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Friday, December 15, 2017

Finding hope in a world of tragedy

Look Deeper by Rev. Will Johnson

The past few weeks have been full of tragedy.  And so have the past few months.  Between the Las Vegas shooting, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and drought and fire in Montana, it becomes hard to remember what happened before those things.

In the midst of all those stories, there is an on-going cholera epidemic in Yemen, which has infected over 750,000 people.  There were monsoons in South Asia that killed over 1,000 people.  And hundreds of people were killed in earthquakes in Mexico in just the past few weeks.  And the list can go on.

We live in a world of tragedy.  There is no doubt there are good things, too…but the bad often stick closer in our minds.  Even if we aren’t close to whatever has happened, it still affects us.  And those mass tragedies don’t illuminate the ones close to home — the car accidents, the cancer diagnoses, the instances of people taken from us too soon.

There is a condition called Compassion Fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress or bad-news burnout.  It happens when we experience large amounts of traumatic news, even if they don’t affect us directly.  But when we experience too much of this kind of news or personal occurrences in our daily lives, it can cause us to care less.  We tend to block out other stressful things, while becoming more stressed and irritable.  Compassion fatigue can create hopelessness, lessen our compassion, and make us less productive and happy.

And yet it is not all bad news.  There is hope in the midst of all the bad news stories, in the midst of compassion fatigue.

I can use all kinds of church-y language to talk about how God comes to us in the midst of tragedy, that God sustains us and renews us and all of that.

And while that’s true, I think that especially when we are in compassion fatigue, when we are living in a state of constant tragedy, that church-y language can be unhelpful.  Instead, we need the more real language of community.  More than anything else, we need other people to surround us and show us in tangible ways that we are not alone.

Inevitably after disaster, someone will claim that God caused it to teach us a lesson.  But tragedy does not strike because God is angry, nor because God wants to teach us a lesson about something.  Instead, I think the existence of these events is proof that evil and bad things exist in the world.  We live in an imperfect world, with imperfect people, doing things that are not good all of the time.  In the midst of that, God works, trying to bring goodness and wholeness to our world.

God isn’t a puppeteer, though, waving a magic wand and creating perfection and total harmony in an instant.  God has given us life, and that means that God doesn’t control our every movement.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in the world.  God is present and active.  And God works most powerfully through people.  It is through conversation, through checking-in, through caring, through a kind word, that we are inspired and empowered to give those gifts to other people, too.  Money and prayers are great ways that we can help other people.  But intentional community and an insistent commitment to each other are essential to recover from tragedy, and prevent those which are avoidable.

Investing our time and energy in one another pays huge dividends.  Compassion fatigue fades when we hear from other people that we are loved and valued.  Bad-news burnout ceases when we hear good news from someone … and are able to tell our news as well.

In the midst of bad news this week, let someone know you care.  Invest your time in their health and well-being.  Be a tangible reminder there is hope in the world.  Be the hands and feet of God in the world, creating community in the midst of chaos and tragedy.  

Will Johnson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Glendive. He may be reached at pastor@zionlutheran.us.

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