By age 14, Cassie Griffin had collected a bedroom full of toy frogs, each a playful symbol of her F.R.O.G. motto -- Fully Relying On God. She was tall for her age, which probably made it easier for gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook to target her on that horrific night a decade ago at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Cursing God and Baptists, he stormed into a youth prayer service, firing 100 rounds and exploding a pipe bomb -- leaving seven dead and seven wounded.
At a recent meeting of the Wedgwood deacons, Cassie's father gave his pastor a message for the faithful at the First Baptist in Maryville, Ill., where another disturbed gunman killed the senior pastor while he preached on Sunday, March 8.
"Let those people know that my son is still struggling," the deacon told the Rev. Al Meredith, who preached to the stricken Maryville flock exactly one week after their pastor's death.
This kind of tragedy, said Meredith, is not "something you get over with three points and a poem," a dose of scripture, a verse of "Victory in Jesus" and a proclamation that, "Everything's fine. Let's move on."
There's a "Greek word" for that kind of theology and it's "baloney," he said, preaching where the Rev. Fred Winters bled and died, his Bible blasted apart by one of 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek's first shots. Police have not announced a motive.
"Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before," said Meredith, in a sermon that swung from tears to gospel singing to laughter. "Some days are evil. In fact, the Bible says, 'Stand that you might be able to stand in the evil day.' Last Sunday was an evil day, and our hearts are breaking. ...
"People are going to ask, 'When are you going to get over this?' You're never going to get over this, but by God's grace you're going to get through it. And God will give you joy and peace in the midst of it, in the midst of the tears and the heartache. Have you learned that? You are learning it. It's the praise you give with a broken heart that is the greatest sacrifice you can offer God."
There are few pastors who have faced the challenge of preaching in a sanctuary that has blood on the carpet and bullet holes in the walls. There are few who have had to face the press after this kind of bloodshed, with most of the reporters asking an ancient question that is at the heart of mature faith: "Can you tell us where God is in all of this?"
Meredith, of course, addressed that question when he faced his own shell-shocked flock. That's why the Maryville church asked him to come preach.
Back in 1999, he said: "If God really loves us, if God is all powerful, why in the world did he let this happen? Why does God allow evil to seemingly abound in this world? Why Columbine? ... Why do a million and a half unborn babies have their lives snuffed out before they have a chance to breathe a breath? Why do children die of hunger daily around the world? Why is there pain? Why is there suffering? Why is there mental illness? ... The question is, 'Where is God when we hurt?' "
The reality is that there is no way to avoid suffering. Thus, the crucial test is whether believers can face trials and tribulations without sliding in despair.
Meanwhile, said Meredith, far too many churches are fighting about the "color of the carpet or the music they sing," while suffering people keep looking for some sense of hope -- in this world and the next. It doesn't help that anyone with a television remote can find scores of "health and wealth boys" who claim that true believers will avoid pain and strife altogether.
"Tell that to every saint that's died. Tell that to the saints that are struggling with unmitigated pain," he told the Maryville congregation. "God never promised us a life without trials. As Americans, we want a carefree and happy life. We think that's God's will for our lives. Get a clue. God's will for your life is to make you into the image of His Son, and that only happens through the heartaches and trials of life."