The 1 October Shooting; One Year Later

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The human mind has the uncanny, and truth be told, sometimes unwanted ability to recall the dates of tragic moments like permanent tattoos that can never be washed off.  Ask any American and depending on their age, they can tell you where they were or what they were doing when they first heard of the assassinations of JFK or MLK, or the untimely deaths of Elvis, Michael, Whitney or Lady Diana, or that day in September, 9/11. Today marks the one-year anniversary of what we refer to as 1 October here in Las Vegas,  a day in which evil was unleashed on our city resulting in fifty-eight deaths, over five hundred injuries and scores of people permanently disfigured or paralyzed. It is a day when all of us can tell you where we were when we saw the first Breaking News reports.

A sea of thousands had descended on Las Vegas for the Route 91 Music Festival.  Jason Aldeen was performing on stage when the first series of “pops” were heard.  Many at first believed them to be firecrackers set off by rowdy concert-goers.  But when some noticed that their friends who were standing next to them just a second before were now laying at their feet in a pool of blood, the reality of the situation became evident as panic set in.  A sniper was unleashing a hail of bullets from a semi-automatic weapon with a bump stock on them from some unknown position, and the throngs of fans had nowhere to take cover.  Ordinary people became unsuspecting heroes, giving their lives that day to protect others from the gunfire.  Some were wounded because they simply chose to stay by the sides of people they didn’t know so they wouldn’t die alone.  As a parent my first thought was dear God, where are my kids?  My youngest son was employed at the time at the same hotel property where the sniper was perched.  I could not rest easy until I had made contact with all my boys and was assured they were not in harm’s way.  Many parents could not and would not be able to make such confirmation.  Our city was forever changed on 1 October.

As the popular song lyrics remind us, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!  This tragedy affected everyone here.  It seems we all had some connection to people who were in attendance.  And those who didn’t still grieved deeply and sympathized with those who had suffered such tremendous loss.  Those who died that evening were young, in their prime, full of hopes and dreams never to be realized.  The outpouring of support, of aid, of “what can I do” attitudes was infectious and on display for the world to witness.  Local blood banks had to eventually turn people away as lines formed blocks long to donate blood for the victims.  Those not donating took time off to provide food and water for those in line as many would spend 8-10 hours to donate their blood.  Las Vegas became #vegasstrong when tragedy came calling.  For us, 1 October will be forever etched in our memories.

All of us, if we have lived at all, will have dates from our past that we pause and commemorate, the birth of a child or grandchild, the day we married our forever life partner, the year we received our diplomas or degrees-dates we celebrate fondly and with festivity.  However, we will also have those more solemn infamous dates that we may try to forget to no avail. The pain we manage to keep controlled 364 days of thee year becomes fresh wounds on that one day we can’t escape.  It might be the day when you had to say goodbye to your parent as they were laid to rest or a spouse who died before their time.  It might be the day your family became torn apart when the parents decided to go their separate ways.  It might be a day when you were a victim of some horrible crime against you or your family.  For many, it could be the day when you lost your best friend and companion through divorce.  What was once celebrated birthdays and anniversaries  are now reminders of an empty chair at the dining room table; a day filled with joy as two people come together in marriage is now a day when you hide after the relationship is over.  We all have similar stories, dates we wish would never be brought to memory that instead hunt us down like movie haunts, constantly tormenting us with no mercy. We may rid ourselves of videos, photos-anything that brings to memory events that we no longer celebrate, in some vain attempt for a sense of peace over tragedies for which there is never any real closure.

How do we cope with such tragic events as survivors of events we never wanted or saw coming? Where do we find hope to continue on a journey when every fiber of our being finds it easier to just give up and give in?  A Prophet in the Old Testament, Jeremiah, was in anguish as he witnessed the destruction of his beloved city.  His sentiments are recorded for us in the seldom read-from book of Lamentations.  He inquired of God many of the same questions we ask in the midst of trials and suffering.  And yet, his knowledge of God’s character would override his fear of his circumstances.  Listen to his words in Lamentations 3 from the Message Translation:

“I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed. I remember it all-oh how well I remember-the feeling of hitting bottom.  But there’s one thing I remember, and remembering, I keep grip on hope: God’s loyal love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning.  How great is your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left.  – I called out your name, O God, from the bottom of the pit.  You listened when I called out “don’t shut your ears, get me out of here-save me”. You came close when I called out.  You said, “Its going to be alright!”

