When Vance Pitman stood before the Hope Church congregation in Las Vegas Sunday morning, he looked over a group of people who had been forever changed in a matter of days.
Hope Church photo
Hope Church in Las Vegas meets for worship one week after a gunman’s massacre killed 58 people and wounded some 500 others.
Everyone in the service could recount exactly where they were in the late evening hours of Sunday, Oct. 1, when the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history unfolded just seven miles across town.
Fifty-eight dead, not counting the shooter. Some 500 wounded. At least 20,000 lives at the concert changed for the worse. Millions stunned.
That was the stark reality as Pitman rose to deliver his sermon Oct. 8 titled “Where is God in the Midst of Tragedy?” His subtitle fleshed out the time and place: “Weekend after Las Vegas Massacre 2017.”
Heartbroken, yet proud
In 2000 Pitman came with his and two other families to Las Vegas to plant a church. Sent out by First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., they began with 18 adults meeting in his living room. He was also serving as a church planter through the North American Mission Board.
The past 17 years have entailed making new friends and establishing a fresh Christian presence in the community. The church has grown to nearly 3,100 in attendance in four services – 8:15 a.m. having just been added four weeks earlier.
Then the bullets rained down from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino’s 32nd floor onto a country music concert across the street.
“Sunday night and Monday were the darkest days in our city’s history,” Pitman told The Christian Index in an interview published Oct. 7. However, he added, “but I have never been prouder to call Las Vegas my home.”
As heartbroken as most Las Vegans were, Pitman came bearing a message of hope and encouragement that God was not hiding following the tragedy. In fact, God was a refuge for those seeking peace and comfort out of the madness.
Hope Church photo
Vance Pitman addressed Hope Church in Las Vegas for the first time Sunday morning since the mass shooting, beginning with the question “If you could ask God one question and you know He would give you an answer, what would you ask?”
“If you could ask God one question and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?” Pitman began.
After a pause to let it sink in, he replied, based on the findings from a Barna Research Group poll question: “The most common response is ‘Why is there pain and suffering in the world?’
“If we are going to be honest this weekend, there have been moments like this week when we’ve all wrestled with questions like that. One of the first people I talked to on Monday morning asked me this question: ‘Where is God in all this?’”
‘A rock for me’
Pitman acknowledged that even as a follower of Jesus since 1989 and a pastor for more than 27 years, he wrestled with that very question when he heard the news of the massacre.
“Anyone who didn’t simply isn’t human. It’s OK to ask God some hard questions. … He can handle it,” Pitman said, noting that God led him to Psalm 46 as he wrestled with the massacre.
“It’s been a rock for me this week,” he said of the passage that, contextually, was written to the nation of Israel during a time of national tragedy, and in response to that tragedy are the words of the Psalm.
In the midst of all the questions, “some of which we simply cannot answer, there are things that we do know,” Pittman said.
“The temptation of our humanness is to run from God in moments of tragedy, but the psalmist reminds us that those are the moments we should run to God.”
Pitman then recounted stories from the week that reminded him of the reality of God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.
Two police officers, for example, remarked to him, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that more people were not killed. It’s almost like someone spread their wings over that crowd and protected them.”
Pitman noted, “Where is God in the midst of tragedy? He’s right there in the midst of it with us,” and spoke of several ways God is present.
First, God is our refuge – a place of safety and protection, a place of security, Pitman said, citing the instruction in Psalm 62:8 to “Trust Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.”
“Because God is my refuge,” Pitman said, “I can be honest with Him about all things. C.H. Spurgeon once said, ‘Turn the vessel of your soul upside down in His secret presence and let your inmost thoughts, desires, sorrows and sins be poured out like water. Hide nothing from Him, for you can hide nothing.’”
Pitman challenged the congregation, “If you’re hurting, tell Him. If you’ve got questions, ask Him. If you’re angry or upset, cry to Him. He is your refuge.”
Next, he spoke of God as our strength.
“All week I’ve heard ’I don’t think I can handle this!’ You are right … but He can because in 2 Corinthians 12:9 we read, ’My grace is sufficient for you and My power is made perfect in weakness.’”
And God is our help, Pitman said.
“When you and I do not have the strength, we can run to Him. He’s always abundantly available to meet whatever need we have. What do you need from Him today? He’s available!”
