Three Lessons from Sept 13’s Courthouse Shootings: Part One of Two

James Ray Palmer opened fire on the courthouse last Tuesday, September 13, here in Van Buren. The anguish he evoked both in the employees who worked at the courthouse as well as his own family is shameful. The entire episode lasted approximately twelve minutes while the Crawford Country Sheriff estimates between seventy to ninety rounds were fired. In addition to the shooting inside the courthouse, Palmer fired 12-15 rounds into Officer Passen’s police vehicle as he responded. Amazingly, no one was killed other than the shooter though numerous people were in and around the courthouse at the time.

And while this kind of incidence is becoming increasingly more frequent in contemporary American society, the fact that so few died is indeed, rare. While numerous facets of this story will be examined in the days ahead, few of us are able to answer the more perplexing question on the minds of many of the survivors, “Why was I spared?” Even Judge Gary Cottrell, the reported target of Palmer’s attack, was reportedly asking why he was spared in the September 21 edition of the Press Argus-Courier.

Judge Cottrell’s question is a necessary question to ask in the face of last week’s events where “random” actions conspired to spare the lives of many. In reading through the newspaper clippings over the past week it is noted that Palmer’s rifle jammed as he attempted to shoot at least one person fleeing the courthouse. Additionally, Judge Cottrell twisted his knee two days earlier preventing him from being at his office that afternoon. A court case scheduled for hearing was settled among the disputing parties otherwise more lives would have been endangered.

Yet, those involved did not attribute such events to luck, pure happenstance, or even fate. Officers and employees both agree that a miracle took place at the courthouse last week. Detective Jonathan Wear spoke of God’s intervention as fellow officer Passen escaped serious injury even though he was inside his police vehicle when Palmer opened fire upon him. Passen himself said, “God was in my car.” Another courthouse employee thanked God she was not sitting on a nearby couch when Palmer entered the room. Judge Cottrell spoke of “guardian angels … working overtime” to protect both him and others.

So how do we respond to this perplexing question of God’s providence in protecting the lives of those involved? I offer three replies to the question. The first one is today and I’ll offer the remainder in the days to come.

1) Obviously, we should be thankful for God’s divine providence as He protected numerous lives on September 13. We should be thankful that Palmer’s gun jammed either because of a faulty magazine clip or a failure to clean his weapon. Whatever the reason, I am thankful to God.

By all rights, there should be additional funerals this week. Life should not have returned to normal so quickly for the citizens of Van Buren. Nevertheless, God saw fit to guide the bullets away from human life. God saw fit to protect our police officers.

One should not pass over gratitude too quickly. Being thankful for God’s providential care over His children is not something trivial. Instead, thankfulness is key marker that distinguishes Christ’s disciples. Proud, arrogant people do not say thanks (Romans 1:28). Some would conclude that there is no invisible deity in the sky above who causes guns to jam or One who guides bullets from harming others. They would point to Twin Towers collapsing on September 11, 2001 and say, “There is no God. All things are random.” In place of such arrogance, we give thanks to our loving heavenly Father who watches over us (Psalm 50:23).

2) We should ponder the brevity of life. The Bible says, “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). Approximately fifty million people perish every year. More than 100 people die every minute. And even though we attend numerous funerals throughout our lives, we visit emergency rooms where we witness pain and death first hand, and we read obituaries where the deaths of others are reported, our own demise seems comfortably far away from us. Many of those fifty million people who will die this year will do so as a result of gunshot or AIDS or as collateral damage in a drug war somewhere south of the American border. In light of such things, we should carefully note the brevity of our lives.

Your impending death should cause you to update your priorities. Somehow Friday night’s win in the Pointer football game does not matter as much in light of the events of last Tuesday. How much profit I made in this economic recession matters little in light of the events of last week. Life should be different for all of us, but especially those who were present.

The New Testament letter of James points to our need to update our priorities. We should think differently about our existence for our lives are as fragile as a mist (James 1:14). We are here just a little while; we are not here on this earth for long time. Whether our lives end because of an assassin’s bullet, a car accident on I-540, or through the dreaded disease of Alzheimer’s, the human body is not durable. When you reflect on the events of last week, update your priorities in life as you would update the software on your computer. And while numerous people around our nation recognize this after such catastrophic events, few update their life priorities around God. Few lives are centered on Him. Don’t ignore the One who sent His Son to die on your behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Part Two of this Post will be posted tomorrow (Friday, September 23).