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Seminarians continue to glean lessons from Wedgwood tragedy

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–It has been a year since a deranged gunman walked into the sanctuary of Wedgwood Baptist Church and started shooting, and for some students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary the time that has passed has shown them that God has used the horrific act for his purposes.

For Kevin Galey, a Ph.D. student who was one of the seven church members wounded in the gunfire, what happened Sept. 15 expanded his vision of God’s church and underscored that God is in control.

By traveling across the country and corresponding with people from other states and other countries in the wake of the shooting, Galey has seen “the greater connection [Wedgwood Baptist] has with the larger body of Christ.”

“Knowing the church is a dynamic force relieved my fears, relieved my cautions, relieved my concerns that I had” particularly about protecting his family, Galey said.

Not long after the shooting, Galey told the seminary’s Southwestern News journal he wanted God’s grace and peace to deal with the shooting more than answers, and a year later he said that grace is indeed what he has found.

“God’s graciousness is the story of this past year,” Galey said, noting the grace has been expressed in his life in a greater “sense of commitment and urgency” he feels when he reads God’s Word. Promises made by God to protect his servants have more meaning now, and he believes that Christians need not be afraid or disturbed by tragedy or crisis.

“I had a sense of peace and presence,” Galey said of that time a year ago. “I knew the Lord would take care of me and my family.

“His presence will allow me to get through tragedy. You can’t explain it until you’re in the middle of it. It’s the peace that passes all understanding,” he said, quoting Philippians 4:7.

“There’s a power of knowing God’s in control.”

But part of God’s grace is not only bringing healing and peace, but also exposing the truth, Galey said, and one truth he believes the shooting at Wedgwood has exposed is that “God’s church does not know how to deal with tragedy or to minister to people in tragedy.”

Galey said there is a sense in American culture that people should have all the answers whenever a tragedy like Wedgwood hits. But sometimes there is no answer, he said, and we “don’t know how to handle people in pain.”

“We need to be the church that ministers to the extent that it costs us something,” Galey said. Mere words aren’t the way to help, he added, recalling the admonition of James 2:15-16.

One realization that came to Galey from the shooting was “how fast people want to put tragedy behind them and focus on the good things that happened. They push forward, forgetting that people are still hurting, still struggling.

“To them, this isn’t a victorious event in their lives. This isn’t a good thing.”

Though he doesn’t have all the answers, Galey said he does have the answer that matters. And it is an answer that modern society doesn’t like to hear.

“There’s no safe place for your family,” he said, “unless they’re in Christ. You’re totally, completely dependent on God.”

Not even tragedy can change the very secure feeling that comes from being in God’s will, he added.

That sense of peace is shared by Jeff Laster, who was also wounded that night. The Southwestern student was the first one shot that night, but even as he lay on the floor, he felt a sense of peace over the possibility of dying.

“It occurred to me that I could die,” Laster said, “but God spoke to me and said, ‘You’re not going to die.'”

Along with that peace, Laster came to the realization that he, like Wedgwood Baptist Church, could adopt one of two mind-sets: He could let the shooting defeat him spiritually or let God use it. He chose the latter.

One of the lessons Laster, studying toward a master of arts in Christian education, learned from the entire episode was that God does protect his own but not always in the way they expect. He remembered others commenting that God had protected their families in the shooting, and the questions came to his mind, “Did God not protect me? Did he not protect Sydney Browning? Where does protection lie?”

God showed him that God’s definition of protection isn’t necessarily physical protection, Laster said.

“It came with Jesus’ death on the cross,” he said.

His brush with death, while assuring him of God’s peace, has also given Laster a heightened desire to become better equipped to minister to others.

“There’s more of a desire to be prepared to counsel people,” he said. “So many people wanted to say the right thing” in the wake of Wedgwood, “but they didn’t know what to say.”

Laster has also learned better to rely on God. As an organized individual, Laster said he likes to have things planned out, but when he was shot, his tidy schedule was thrown out of kilter.

“God came in and changed my perspective that quick,” he said. “Everything I had planned out got canceled.” At that point, Laster said, he didn’t have any control and that experience has taught him to be dependent on the Lord.

“Ultimately, I’ve got to trust and lean more on him,” he said.

Laster also maintains that the shooting didn’t give him a great new testimony but simply proved that God is never taken by surprise and had been working to prepare him for this trial.

The theme of the Lord’s care in the midst of the tragedy was echoed by Southwestern’s dean of theology, David Crutchley, who said that a year after the shooting, “Our minds still play out the questions that remain unanswered and our faith gropes in trust toward the point of divine reassurance.

“The divine prerogative remains unexplained, but as we share the sense of loss with [the martyrs’] families we know three of our own now ‘dwell in the house of the Lord forever,'” Crutchley said.

The Wedgwood shooting gave Lana Runnels, working toward her master of arts in marriage and family counseling and master of arts in Christian education degrees, a sense of what kinds of trials Christians who are persecuted are facing.

That awareness of persecution and the freedoms Christians enjoy was “very humbling. I have a heightened awareness of what it means to live here,” he said.

Like Laster, Runnels said that the shooting did not somehow make Wedgwood better than it was before, but instead confirmed its reliance on the Lord.

And the need of a greater dependence on God also resonates with Runnels. The shooting “helped me understand the importance of being willing to trust that when God says he’ll take care of you, he will.”

“Don’t worry about the little things,” she added.

Southwesterner John Roland, a master of divinity with biblical languages student, has run a gamut of emotions that included anger with God to impatience with trivialities to confusion as to why such an event would happen.

But among the grief at the loss of his friend Shawn Brown and anger, his walk with God was brought to a new level.

The shooting “woke up my seminary experience,” he said. He “realized a desperate need to study the Word and pray,” and more than that, the reality of spiritual warfare was brought home to him.

“I’ve been kind of isolated,” he said, but violence “can happen anywhere. Evil’s very prevalent. There is a great need for the gospel.”

Roland said he expects that going through the loss of his friend will help him to be a better pastor and counselor since he can empathize more now and has more of a heart for those who are suffering.

The attack on Wedgwood, he believes, is an indication that Christians are “in the last days. We’re really under attack. There’s a super need to put on the armor of God and find out where [God is].”

The necessity to serve God right now personally resonated with Crutchley, who believes “the fragrance of their memories continues to remind us of the fragility of life and the accountability and stewardship of living in the present moment.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: REMEMBERING THE SHOOTINGS.

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  • Cory J. Hailey