The reality of evil
“Why did God create evil? He didn’t,” Pitman continued. “The world we know is not the world He initially made. What, you may ask, do I mean?”
He then cited evangelist Greg Laurie’s observation that mankind was not created evil and that “in their original state, Adam and Eve were innocent, ageless and immortal. But mankind was given the ability to choose between right or wrong. He made his choice and then the choice made him.
Pitman stated that human beings, not God, are responsible for the introduction of evil into the world, yet in His grace He is still our refuge, strength and help in the midst of tragedy.
“There are two things we know even when evil is on display: that God is present … our refuge, strength and help, and God has a purpose as seen in Romans 8:28.
“This is nowhere seen more clearly than looking at the cross,” Pitman said. “The cross of Jesus is the single greatest act of evil and injustice this world has ever seen, and yet God – in His sovereignty – has caused it to be now seen as the greatest demonstration of love and goodness the world has ever experienced.”
Pitman directed the congregation to Revelation 21 where a city is described in verses 1-4 – “a city where God dwells … that can never be destroyed,” one that “He is constantly protecting and where no evil dwells. And one glorious day that city will come down from heaven and dwell here on earth.”
Pitman concluded the sermon by asking “Why doesn’t God just do it now?”
He then read from 2 Peter 3:9 which states, “The Lord is not slow about His promises, as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
Turning from the scripture to the audience, Pitman used an observation from author Lee Strobel, saying, “So, what’s holding God up? One answer is that He’s actually delaying the consummation of history in anticipation that more people will put their trust in Him and spend eternity in heaven. He’s delaying everything out of His love for humanity.”
Billboards & marquees
Pitman, in an interview on Oct. 7, said he had been speaking of running to God throughout the week in various platforms he had for sharing his faith. As he drove across town to an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, he reflected on how the city’s own message has changed.
Various billboards and casino marquees that previously had been drawing attention to their gambling enticements prior to the massacre now are broadcasting a more somber message, pointing people to God: “Pray for Las Vegas … Pray For Our City … Pray for The Survivors.”
One after another they send a totally different message, uniting in a strange, temporary way with the churches whose message is more typically buried beneath the glaring lights of the Strip.
“All of the hotels are putting these prayer requests up,” Pitman said as his car headed down the Strip, passing the sprawling Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
Pitman knew nothing of the extent of the shooting when he went to bed on Sunday night. The first shots were fired from the casino’s 32nd floor around 10 p.m. and the initial news reports were sketchy.
It wasn’t until the next morning when he awoke – on his birthday – that his phone was filled with what he thought were an unusual number of birthday wishes.
“Pastors were calling and telling me they were praying for me in the midst of the tragedy and I had no idea what they were referring to. I turned on the news and could not believe what I saw and heard,” he recounted.
That news threw Hope Church into an extended ministry mode which continues to this day. On Monday, it opened its doors as a safe place for those who wanted to come and pray about those who had died and for those who were still in surgery. Some just wanted to talk and try to understand the night of tears.
The church’s staff of 15 pastors was dispatched to the sanctuary as well as across town as grief counselors, working closely with local government.
“The way this city has rallied has been incredible. We are largely a city of transients, but this has brought all of us together as a unified community,” Pitman said.
On Monday night the church hosted a prayer meeting attended by hundreds, with many coming to faith. One young man, Pitman related, had never been to church but said he had never felt the sense of calm he experienced that evening. Staff members counseled with him and he accepted Christ.
The church did not have any members who were injured at the shooting. It continues to offer counseling and has also been encouraging its members to donate blood, even though some of those clinics have reported eight-hour waits. The church is now working with the Red Cross to try to have a mobile blood unit on site to take the pressure off of the hospitals.
The church has established a fund to minister to families of the victims as they work to put their lives back together. Surgical bills alone are expected to cost millions of dollars.
Listing several prayer requests, Pitman said:
- “Pray for law enforcement, first responders, the medical community as they deal with and heal from what they experienced that night. Those who were not trained in combat medicine were not prepared for the bloodshed which they encountered.
- “Pray for and give to the victims’ funds. One-hundred percent of funds we receive at Hope Church go fully to help those who are dealing firsthand with the tragedy.
- “Pray for God to continue to work among the people of Las Vegas so they will run to Him as their refuge and strength, their ever-present help in trouble.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, christianindex.org, news journal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.)