The what ifs and if onlys in the Aurora, Colo., shooting make it terrifying and haunting even for those of us who were not involved.
What if the ammo canister had not jammed? What if the shooter's neighbor had opened his apartment door before the bomb squad arrived?
If only the shooter's plans had been discovered earlier. If only I had not let my child go to the midnight showing.
These questions can be paralyzing, sometimes even demonic. And for people of faith, in the horrible aftermath of every tragedy, we must ask: Where was God? The anguish of the moment shapes the tenor of the question. If we say that God is all-powerful, then why did God not intervene to stop the shooter?
We can find miraculous and heroic stories in every tragedy. But we are too quick to jump to these stories, as if by hanging onto them, we can make sense out of the senseless.
The danger, of course, is that once we declare God saved this person, then we also have to face the raw question of why God saved one person and not another. This a question for which even the best theologians in church history have not been able to answer with any clarity.
And please, please, let us not say this was part of God's will or God's plan or some hidden and obscure divine purpose. The God who lost his own Son to the power of evil, whose heart was broken at his death, is not willing to let other parents' children to die by that same power of evil.
Not now. Not ever.
God does not do evil. God does not harm. God only does good. God is love.
Now I think that if God can only do good and can only act lovingly, there are limits to what God can do and how God can act in the world. Even Jesus was not able to heal or cast out demons or preach a sermon to those who had already closed themselves off.
Another way to say this, which makes some folks squirm, is that God is not all-powerful. God is limited by our choices. God has given us the capacity to love one another as God loves us, but with that capacity comes the ability to not love.
When we exercise our capacity not to love, then we turn people into targets, slaves or objects of no value.
We all know about the "dark side of the Force." We know we have the capacity to say the words we know in advance will wound or maim. We know the cost we will pay for our choices and choose to go full steam ahead.
We do cause harm; sometimes we even knowingly cause harm — to ourselves and those we care about.
God has given us the power to choose goodness or to turn away.
I suspect that the more we chase the things that cause harm, the less we care, the less we notice the harm we are doing, and the harder it is for anyone — including God — to bring us back and make us whole. And I also suspect the very act of attributing hate or fear or harm to God increases our separation from God.
Or even worse, we turn God into a mirror image of our fear, our hate, our anger.
But God is God. God does not ever cease doing good, being good, thinking good and feeling good. The power of God may be limited, but the love of God is endless and never-ending.
If God is love, then every bullet fired was another nail hole on Jesus' body. Every life lost was heartbreaking for God.
If God is love, then God was doing whatever was lovingly possible to stem the evil and lessen the suffering. And if God can do nothing else in the situation, God welcomes home and heals all those who lost their lives.
If God is love, then God is always wounded when we wound one another, always seeking to mend the wounds before they happen, and will hold our hands through the terrors that God cannot stop.
MARK WILEY is pastor of Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.