The Power of the Cross in the Face of Unspeakable Tragedy

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Pastors Tamaraz and Sergei Totiev shepherd the Beslan Baptist Church in the city of Beslan, Russia. On the morning of September 1, 2004, they had sent their children off for the first day of school. The children left for Beslan School No. 1 with all of the hopes that come with the beginning of a new school year.

When the children arrived at school, they were not received with the warmth of their friends and classmates or the normal, loving affirmations of their teachers. Instead, they were confronted by the devastation and pain that life in this evil world often brings. A group of terrorists overtook the school that morning and killed several teachers, parents, and students in the process. Then they threatened to blow up the school and kill the several hundred remaining students and teachers.

Although the demands of the terrorists were not clear throughout the crisis, it was evident that they were from Chechnya, a republic in which there is a growing separatist movement and a desire on the part of many to create a Muslim state. Although the Russian government does not negotiate with terrorists, there were several attempts to set up a dialogue in order to find a way to resolve this conflict.

Soldiers and security forces in front of the school as it burned on 3 September 2004 Photograph: Yuri Tutov/AFP/Getty Images

For three days the threats continued. Some of the teachers and parents who had become hostages were killed. The terrorists, serious about their commitment to destroy the school and the children, had placed bombs in the school. On September 3, one of the bombs went off accidentally. When Russian forces stormed the school, the terrorists set off other bombs. The official record shows that 331 people were killed, 180 of them children.

Beslan Baptist Church lost fifteen children that day, as well as a Sunday school teacher and her toddler son. Pastors Tamaraz and Sergei Totiev lost six children between their two families. The pain in the hearts of our brothers and sisters was beyond anything they could bear, but they had been known for their outreach to the community, and now, in spite of their own overwhelming grief, they sought to turn the town toward the Lord.

For the Russian people, nothing could be more devastating than an attack on their children. They have no hope in the economic development of their nation; they have no hope in their government, and they have no hope for themselves in the future. All of their hope for the future is in their children. It is almost impossible for us to comprehend the suffering of the people of Beslan.

A LONG WAY FROM THE GARDEN OF EDEN

Beslan_kollazh I had the privilege of visiting Beslan about one year after the attacks. My co-worker Todd Kelly, my longtime friend Dr. Gene Carlson (pastor of Westlink Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas), and I were teaching a pastors’ conference together in Prokhladniy, about 80 kilometers from Beslan. After preaching in various churches on Sunday morning, we traveled with Pastor Victor Levashov and a translator to Beslan.

We drove past the new school that had already been built and then arrived at the cemetery, which includes a new section dedicated as a memorial to the children, teachers, and parents who were killed that day, along with the soldiers who laid down their lives to protect them. Each gravestone is beautiful red marble, and in the very center is a picture of the loved one buried there. I was surprised to see that each grave also held a bottle of water or soda. Later I learned that the terrorists did not allow the children to drink, and all of the hostages were sick from dehydration.

After visiting the cemetery, we went to the school where the devastating battle took place. Except for the gymnasium, where the children and teachers were held for most of the time, the building had not been “cleaned up” at all. It still looked like the war zone that it was during those first three days of September, 2004. Rubble was everywhere, and bullet holes in the walls were clearly visible as we walked through the building. In the classrooms, we saw the children’s schoolwork and the lessons of the teachers. The blood of the slain terrorists was still visible on the floors and walls.

It was unclear whether the town of Beslan wanted to preserve the building as a “living memorial” to those who lost their lives, or if there had not yet been enough energy to clean up the debris. But as we walked through the school, we could still sense the heaviness and loss of those terrible days. We were overwhelmed at the thought of the evil that took place there.

As we were climbing over the debris in one of the classrooms and thinking of the children and teachers who had filled those rooms on happier days, Gene said to me: “We have come a long way from the Garden of Eden, haven’t we!” To be in a place where the depravity of the human heart had been displayed without measure, where the evil that we can perpetrate on one another is blatantly staring us in the face, reminds God’s children that the only place to “rest secure” is in His presence, which fills not only the highest places, the lowest places, and the farthest places, but the darkest places as well.

IS IT EASIER FOR CHRISTIANS?

