This morning I woke up to yet another school shooting in my hometown of Denver. A 17-year-old student at Denver East High School opened fire on school administrators who were checking him for weapons before he entered the school—the whole story is here. Nine years ago my daughter Lucy was running for her life, trying to find a hiding place in her school after a shooter entered through an unlocked side door and murdered a classmate. She hid in an administrative office until the SWAT team broke into her room and ushered the students out of the building. Every time a new mass murder hits the news, and that’s about every other day so far this year, she is triggered by her experience. Sudden, loud noises, especially at night, really access her trauma. So, now, when another mass shooting happens, my wife and I try to be intentional about engaging our daughter as she is hearing the news.
If it happens at a school, or is an act of mass violence by a single perpetrator, we’ve tried to be the first to let our daughter know about it, before she hears about it from some other source. We want to be the first, because “the medium is the message”—the way she hears about traumatic “trigger” events matters more than the news about the event itself. It’s our active, engaged presence wading into the darkness that brings peace and security. We’re hoping to model how Jesus moves into our dark places. He doesn’t wipe away our reality; instead, He invades our reality with His forceful, tender, and redemptive presence. He doesn’t erase the ugly; He treats it like clay when we offer it to Him, and re-molds it into something beautiful. But beauty that’s created out of ugly still has the stink of ugly, because that’s its raw material.
Some mornings, after my daughter learned of yet-another horrific killing spree, she would tell us that she didn’t want to talk about it—but then she would ask us questions anyway. She didn’t want the ugly to have free access to her soul, with no barrier to stop it. She needed to feel some control over the darkness trying to invade her vulnerable spaces. She wanted the freedom to encounter the ugly on her own terms. We knew it was vital for her to learn, early on, to live in the spirit of “The Stockdale Paradox.”
Jim Stockdale was an officer and prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned for eight years, from 1965 to 1973 and was relentlessly and ruthlessly tortured. But he survived the experience, and the way that he survived has now been studied and taught around the world as The Stockdale Paradox: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Jesus operates, all of the time, in the tension described by The Stockdale Paradox—He will move us to face the “most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be.” But He does this in a momentum and a context of certainty that we will “prevail in the end.” And we are infused with this “prevailing hope” not because He has answers for the unanswerable, but because His presence brings light into our darkness.
So, when people encounter darkness and ugly, our role is to “deliver” the presence of Jesus through our own presence. Jesus needs people who have experienced the darkness well enough to walk into it instead of avoiding it. This is one clear way to describe the central ministry of Jesus: “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned” (Matthew 4:16). As ministry leaders, our “darkness habits” represent our deepest impact—not our preaching, teaching, or administrative expertise. We bring the presence of Jesus into the places where people “sit in darkness,” and what we offer in those places is our determined, intentional presence. At Vibrant Faith, we know that thriving happens when people have an increased capacity to be present to God and to others. They find that capacity most profoundly when they are sitting in darkness, and a relaxed person enters into that space with light.
My wife and I still try to be the first to talk with Lucy about traumatic acts of violence in the culture—it’s our messy determination to communicate that bad things happen, and we have to face them, but even more, that hope prevails because Jesus prevails. Our calling invites her to explore her own calling—to enter into the dark places of others who desperately need light. This is living our lives with meaning and purpose—fueled by intimacy with God, expressed through intimacy with others. This is at the heart of our new resource called Lives of Meaning and Purpose, a ministry kit developed out of our five-year project “Creating a Culture of Calling.” Check it out, HERE.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.