I am no stranger to unsolicited tragedy.  I am perhaps overly transparent in my anguish over events in my personal life over the past few years.  Some have advised that I be less open and more discreet in my writings or my social media posts.  Some of my closer friends and even family have disconnected from me over my overt disclosures as I wrestle with change.  But these types of writings are not employed as sympathy-seeking compositions, but rather glimpses into struggles endured through hope like that of Jeremiah.  I write so that others may know that they are not alone in their tears and that there is light and recovery attainable through a supernatural peace given to us by God even when we can’t sense his presence or determine his twisted ways of teaching.  I’ve said many times before that I would never in a million years volunteer to be God’s toy of illustration-I’d rather have been overlooked-I would have been perfectly okay entering my reward with no more than a kindergarten education in spiritual maturity.  But that wasn’t the plan.  I am instead chosen to be a virtual learning device for others and an encouragement to anyone watching.  The lesson being taught on this 1 October anniversary is that there is hope after loss, there is life after all but physical death, there is restoration after mass destruction, and there is beauty to be formed in the ashes.

Today, how I wish I could personally hug every person who suffered such tragic losses one year ago, but it’s logistically impossible.  I would want them to know they are not alone, their losses are a part of our forever history, and our love for them and that of our heavenly Father knows no bounds.  We will all remember and cope with today in our own way, through memorial services, through watching recaps of that tragic night, through prayer for healing and comfort for all involved.  My personal prayer for my family, my kids, and all who have been touched by days they wish were not a part of their history, is that the God who preserves would keep their hearts and minds in perfect peace, a peace that can only come from a relationship with Him, and a peace that surpasses all our understanding.  I pray that the lingering fear resulting from tragic events that seek to paralyze us and hold us hostage would be overcome with love, as God’s perfect love casts down all fear.  I pray that hearts destroyed and void of hope will find a renewed sense of courage and purpose in moving forward so that all may see that there is life abundantly after passing through the valley of shadows and death.  And I pray that as I write in detail about my personal struggles with doubt, with faith, with hopelessness and hurt, that others will be encouraged to fight, to endure, to press on through the pain knowing that the story never ends as long as we have breath, and that we have the ability to dictate the words that form the chapters of our biographies.  Today we remember, and we move forward.  #vegasstrong, #vegasstronger.  God bless each of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Navigating Life’s Devastating Losses

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The date was April 14, 1994.  I had only been at the office for about an hour when I received a call from a neighbor.  “You need to come home quickly. Your residence is on fire!”  We jumped in the car and sped home to asses the situation.  We couldn’t get close because of the number of fire engines on the scene.  We got out of the car and ran toward what was once our home.  I was devastated to see that there was nothing left but smoldering timbers and a burnt out shell.  We were left with nothing except the clothes we were wearing.

I’ll never forget the feeling of loss when the fire crews escorted us back to the scene to see if there was anything we could salvage under their close supervision for our safety. “Things”, as people suggest, can be replaced. But photos of the kids in various stages of their lives, parties, family heirlooms passed down, one-of-a-kind keepsakes-all gone in an instant. Thirty five years of history and collections reduced to ashes.  Grateful to be alive, of course, but the loss was real and the mourning genuine.

This week as we witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding that is still wreaking havoc, my heart goes out to the victims because I know exactly how they feel and the challenges they face financially and emotionally as they begin the slow process of rebuilding. Some of these victims were already displaced by Hurricane Katrina.  It does my heart good to see how the Texas community has already come together to offer shelter, aide and whatever assistance is necessary to assure the best possible outcome to the neighbors they have never before met.  In a world of social media wars and disingenuous outrage over issues of little significance in comparison, the things that matter most quickly rise to the surface when such tragedies occur. Our thoughts and prayers will be for the people of South Texas as they begin the rebuilding process.

