Westmont Magazine How Do You Redeem Suffering?
President Gayle D. Beebe
Suffering is an incredibly challenging but necessary part of our journey of faith. One of the great hurdles to my own belief in Christ involved coming to terms with the problem of evil and suffering. For five years I spent time within my spirit thinking and reflecting on why God, a perfectly loving God, would allow so much evil and suffering. Over time, as my wife, Pam, and I have had the opportunity to work with people who have grieved, so many things have become clear to me. One is the fact that God created us to grieve. We were never intended to live eternally in this world; God made us for eternity with him. If we didn’t have a sense of the great loves and the loss of love that happen in this life, we could not develop a yearning and a longing for God himself.
As I returned to campus Nov. 13 (I was headed to Agoura Hills to meet with board chairman Steve Stong and two other trustees), two thoughts ran through my mind. The first was about my own family. My daughter Elizabeth had called me on the phone, and before we lost coverage, she said, “The campus is on fire.” We were able to reconnect after I had turned back toward Santa Barbara. Pam and our three children were taking a friend home to Westmont Road, near the entrance to faculty housing. As they reached that street the fireball had already entered Las Barrancas, so they turned around and headed off the hill and made it down to the ocean.
As I confirmed that my own family was safe, my thoughts turned to the students. It took me half an hour to get back to the bottom of the hill at Cold Spring and Sycamore Canyon. I’m forever grateful that Division Chief Jim Langhorne from the Montecito Fire Station was willing to drive me to the gym and the command center in M2. It soon became clear to me that all our students were accounted for — that even as we were losing buildings on campus and faculty homes — we had suffered no casualties and no serious injury. This was very reassuring to me.
In the aftermath of this horrible fire as we’ve begun to put our campus and our lives back together, we recognize that God never makes us all suffer in the same way or at the same level of intensity. God creates each of us with capacities to respond in love and in gratitude, and he gives us the privilege of helping others who have greater needs than ourselves.
Looking at the aerial photos of our home makes me wonder how it survived. Before he dropped me off at the gym, Chief Langhorne took me up to check on our house. I wanted to know if it was gone to begin preparing emotionally. The fire was burning on both sides of La Paz Road, Bauder Hall was engulfed in flames and nearby homes were ablaze. All the vegetation around our house was gone, but it was standing intact. As Pam and I have reflected on this, we see it as a sign of the Kingdom of God. God spared our home so we could give our attention to those who have lost so much more than we have: students, faculty and staff.
For me, it’s a great metaphor of the life God gives us. When we suffer, others come alongside us to strengthen and support us, and when others we love suffer, God gives us the opportunity to come alongside them. In all of this, the one thing we control in the midst of our suffering is the response we make to it. The whole story of scripture is filled with people who had the opportunity to choose how they responded to the experiences of life. Some of them responded in a way that honored God, and others turned away from him.
Before us stands one of the greatest experiences of our life and our college. The history of Westmont will forever include the day that fire invaded the campus. But it will also include the glorious response we have seen in this entire community — from people who love us and know us, such as alumni, community members, trustees, faculty, staff, administrators and students — to those who don’t know us but have heard about us across the country and around the world and have sent words of encouragement and hope.
The fire stands as a living testimony that God gives each one of us an opportunity to make a glorious response to the challenges before us. Now let us join together as a part of God’s great community in bearing witness to and faith in him by being faithful in our response to the challenges before us. May God give us strength; may we give God all the glory that is his due. Amen.