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We left Beslan School No. 1 and went to the home of Pastor Sergei Totiev and his wife, Bella. They had lost two children, and their twelve-year-old son had been seriously wounded in the attack. He has since been to the United States for surgery. He has lost the sight in one eye, but his physical wounds are healing well. It is very difficult to know how or when his young mind and heart can be whole again, but he is with a wonderful family and church that surround him with the love of the Lord Jesus.

Isn’t the wonder of the Cross that God Himself entered the darkness and depravity of this evil world and bore in His own Son the pain of our lives? Because of the miracle of His grace, we can not only be forgiven but also healed and made whole again.

The apostle Peter described how Jesus took our sufferings on Himself in the Cross:

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:21-22)

Unlike us, Jesus was the innocent, holy Son of God. He owned the glories of heaven and the worship of the angels. Suffering and pain are an inevitable part of our human experience. We cannot avoid evil. It intrudes into our lives, bringing with it the devastation, fear, and brokenness of this world. In obedience to His Father, Jesus chose to enter into our suffering, not only identifying with us, but bearing the pain of our sin and depraved choices for us:

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:23-24)

As Gene, Todd, and I sat at the dinner table with Pastor Sergei and Bella, we could see the fruit of the Cross’s power in their lives. We sensed the peace in their home, and we saw the victory of Christ in the faces of their children. After enjoying Bella’s gracious hospitality and the delicious food she had prepared, we talked for several hours about God’s goodness and His loving care shown through the Body of Christ all over the world. They shared some of the warm letters of encouragement they had received and told us that not one day had gone by since the tragedy without receiving mail from brothers and sisters who wrote to express their deep love for them. In fact, one day the post office called and asked them to come and pick up their mail because they had received more letters than all the rest of the town!

Because Jesus was willing to be wounded at Calvary, we can be healed. Because He was broken, we can be whole again through faith in Him. Sergei and Bella have experienced this reality in its fullness because they trusted God when the darkness threatened to overwhelm them. For God, the dark is as light as the day.

Just before we joined hands together in prayer and entrusted this beautiful family to the Lord, Bella told us of a conversation she had recently had with another mother in town who had lost a son. This hurting woman was still overwhelmed by the evil that had intruded into her life and by the pain of her loss. Seeing Bella, she said: “We hear it is easier for you Christians.”

Desiring to reach out to this hurting woman and to share the good news of the gospel with her, Bella responded: “No, it is not easier for us.” Bella went on to tell the woman that the grief, pain, and fear were just as real for Christians as for anyone else. Then she continued, “But God gave His Son for us.”

Angrily the woman said, “That’s His problem! I did not have a choice. My son was taken from me.”

With great wisdom and compassion, Bella comforted this woman in her pain and then said, “God gave His Son in order that you might be forgiven of your sins.”

Pastor and Bella Totiev are resting secure in Him. Even though no one could answer the “why” questions of their minds, they have been able to experience God’s healing. When the light around them became darkness, they believed what King David had taught them. God makes the darkness light. When the thing we fear the most threatens to overwhelm us, God can still see the way ahead and can carry His children to places of rest, strength, hope, and even joy.

We see in Psalm 139, and in Sergei and Bella’s tenacious hope in God, one of the great themes of the Scriptures. From the beginning to the end this message cries out to us again and again: His presence changes everything! That incredible reality becomes the certainty on which we stand when the darkness closes in.


This post is an excerpt from Bill Mills’ book The Blessing of Benjamin: Living in the Power of Your Father’s Approval. Buy on Amazon.

 

Image credits:

1 Soldiers and security forces in front of the school as it burned on 3 September 2004 Photograph: Yuri Tutov/AFP/Getty Images

2 Mourners come to School No 1 to remember the victims of the 2004 Beslan school siege Photograph: Krasilnikov Stanislav/ Krasilnikov Stanislav/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

3 Other photos

Bill Mills

Bill Mills is one of the founders of Leadership Resources International. His ministry began in youth work, where God gave him a heart for encouraging young people by teaching them the Bible. That same vision has remained through the development of our church conferences, pastoral training, and work with missions. Bill’s passion is still to bring the encouragement of the Scriptures to God’s people in order to equip them for ministry, and God has graciously allowed him to fulfill that passion through many hundreds of conferences throughout the world. Bill studied at North Park College, Northern Baptist Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Two of Bill’s great joys are sharing this work with his life partner, Karen, and fishing with his two sons, Peter and Joel.