The Last Church Service at Sutherland Springs

On Sunday, a man opened fire in a Texas church, killing 26 people–half of them children. The news has been harrowing: a woman who was eight months pregnant and three of her children, kids as young as 18 months old, fathers, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. One news site posted a YouTube video of the entire church service from the Sunday just one week before. I watched it throughout the day as I nursed my own baby, between preparing meals for my little ones and as they napped in the afternoon.

In the video, tiny heads peek over pews as the congregation sings. It is a country Baptist church with an oversized Bible open on a wooden table, guitars and amps plugged in up front, a four-foot wooden cross with a crown of thorns stands to the right and a woman doing sign language stands to the left, a little girl fiddling with the table cloth on the altar next to her.

They sing “Happiness is the Lord,” then walk around greeting one another with handshakes and hugs as the band sings again and again, “Through the darkest night, His love will shine. God is good, all the time.” I think I recognize some faces I’ve seen flash on my computer screen over the past few days.

The service appears to only have about 50 people in it, sitting in seven pews on either side of a center aisle. The children stay with their parents throughout the service. Yellow flowers stretch in front of the pulpit and a man, “Brother Bob,” walks up to the small stage to read Psalm 33. He prays for the service, “Continue to bless this church and this community and our nation and our leaders … be with Pastor Frank. Touch each person here and let them feel your presence.”

On my computer, I skip the singing to hear what the pastor preached the week before the death of the majority of his congregation.

He, who I now know is Pastor Frank, is a large man with a handlebar mustache. He preaches on Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding …” A motorcycle is in the front of the church—he is using this as an object lesson, focusing especially on that part of the verse that says, “lean not on your own understanding.” He begins by saying, “This message that God laid on my heart—even if it doesn’t make sense to you, when you start to lean on your own understanding, that’s when you start to have problems.” He goes on to say, “Though it may not make sense in our finite mind—like leaning into a turn on a motorcycle– leaning in to God is the way to go.”

He describes riding the motorcycle to church at sunrise that morning with his daughter, Belle, who snuggled up to him in the cold, tensing on the turns because she is not used to trusting the bike to keep her upright. I have seen her picture. She is 14 and did not survive the attack, though her father and mother, who were out of town for the weekend, were not present at the shooting.

Later in the message, Pastor Frank seems to go off message as he talks about life’s hardships, “We get stuck in that rut … stuck in that valley. Bryan taught a little while ago in Psalm 23: as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I walk through it because my God watches over me.”

Pastor Bryan preached the morning the gunman entered the church. He and his wife, as well as 6 of his other family members were murdered.

The pastor concludes his message, “Continue to focus on Him. Give it to Him. Trust Him to work in your life today.”

I slide the mouse arrow across the computer screen, going back to the singing. I want to know what songs this congregation sang together the week before they were killed. I am unashamedly searching for hidden hope, eerie coincidences, fingerprints of a God who knew this would happen.

I find the place where I left off. The band continues leading the church in song:

“Give thanks to the Lord, our God and king, his love endures forever, for he is good and is above all things, his love endures forever. Sing praise … Forever God is faithful, forever God is strong. Forever God is with us, Forever. Forever.” Then, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, worship his holy name. Sing like never before, o my soul. Worship your holy name.”

The three men and one woman begin the final song before Pastor Frank takes the pulpit and I gasp as the lyrics flash up on the screen.

I once heard Joni Eareckson Tada, a paraplegic, speak about how she met God. She writes about it on her website:

“It was dark, depressing night when I was in the hospital. I had broken my neck only a few months earlier, and now, I was long out of ICU and out on the floor in a six-bed ward with five other young women who also suffered spinal cord injuries. The doctors told me that my paralysis was permanent, and that night I kept turning that fact over and over in my head. I tried hard to understand what it might mean, but my mind just wouldn’t go there. Total and permanent paralysis was just too horrific.

… I felt very afraid, very alone, and very far from the Lord. Little did I know, though, that even then, Jesus was very, very near. Because later that night when visiting hours were over and the nurses at the station were on break, I turned my head on the pillow and saw a silhouetted figure in the doorframe of our ward. At first, it startled me. This figure got down on its hands and knees and began inching its way toward my bed in the corner.

When it got close, I saw it was Jacquie, my high school girlfriend. And as high school girlfriends at pajama sleepovers often do, she crawled up into bed with me, even snuggled her head on my pillow. Then, so as not to awaken my roommates, she started softly singing, “Man of Sorrows. What a name For the Son of God who came. Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! What a Savior” I don’t know, but something she did changed me. My questions about God certainly didn’t get answered that night, but Jacquie gave me something far more poignant and powerful than answers. She helped me encounter Jesus — The Man of Sorrows — and all His compassion toward me, His very hurt child. Jacquie may have come that night to visit me, sneaking up the back stairs of the hospital, but Jesus also came to visit me.”

“Man of Sorrows” is a lament for a crucified king. An irrational reason for hallelujah.

So I am shocked when the congregation sings this last song together:

“Man of Sorrows,” what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Stand unclean, no one else could;
In my place condemned He stood;
Now His nearness is my good;
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

CHORUS:

Hallelujah, praise to the one

who’s blood has pardoned me

What a savior

Redeemer and king,

Your love has rescued me.)

Lifted up was He to die,
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

When He comes, our glorious King,
All his ransomed home to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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