Bryan Dunagan, senior pastor in Dallas, dies at age 44

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Bryan Dunagan, senior pastor in Dallas, dies at age 44: Bringing our hardest questions to God

October 27, 2023 -

A man clasps his hands in prayer on top of a table behind an open Bible. By fotoduets/stock.adobe.com

A man clasps his hands in prayer on top of a table behind an open Bible. By fotoduets/stock.adobe.com

A man clasps his hands in prayer on top of a table behind an open Bible. By fotoduets/stock.adobe.com

Rev. Bryan Dunagan became the senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) in Dallas, Texas, in 2014. A gifted speaker and leader, Bryan combined a scholar’s mind and a pastor’s heart in serving one of the great congregations in America. I pastored for many years in the same Dallas community and know HPPC well. I watched his ministry with gratitude for his faithfulness and personal friendship.

Then came the shocking announcement from his church yesterday morning: “In the early hours of today, our beloved Senior Pastor, Bryan Dunagan, passed away in his sleep due to natural causes.” He was forty-four years old and leaves behind his wife Ali and three children. I am joining friends in Dallas and beyond who are grieving deeply today.

What if the nihilists are right?

A massive manhunt for the gunman in the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, continues this morning after residents kept to their homes for a second night. Hurricane Otis killed at least twenty-seven people in Acapulco and devastated the region. And Israel’s military is preparing for a wider ground incursion into Gaza in their hunt for Hamas terrorists. The civilian death toll will inexorably rise as Hamas hides its soldiers and munitions among the population.

Every Israeli and Palestinian who dies will be grieved by someone; given the young age of most of the soldiers, they will be grieved by parents and grandparents left behind. Such grief is unspeakably unnatural—we are supposed to bury our parents, not our children.

In yesterday’s Daily Article, I reported on an Israeli mother who told reporters after her girls were kidnapped by Hamas, “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe God exists. If he does, why are my daughters in Gaza?” Her struggle is the cry of parents across history who grieve a suffering or deceased child.

As a cultural apologist, I wanted to respond to those who reject God’s existence or relevance, so I pointed out the failure of secular alternatives to heal our fallen hearts. However, while it’s important to remind our post-Christian culture that secularism isn’t working, this line of thinking isn’t sufficient for the crises we face.

What if this means that nothing can heal the brokenness of our world? What if the nihilists are right?

“This is what God’s really like”

We can respond to grieving Christians by reminding them that

  • Believers step from death instantly into life with God in paradise, where they are home and well (Romans 14:8).
  • God grieves with and for those who grieve, feeling their pain and sharing their suffering (John 11:35; Isaiah 43:1–3).
  • They will see those they love again in eternity, never to be parted (Revelation 21:4).
  • God redeems all he allows, in this life and in the next (cf. Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 13:12).

And yet . . .

For a pastor’s wife and three young children left behind, for their extended family, and for a congregation grieving the shocking death of their young pastor, theological facts are not sufficient. For parents brokenhearted over the kidnapping or murder of their children and grandchildren in atrocities perpetrated by terrorists, the grief of these days must be unspeakable.

For those who have lost and will lose loved ones in Israel’s war with Hamas, this must be a nightmare without end. For those who suffer from the disasters of our fallen world and the depravities of fallen humanity, words are not enough.

If our God is insufficient for these days, we have an insufficient God.

He promises to “supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). He assures us that he has “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Jesus tells us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. . . . Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

What, then, do we do when God does not seem to supply our need? When we can find no future or hope? When we feel no peace and our hearts are deeply troubled?

“To sit with our grief and to pray with us”

When we feel life’s deepest pain, we can respond in two biblical ways.

First, ask our questions.

Our Father invites us: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Isaiah 1:18). The Hebrew is literally translated, “Let us argue it out.” Job’s soul-wrenching questions are recorded in Scripture so we can ask them as well. If God’s sinless Son could cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), so can we.

Second, seek God together.

We can allow our grief to drive us from God or to draw us to him. We can refuse to trust him unless we understand him, or we can understand how much we need to trust him. And we can claim the redeeming providence and compassionate presence of a Father who proved his love on the cross and offers himself to all who will “taste and see that the Lᴏʀᴅ is good” (Psalm 34:8).

After Highland Park Presbyterian Church announced the shocking death of their young pastor yesterday, they wrote: “When we don’t know what to do, we are taught to turn to God and pray.” So they held a vigil in their Sanctuary and invited all who could “to sit with our grief and to pray with us.” Today from 9–9:45 a.m. CST, the church is holding “a time of guided prayer in our Sanctuary . . . as we ask for God to give us wisdom as we grieve and to guide our church through our next steps.”

On a recent podcast with Dr. Mark Turman and myself, the Cuban pastor and my dear friend Carlos Alamino testified that, despite rising persecution and extreme deprivation, his people are seeing a spiritual awakening that is transforming their nation. He added, “The early church is still walking and running around the streets of my Cuba.”

How are they experiencing God so powerfully?

Carlos explained his ministry strategy: He introduces people to Jesus and Jesus to people. Then he trusts Jesus to do his transforming work in their lives.

Let’s trust our Savior to do the same in ours today.

Note: In addition to The Daily Article, Denison Ministries produces First15, a daily devotional experience with God; Foundations with Janet, a Bible study resource for individuals and small groups; and Christian Parenting, resources to help parents raise children to know and love the Lord. These ministries are intended to work collectively to build a movement of culture-changing Christians as a catalyst for spiritual awakening and more transformation. I encourage you to experience them today.

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