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At Wedgwood, God was ‘exactly where he was’ when Jesus died on the cross

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–It was the first question reporters fired at Al Meredith in the wake of a gunman’s murderous rampage at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 15: Where was the God of heaven while all hell was breaking loose within the walls of the Lord’s church?

A gun-toting madman, armed with 200 rounds of ammunition and a pipe bomb, had burst into a midweek youth rally in the church’s main sanctuary. As he spewed blasphemy, the man had randomly discharged bullet after bullet throughout the sanctuary and lobbed the pipe bomb toward the midst of the gathering. Seven people were killed and seven others were wounded in the melee. The final life the man took was his own when he plopped down on a back pew, raised the firearm to his head and pulled its trigger.

Where was God?

“God was exactly where he was when his own dear Son was stripped and beaten mercilessly, cruelly, and [he] died on the cross 2,000 years ago,” Meredith said in a July 19 message at the Southern Baptist Founders Conference at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

“God was not out to lunch. God was not on vacation. God did not peer over the portals of heaven and look at the Wedgwood tragedy and slap his forehead and say: ‘Oh my stars, where is the guardian angel who was supposed to look after that one?’ He was here all the time. I did not have to pre-think the answer I gave the media.”

Meredith was a speaker July 19 at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Founders Conference, a group of pastors and church leaders who embrace the doctrinal heritage historically known as “Calvinism” or “the doctrines of grace” held by various founders of the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-19th century. The conference, held on the campus of Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., featured speakers on the topic of God’s providence.

Meredith spoke on the pastoral implications of God’s providence, a doctrine brought vividly to life at Wedgwood on that frightful September evening. Understanding how God works out his eternal plan in the lives of his people, Meredith said, has proven a critical step in dealing with the worst church shooting in American history.

Said Meredith, “To understand the meaning of your pain, your own personal tragedy, you need to understand that our hearts were made to live within the context of a larger story than your particular chapter. God is not the cold, calculating author of the story like some smiling, passive Buddha sitting on the circle of the earth watching how everything works out. God is the passionate central character of the story. Your life is a chapter in that story.

“The suffering and tragedy in my life is just a small bit of the story that I am graced to be a part of. Evil exists as a result of man’s rebellion, but our sovereign God promises to use it to draw us to himself and to refine us. Like all of creation, we groan for the day when evil will finally be eradicated. There is an element of mystery here and I don’t understand it all, but we serve a God who is providentially in control.”

Law enforcement agents found no connection between the shooter, Larry Gene Ashbrook, and the crime scene. He lived 15 miles from the church and had wound his way past a dozen other Southern Baptist congregations en route to Wedgwood. On the surface, his choice of this church made no sense, Meredith said.

But in the days following the shooting, as Wedgwood’s parishioners sorted through the chaos wrought by it, the sovereign hand of God over all things — including this particular manifestation of evil — began to draw squarely into focus, Meredith said.

When the gunman entered the sanctuary and began shouting profanity, many of the youths thought him to be part of a Columbine-themed skit. Instead of panicking and bolting for the exits — thereby making themselves open targets — most played along and ducked beneath the pews. Had the shooter’s injurious intentions been known, the death toll might have been staggering, Meredith said.

The pipe bomb, which the gunman lit with a cigarette he was smoking, flew over the group and rolled up against a wall near the front of the sanctuary, an area devoid of people during the service. The bomb landed in a position which sent the charge harmlessly upward into an empty balcony.

“Had he thrown it in the middle of the crowd, I would have had 50 or 60 funerals,” Meredith said. “Had the bomb exploded outward, I would have had another dozen funerals at least. By God’s providence, it exploded upward. God was there.”

One of those wounded by a bullet saw her life protected by a physical malady. The girl suffered from curvature of the spine caused by scoliosis. The shell struck her spine and ricocheted downward, away from the vital organs. Had it been straight, the bullet would not have been deflected.

“They removed the bullet and sent her home the next day,” Meredith said. “God is sovereign over scoliosis, sovereign over curvature of the spine.”

During the rampage, Meredith said the shooter seemed restrained by the cross that adorns the church baptistry. Each time it came into view, he would walk back up the aisle away from it as if blinded by a great light, Meredith said.

“Every time he started to walk up and down the aisle, he would only get to the third pew from the back where the cross came into view,” he said. “He would see the cross and go back.”

Though the church has seen God’s guiding hand amid the circumstances of the shooting, still the unsettling nature of a crime in God’s own house begged the single-syllable question — Why? He advised those who preach and teach God’s Word to tread lightly in answering it.

Said Meredith: “[People] are desperate to know where God is when they hurt. They have to know. Beware of appearing to have all the answers. There are mysteries here we step into — exactly where you’d expect them to be — mysteries where the infinite God comes in contact with finite man and we try to understand his ways and where those two meet.

“If there weren’t mysteries there, if there weren’t mysteries that go unanswered by our finite minds, it would be the first reason to reject it all. So, beware of appearing to have all the answers and please don’t judge your people when, in the midst of their pain, they turn with empty hands to heaven and ask, ‘Why?’ It’s bad enough they have the anguish to deal with, but then someone says you shouldn’t ask why.

“Jesus, in the midst of his darkest anguish on the cross, turned to heaven with arms spread and said, ‘My God, my God, why?’ Don’t back away from why. But tread softly. There are many things about God’s sovereignty that we approach humbly. What God has revealed, boldly proclaim. What God has shrouded in mystery, don’t try to explain. We can always trust him to do what is right.”

A disheveled hymnal provided perhaps the most powerful empirical evidence of God’s providence at Wedgwood. A bullet was found to have lodged on page 35, at “The Hallelujah Chorus.” It came to rest under the words, “King of Kings, Lord of Lords; He shall reign forever and ever.”

“I have seen great glory brought out of what I thought was terrible tragedy,” Meredith said. “There are no random arrows in the sovereignty of God.”

    About the Author

  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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