However, burnt timbers and flooded homes are not the only signs of a devastating loss.  For some, life may have seemed to be going fairly smooth when suddenly everything they held dear was stripped away and they are left sitting in a pile of rubble no less devastating as the aftermath of a powerful natural disaster. Through the death of loved ones, broken relationships, divorce and other emotional tragedies, one can find themselves sifting through the rubble trying to find anything they can salvage from life as they knew it.  The stress and psychological effect can be paralyzing, the will to move on temporarily nonexistent and the realization of the losses traumatic.

I would offer up that it may in fact be easier to replace shelter and bedding and clothing than it is to replace the overwhelming loss of the infrastructure that makes up one’s life and the broken hearts that are left with no real consolation. Time may heal all wounds, but how much time is always the question, as is the real level of recovery expected. It is in these times of loss that God’s grace is the only remedy and hope one can cling to without being disappointed or let down. God is close to the brokenhearted and collects our tears as His gems.  Only those who have suffered the loss of everything they own can fully relate to the sense of loss others in similar situations experience.  And only those who have lost all they hold precious and dear can fully appreciate the feeling of hopelessness as they somehow try to muster the strength and courage to regroup, rebuild and recover.

The best source of hope we all have in dire circumstances can be found in scripture.  They may for some ring a bit hollow at first, but through repetition and eventual adaptation, they become our strength:

From Job 5, “He sets on high all who are lowly and lifts those who mourn to safety”

From Isaiah 41, “Don’t be afraid for I am with you. Don’t be dismayed for I am still your God. I will strengthen and help you and hold you in the palm of my mighty right hand”

From Matthew 11, “Come to me, all of you who are weary with heavy burdens (and broken hearts), and I will give you relief.”

However devastating our losses may be, whether material or emotional, our Father is not oblivious.  There is noting hidden from His view, nothing that catches Him off guard and nothing too big for Him to resolve.  I tell myself this everyday-I have to.  May it be so for you as well.

 

Finding Hope in Times of Great Loss

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None of us are shielded from unexpected events that rattle our lives like an erupting volcano or a major earthquake.  The strongest among us can be brought to our knees when faced with certain life events or painful losses-the loss of a child, the loss of a home, the loss of a job or a business, the loss of a spouse due to death or divorce.  All of us will eventually face one or more of these events or know of some who have and can bear witness to the long term damaging effects it can have on an individual’s attitude, their outlook on the future and their quality of life.  And all of us who have already been visited by any of these can attest to the resulting sense of hopelessness and isolation.

Besides the obvious impact these losses or changes can have on the emotional or mental health of a person, these events can also alter the physical health as well.  In 1967 two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of more than 5000 patients to see if there was any correlation between some life events and eventual major illness.  Their findings have been confirmed by subsequent independent studies and the results are the same, and not at all surprising.  Based on their data they developed the famous Holmes and Rahe Scale, used to determine the chances of a person suffering major illnesses in the future.  Each event was given a numerical value in line with the severity of the event.  Here is what the scale looks like with events and numeric values listed:

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When you begin to take inventory and add up the numbers, especially if you are older, the results can be scary in light of the rating scale based on your score. The things that happen in our lives have a measurable impact on our mental and physical health-there is simply no disputing this.

But before you add up your score and head for your garage to start the car and close the garage door, take heart-there is a disclaimer!  These studies are based on the normal conditions and responses of the normal person.  There is no allowance or consideration given for the person who has overcome or survived these events due to the hope they have through their faith in Christ. Upon our conversion we are promised that we become “new” creatures, that is with clean slates, having all old things and events “pass away”.  That is certainly not to say we don’t suffer the same pain or agony when faced with any of these major life-changing events-we do, believe me. However it is to say that we have the promise and the assurance, the Hope that even though we walk through these dark places (not over or around as some suggest) that God is with us to provide comfort and courage and strength to endure.  We may not sense His presence during these trials in life but we rely on the knowledge through the Holy Spirit that His word is true and that He is faithful and completely incapable of breaking His promise or His covenant with us when we need Him the most. The great disclaimer to the Holmes Rahe Scale is Christ. He is or can be the great equalizer to those with high risk factors and scale totals-He is the unaccounted for variant in the numeric scale.  You may score high, but Christ…

Holy Scriptures are alive with resounding promises of hope, too many to list.

