The SPU community gathered in First Free Methodist Church for prayer services on June 5 and 6, and for a memorial service for Paul Lee on June 11. With a full sanctuary, thousands of people watched the live streaming broadcasts from overflow rooms on campus — and from locations as far away as the Cayman Islands, Australia, and Rwanda. Following services, faculty and staff prayed individually with anyone who wanted to stay.
I’ve been a pastor even longer than I’ve been a professor, and that’s a very long time, and because of that, I know every cliché that one can use in a time like this. And the thing about those clichés is almost every single one of them, from my perspective, has an aspect of truth. Here’s the problem with them: We use them too quickly. We use them too soon.
One of the things that I love about being a Christian is that I’m required to be honest, and honesty requires today that we be honest. I’m angry. I’m upset. This is my beloved institution, and many of you are my beloved students and colleagues, and that has been violated today.
This act has been an act of madness and insanity and evil, regardless of what’s behind it. There’s no explaining it. This is not God’s plan. This is not God’s will. This is not God’s doing something to teach us a lesson. Any lesson we learn out of this could have been learned otherwise, and so it’s a day for lament. It’s a day to scream. It’s a day not to go too soon to comfort, because that makes it false.
One of the things I love about the Bible is its deep, almost brutal honesty. We have done everything we could do for 2,000 years to tame it, domesticate it, push it to the back of our minds, take all of the comfort out, take all of the ease out, and take away the edginess and take away the truth and take away the honesty. We love the Psalms, don’t we? We find them comforting. They get at us at our deepest spiritual longings, but it’s so easy for them to select them so very carefully. One of the first things we said today, absolutely appropriately: We’ve got to say Psalm 23, of course.
But the Psalms have been put together to force honesty, and as it turns out, Psalm 22 comes before Psalm 23, and that Psalm begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I even find the translation in this particular pew Bible an attempt to tame: “Why do you leave me alone?” That’s not strong enough. That’s not edgy enough. That doesn’t take off enough varnish.
This Psalm laments tragedy and difficulty and hurt and frustration and anger so strong that the Psalmist wants to know where God is. “What does it mean for God to be present when God isn’t here right now?” says the Psalmist. How can we spout the clichés, “Where are you, God? How will I see you, God? Will you show up for me?” How about a burning bush? How about a mountaintop? How about a still, small voice? How could you forsake me when I need you most?
To be sure, before you end Psalm 22, you begin to move out. You begin to find comfort. You begin to discover that there’s nothing about your faith that ensures you and inures you against hurt and pain and suffering, but God will be with you.
But you can’t go there too soon. It’s a long Psalm, and you have to struggle through the toughest parts before you get to where things ease up a little bit. And that’s why Psalm 23 comes after Psalm 22.
We live in a world, and the community of faith has always lived in a world where tragedy happens, where evil raises its ugly head, where death tries to be victorious, where chaos attempts to rule. It’s not that these are worse times. The community of faith has always been through this, and when it is at its best, it knows that comfort cannot bypass lament, the cry of the heart. The worst thing we can do is to say, “This was God’s doing. I just don’t know why God did it,” because I believe that today, God also laments. God also has a broken heart, even a broken heart for the poor, tortured person who did this. What would lead someone to do this? This person needs every prayer you and I can muster.
Even Psalm 23, that great comforting prayer, makes us realize that it’s when we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, not because the evil’s not there, but because “You are with me.” The threat is not taken away. The anxiety does not go away. The danger is still there. It’s God with us. We should know that. The great prophecy of Jesus was, “Call his name Emmanuel, God with us,” and his name is Emmanuel even if his name is Jesus as well.
So as you hear Psalm 22 and Psalm 23, give thanks for the comfort. Embrace the hope. Don’t give up on the resurrection, because that’s what we’re about, but don’t go there so quickly that you cheapen it, and that you don’t realize the cost that’s involved, and that you don’t accept the pain, the hurt that calls for the lament.