Co-pastor, New Life Christian Fellowship, Blacksburg, VA, 800 students;
Author, When Answers Aren’t Enough, Zondervan 2008
Broadcast Management, Campbell University;
Appeared on CNN, NPR;
Featured in The Washington Post and Christianity Today.
Virginia Tech Tragedy: The Year-Long Journey
The 700 Club
Matt was a copastor of New Life Christian Fellowship for a year before the massacre at Virginia Tech. One of the students who was part of their small groups was Lauren McCain. The campus congregation, which meets for two services at the student center at the university, has approximately 800 students.
After the shootings, Matt says many of the students had questions: If God is really good, why is there so much suffering in the world? He says because of his faith, Matt had the answers.
“I know them by heart and can even recite them in my sleep,” he says.
He learned though that sometimes answers aren’t enough.
“When we can answer our own questions but our hearts still ache, then what?” he asks. “I do believe God is good, but how do I experience Him as good when life isn’t?”
Matt’s first experience with death came when he was three. His baby brother, Michael Preston, was born prematurely and died a day old. One month after the Virginia Tech tragedy, Matt got a call from his mom. His father, then 58, fell off the roof of their house in Charlotte, North Carolina. He landed, face first, on the deck behind their house and broke his left arm in several spots.
“That was the first time I saw my dad broken,” says Matt. “We didn’t know if there would be permanent brain damage.”
Matt’s dad came through surgery and recovery and after a week, Matt left to head home to Virginia. On the way home, Matt says the grief from his dad’s accident and from the school shootings weighed heavily on him. Matt slammed his fists on the steering wheel of his car, looked toward heaven and exploded.
“God, I am not okay with this!” he screamed.
Suddenly the school tragedy became very personal to him.
“It was 33 people who had individual families who were deeply affected by their deaths,” says Matt.
This spawned Matt’s year long search to answer the question, not “Is God good?” but rather “How do I experience God as good when life isn’t?”
Matt says that people say ridiculous things when speaking of death, like “Life goes on,” “It was his time,” or “Death is natural, just a part of life.”
Matt says he cringes when people say that.
“Death and life are opposites,” he reminds us that Paul says death is a curse in 1 Corinthians 15.
“I cannot embrace the curse (of death), but I must find a way of embracing this world….that for now, permits death,” says Matt.
Matt met with one of the students, Derek, who survived the shooting. Even though several bullets pierced Derek’s jacket, including one right over his heart, only one bullet hit his arm. One of Derek’s friends was shot in the head and survived. Even despite the chaos and mayhem, Derek says there was no logical explanation for those who survived. The tragedy could have been much worse. Derek says God was there -- guiding those who survived to safety.
Matt asked him, “Can a person experience God as good in the midst of horror and sadness?”
Derek answered him emphatically, yes. Matt says Derek’s perspective encouraged him.
“He has experienced the truly awful without having been made awful by it,” says Matt.
Last summer after the shootings, Matt decided to take a year to live like it was his last. On a visit to Colorado, Matt says he saw the Rockies for the first time. He realized the breathtaking beauty of the rocks was born out of a violent quaking force.
“Now it’s a peaceful park for tourists,” he says. And like the VT tragedy, he says, “Years from now, once the dust has settled, what will people see in us?”
Some people want to “move on” from this tragedy. Matt says he understands that people grow weary of bearing a grief no longer felt.
“To move on is to forget,” he says. “But to move forward, yes we must.”
Matt says some students are doing very well; others feel re-traumatized by the anniversary.
“We all feel some apprehension about April 16. But we have a lot of hope, too,” says Matt.
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