people in their own time and at their own pace.
Although every community offers grief counseling after such tragedies, my personal experience would better describe it as shock counseling. It usually takes several days after such unspeakable tragedy before most people can begin to grieve. The deep work of grieving comes later — slowly, in layers — much like peeling an onion. You peel off a couple of layers and cry, and then do it again the next day, and the next. Depending on the severity of the trauma, certain onions take a lifetime to peel.
The Presence of an Absence
One of the most profound spiritual experiences for me was visiting Uvalde’s town square, where 22 wooden crosses bearing the victims’ names — 19 children, two teachers, one teacher’s husband, felled by a heart attack — surround a fountain. I sat on one of the benches for a long while and took in as much as anyone can. No one should try to absorb it all. It’s simply overwhelming.
Eventually I stood silently in front of each cross, read each name, prayed, listened respectfully to what loved ones said about each person, and pondered who each person was. My heart sagged as I tried to imagine the sheer terror of their last moments.
The word surreal does not give full voice to what I experienced. The best way to describe my experience is what Dr. James Loder, writing in The Transforming Moment, calls “the presence of an absence.” As Loder describes it, such profound experiences cannot be fully divined simply as a death or the absence of the life now gone. If you can sit non-anxiously with the experience long enough, you feel the presence of the absence. You discover that the void has an unmistakable “holy presence.” For Loder, the “presence amidst the absence” is “the Holy.” It is both ironic and counterintuitive — like Paul being blinded on the Damascus road in order that he might see.
Few biblical images are as hopelessly stark as the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel. What is remarkable about this text is that God doesn’t tell Ezekiel the bones will live, but rather asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Metaphorically, we are asked the same question after profound tragedies. As I sat in the bottom of community despair on Uvalde’s town square, that question hung prevalent in the air.
Christ’s Resurrection Has the Last Word
Ultimately, in God’s kairos, what we preach after tragedy, trauma, and evil events is the sure and certain hope of eternal life through the miraculous resurrection of our Lord. Despite evil and unspeakable tragedy in the world, we are ultimately people of the cross who follow a risen Savior. Death, no matter how horrible, has lost its sting and nothing can separate us from God’s eternal love. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” God has prepared a place for us in heaven where there “is no more crying or pain anymore.”
We preach with theological conviction that death and evil do not have the last word. Christ’s sacrificial resurrection is God’s last word — lovingly offered to bring hope to a broken and hurting world. God never promised to protect and insulate us from all suffering and heartache, but God surely promises to be fully with us amid all of our pain and suffering. Emmanuel — God is with us. And that is good news.
The Rev. David Lee Jones, Th.D., is affiliate professor of pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.