You may have lost a loved one but you can “lie down and sleep and wake again because the Lord sustains you”. You may have lost a job or a business but “you have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for food”. You may feel abandoned or that God has overlooked you, but in your heart you remember “Has he said and will He not do it or has He spoken and will not fulfill it?”  You may have lost the person closest to you but you can hold fast to the words “Fear not, I’m with you; don’t be dismayed for I’m your God and will strengthen you and hold you steady with my righteous right hand.”

Some of us have faced the events measured on this scale more than once. In fact if not for the disclaimer mentioned some of us may not have lived to tell about it.  But hope is like a skin graft that offers immediate healing and comfort and eventually manifests itself in new growth so that hardly a scar remains.  And by the way, these aren’t just shallow words but first hand testimony that is continuing to be rewritten.  I added up my scores, assuming just one time per episode although I have faced several of these events more than once.  My score….931!  But Christ.

 

Hope in the Midst of Incomprehensible Tragedy

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While our community is still coping with the tragic loss of two police officers and a heroic civilian in a recent senseless act of crime, another inconceivable tragedy occurred a little closer to home. Two young children, the boy four years old and his sister just two, belonging to a childhood friend of our daughter, lost their lives when their home caught fire and all desperate rescue attempts failed. Both parents made valiant efforts to save them and received severe burns in the process.  Fire and rescue personnel on the scene burdened with the task of finding and retrieving the children were shaken and grief counselors were dispatched to the site. The loss of these two precious lives is devastating and the healing process will be endless and perhaps never completed.

How can any person explain such a tragedy in any way that makes sense? What words of hope and comfort can one offer that has any measurable impact on the extreme hurt and infinite grief that a parent or loved one experiences in such an event? Words become hollow-cliches become a mockery and even the most heartfelt sentiments are lost in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. And there will be those who will raise the question, where was God in all of this, a question that is hard for even the most devoted of Christians to fully address without sounding like a generic Hallmark Card.

It is in times like these that we must lean on what we know to be true and find some level of comfort in the words of our Savior. We all sang that song growing up in church, Jesus Loves the Little Children. We know from the recording in the Gospels this is true. Listen to the words of Christ recorded in this story in Matthew 19;

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children. ”And he placed his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left.

Jesus was teaching on the coast around Judea and as usual families followed Him just to hear His words. When I imagine this scene I see children sitting on His lap, playing around His feet and soaking in the presence of their creator, even if they didn’t fully understand who Jesus was. Jesus was very clear about His love for them in His scolding of the disciples for their view of these children.  He further demonstrates His love and affection for them in this next passage found just a chapter earlier in Matthew 18;

About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them.  Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.  So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.  But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

One of the most beautiful things a person can observe is the pure, innocent, untainted love and trust of a child, so much so that Christ Himself established the child as the standard by which we are to be measured and ultimately fitted for our eternal reward. If we want to be great and exalted in the Heavenly kingdom, we must have the same heart and approach as that of a child. How much more value could our Savior place on any living creation! He indeed loves children. He sees every scrape, saves every tear, frames every smile and knows every name! These truths must be the source of comfort when none other can be found.

Just a week or so before this tragedy unfolded our own grandkids were playing and swimming with these two little ones who are no longer with us. We have this guarantee in life-nothing is guaranteed, including tomorrow. Tragedies like this are daily occurrences in our world, and all too distant until you know of the victims involved. As I watched my grandson this week I found a little extra energy, let him get away with a few things questionable and loved on him the best I knew how. He’s just five years old but I need to learn from him in order to inherit God’s kingdom. I don’t know if these two heartbroken parents can comprehend God’s love for them right now. The only way they can experience the love, peace and comfort that comes from Christ during this difficult time is to somehow find the resolve to become like the two precious little ones they’ve lost, loving, trusting and completely dependent on God. I pray they find the strength to do just that and that all of us laugh with those who laugh, mourn with those who mourn and hug our loved ones just a little longer than usual and allow His peace to heal all our hurts.