1. Opinion

Column: Struggling to find faith during tragedy

Worshipers embrace during a service at Joy Metropolitan Community Church on Sunday, one week after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.
Worshipers embrace during a service at Joy Metropolitan Community Church on Sunday, one week after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.
Published Jun. 20, 2016


Eighteen years ago, my wife's father was walking his dog when a plane crashed — on him.

He was recently retired, newly married and ready to start the twilight of his life when a Piper Aerostar carrying four guys on a golfing trip plunged out of the sky near Myrtle Beach, S.C., crashing right next to him and engulfing him in a fireball.

After six days in a medically induced coma, with third-degree burns on 90 percent of his body, his heart and lungs finally gave out.

From the moment it happened, we were plagued with what-ifs. What if he had just walked five minutes earlier? Or five minutes later? What if he had walked left instead of right?

But along with the practical what-ifs, there were also the spiritual whys.

Why would a gracious God allow something so senseless? So violent? So bad to someone so good?

It's the same question people of faith are asking now about last weekend's shooting in Orlando: Why?

So when my church asked me to speak last week at a vigil for the victims, I had to be very honest with the congregation:

I don't know.

You see, I've listened to many wise and scholarly people on this topic. But never has one left my wife and me thinking: Yeah, God, we get it. We get why this plane crash was meant to end five lives, including a man who was merely walking his dog.

That may be our spiritual shortcoming. But I'm pretty sure many people — including devout ones — will never look back at the bloody predawn hours at Pulse last weekend and say: Yes, that mass murder now makes perfect sense.

I've come to accept that faith doesn't provide easy answers to every why. But I find comfort in knowing that it does give us a pretty good road map for what we need to do, when we need to do it, how we should do it and where we need to go to get it all done.

We are seeing evidence of all that all over the world — people of all faiths and no faiths — opening their hearts, their wallets and even their veins. They are people deciding not to be overcome by evil, but attempting to overcome evil with good.

Tragedies tend to inspire us that way. When we witness the worst, we summon our best. We are so good at responding to the big, bold and bad.

Yet often, when we witness simpler problems, basic needs and lower profile sins, we look away — because it's easier.

And that is where I think we fall short. If someone we know says something derogatory about an entire class of people, it's easier to just let it slide. If a politician proposes something we know is discriminatory, we find reasons to excuse it.

If you hear someone say over and over that one class of people is different — that they don't deserve the same rights as everyone else, that they should be kept at a distance — how can it not dehumanize them? How can it not devalue their lives? Whether it's gays, Jews, Muslims, blacks or anyone else.

We are good at responding to the big fiery explosions. I'm not sure we're doing enough to douse the sparks.

One of my favorite quotes attributed to Pope Francis says:

"You pray for the hungry. And then you feed them. That's how prayer works."

If we're instructed to serve others and combat hate, that can't start when tragedy strikes and fade when the TV trucks leave town.

You never know which day will be your last — which is another lesson I've taken away.

No matter what policy changes this country adopts — regarding guns, immigration or anything else — we will never be able to stop every single madman with a gun or a bomb.

So the question I've asked myself is: What would my legacy be?

If this was the last day I live, the last dog I ever walk or the last night I ever dance, how would the world remember me? How would my children? How would my God?

Did I respond when disaster struck? But also, did I speak up when evil and need surfaced in smaller, subtler ways?

Basically, did I spread light or nourish the darkness?

Scott Maxwell is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. © 2016 Orlando Sentinel