When There Are No Words
Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of Jonah Hwang. Jonah was an 8-year-old child of First Presbyterian Church of Pomona. On February 20, 2017, Jonah and his family were at a dinner at the home of some other church leaders, the Robinson family. Jonah was playing with five other kids in the living room when a man drove by and shot at the house. A bullet went through the wall and killed Jonah.
The police arrested the man who killed Jonah, but it’s not clear why this happened. The man did not have a record of violence, yet he shot at this one house four different times (the other three times no one was at home). As a Pomona Police captain said, “We don’t have a relationship or the motive. [Jonah’s parents and their friends] are very good families. They go to the same church. Everyone involved is a teacher.”
On Sunday their church, our church, held a service of lament. It’s been a hard year, and the grief continues to weigh heavily on the families involved, their friends, and the church. For some, their faith in God has been severely strained. The church and friends are doing what they can; one person said, “The people of the church have been great. It’s God I’m having trouble with.”
For many reasons I love the story of the man whose friends carried him to Jesus. One of several unique aspects of this story is the place of faith. Unlike other healing stories when Jesus says that the faith of the person in need leads to their healing, here Jesus comments on the faith of the friends. So I have at times considered that for some of us, we may not need to be carried for physical disabilities; for some of us, we need to be carried by our community of faith when our own faith is weak.
While we all hope for the gift of faith-certainly Jonah’s friends and family continue to wait for God to offer just a glimpse of hope or understanding of how such a horrible tragedy could occur-perhaps this sharing of faith is another way that God shows grace even when we don’t ask for it. If Jesus bears our sins to the cross that we may be free, then we as the body of Christ can hold up each other before the throne of grace and pray for comfort and a renewed faith in the face of unspeakable pain.
As we go through the season of Lent, I think of this as the time when we reflect on who we are, and who God is, and the great lengths God will go to save us. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion begins with the premise
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.
The 12-Step version of this is, “There is a God, and I’m not Him.”
When sitting with Jonah’s friends, I confess I kept hoping to come up with some words that would help, but there are no words for this pain. All I could dwell on is that God’s horizon is so much wider and farther out than we can understand, and to give thanks that our sister church is carrying these families in the meantime, holding them in their own broken hearts.
This tragedy is mirrored and magnified with the senseless killing of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. One of the responses of some of the survivors is a rejection of offers of prayer, because they see it as a way of avoiding action. As I consider the grief of First Pomona, and the burden our brother Adam Donner is carrying as their pastor, I offer prayer because I believe in prayer, and because I can think of nothing else to offer. I am grateful that First Pomona has in fact offered prayer, in many forms, while they also act-by helping the survivors in tangible ways; through worship and Bible study and partnerships with other churches; and by continuing their ministries in the community through Pomona Hope, their partnership with Syrian refugees, a community art space and garden, and community organizing.
Lent is the season when I am most aware of how limited we are-frail, mortal, and broken by sin and fear. And yet, God sends us Jesus, who loves us even to the point of death- and who calls us to love others in like fashion. May we open up our hearts, our prayers, our resources, our lives, in order to show God’s love to all who need to know the peace of Jesus Christ-in our churches and in the world around us.
On a totally different note, I want to share that I have been given the opportunity to attend the World Council of Churches Conference on Mission and Evangelism as part of the delegation from the PC(USA). The conference is in early March in Tanzania, so I will be out of the office and possibly out of communication for the first half of March. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier but I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I am very excited about this opportunity; I have always wanted to go to Africa but this will be my first trip. Of course the continent is huge so one trip to one country will barely scratch the surface, but I am most grateful to be able to experience even this much. James Lee, member of our Presbytery and President of International Theological Seminary, visits Africa regularly, as several of our partner churches in Africa send students to ITS. He recently shared that:
According to a recent Pew Research study, by 2050, the number of Christians in North America and Europe will account for only 25 percent of the world’s Christian population. Sub-Saharan Africa will account for close to 40 percent, Latin America 23 percent, Asia-Pacific 13 percent.
Surely, as we reflect on who we are as individuals, as local churches, and as the global church, we see that while yes we are small and fallible, Christ who calls us can do amazing work through us. To God be the glory.