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Weeping in Nashville
Where is God when unspeakable acts beget unspeakable sorrow?
This Monday morning, parents were dropping their children off at The Covenant School anticipating a bright, sunny, promising day of love, friendship, and learning. No one could fathom what would happen soon after this, when a 28-year old assailant entered the building and opened fire, resulting in the loss of life for three nine-year old children, three adults on staff, and then the assailant.
Part of a pastor’s calling is to enter into life’s disorienting, gut-punching, heart-ripping spaces and offer perspective on questions that honestly cannot be answered. This is especially true when the main question being asked is, “Why?”
Why would a good and loving God who is sovereign over every square inch of the universe, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who said, “Let the little children come to me,” and who promised again and again to be our shield, protector, and defender allow the senseless loss of life for these precious little ones? Why would the same God let faithful, loving, godly educators also be gutted from their families and communities so prematurely?
Why would he let the young survivors and the brave grown-ups who courageously protected them experience the trauma of being there, hearing the gunfire, being rushed frantically to places of safety, and then be marked by the memory for the rest of their precious lives? Why would he not foil and fail the shooter’s plans before a single shot was fired?
Why would the God who holds even the hearts of kings in his hands not, by his power of persuasion over the hearts of all humans, redirect the intent of the assailant’s heart as well? Why would God let the heart of one of his own image-bearers to go to such a dark and horrific place, and then follow through with such a dark and horrific plan?
We already know the answer to such questions, which is that we will never know the answer to such questions.
Nashville musician and producer, Charlie Peacock, shared great wisdom in his song, “Now is the Time for Tears.” The lyrics warn against acting as Job’s friends, who fired foolish and woefully off-the-mark answers to their suffering friend who was, among other things, grieving the loss of ten children:
Now is the time for tears. Don’t speak, save your words. There’s nothing you can say to take this pain away. Don’t try so hard…Cry with me, don’t try to fix me, friend. That’s how you’ll comfort me. Heavenly Father, cover this child with mercy. You are my helper through this time of trial and pain. Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers. Gently show them that now is the time, now is the time, now is the time for tears.
- Charlie Peacock, “Now is the Time for Tears”
The “Why?” question cannot be answered from our earthbound perspectives. We know the world is fallen. We know that sin and sorrow wreak havoc on everyone and everything, all the time. We know that none of us is guaranteed another day, and that the current day could be our last. We know that the final enemy called death is coming for us all, with a mortality ratio of 1:1. We know that sickness, sorrow, pain, and death are inescapable in our current reality, and will one day be rid of by our resurrected and returning King.
But in spite of what we know, or perhaps because of what we know, the best answer to the “Why?” question right now must be bewilderment and confusion and anger. There is good reason why among the eight human emotions—guilt, shame, loneliness, fear, anger, sadness, hurt, and gladness—seven of them are given for the purpose of expressing grief and protest over how things are not as they are meant to be. These seven grief-stricken emotions are part of how God, in whose image we are made and who is himself a Deep Feeler who gets angry and sheds tears—“Jesus wept”—equips us to show up fully in a tragic world.
When lives are lost, especially in such a senseless and rupturing way, the protest of Martha, who had just buried her brother Lazarus after a premature death, feels right:
“Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died” (John 11:21).
Lord, if you had been here…
Do we dare speak this way to our Maker? Do we dare confront him for abandoning us in our times of greatest need? Do we dare give voice to the feeling that he did not show up and did not come through for us, even when we cried out to him in our fear and despair? Do we dare challenge him for not doing things we know God is supposed to do as a God who protects, defends, and upholds the weak?
Some are hesitant to ask Martha’s question. Though honest, raw, and real, it also feels irreverent to challenge our Lord about anything, including our most devastating trauma. When tragedies involving the death of children and their beloved educators happen, is it right to question God? Is it right to confront him for his inaction against a kind of vandalism that is irreversible in this world, namely, vandalism against his most precious gift of human life? Is it our place to question him, even for these things?
He is God, after all. He is to be trusted, esteemed, honored, respected…and feared. But maybe somewhere in Martha’s question, and in the honesty and rawness and realness of her expressed grief, there are signs of an actual, next-level reverence and holiness that respects the Lord enough to give him our unfiltered honesty, even to demand some sort of meaningful response. Martha, is in relationship with him, after all.
After losing his wife, Joy, to an untimely death because of cancer, C.S. Lewis dared to question God in similar, Martha-like fashion:
Go to (God) when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Likewise, Nicholas Wolterstorff lamented the death of his beloved son:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself…We strain to hear God in our sorrows. But instead of hearing an answer we catch the sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God…thru the tears of God we see the splendor of God.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
If a pastor has anything worthwhile to say in such a time as this, it is that God himself invites, even welcomes, these kinds of protest. In fact, the very prayers that God inspired for us to say back to him in our own prayers—The Psalms—are saturated with the seven emotions of grief, and are filled with bold and explicit protests against what feels to us like the inaction of God in our times of greatest need.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
“I cry aloud to the LORD; I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint…I tell him my trouble…I have no refuge; no one cares for my life. I cry to you, Lord…Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need.” (Psalm 142:1-6)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
Another potential comfort to consider is that although he does not provide us with answers concerning our grief, he does provide us with himself. When Martha and Mary questioned him about the untimely death of their brother and how he, Jesus, delayed four days after burial to arrive at the scene, we are told that Jesus wept. Then, right before Jesus shouted, “Come forth” into Lazarus’ tomb and the dead man came forth and lived again, the text says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit.” But the Greek for this phrase is much more forceful than this. The literal meaning is that Jesus was furious, likened to a raging bull with flaring nostrils who is about to rush, attack, and trample its prey under its heavy and insurmountable feet.
That is who Jesus is concerning death. He is not passive. Far from it, he is as a Raging Trampling Bull who rages at and will trample over death and restore all that is his that has been lost. The Bull of Heaven has earth-sized, heavy, stampeding feet. The Lion of Judah has piercing, death-defying teeth. And defy death, he has. And defy death, he will.
And yet, let’s not rush to hope so swiftly, lest we rush prematurely out of our grief, hurt, anger, and fear. In the wake of such horrid loss as our friends at The Covenant School have experienced, it is right and good for disorientation and grief to feel, for now, more formidable and strong than the feelings of hope.
Our Lord has his own reasons for everything. This includes not showing up for Martha and Mary until four days after their brother’s death, as well as allowing the universe to be deafeningly silent after his own death until the third day, as well as this haunting “already but not yet” season we are stuck in currently as we await his return and the fulfillment of his promise to make all things new.
I think his reason for making us wait includes his own high esteem for our grief, which images his own. Like a pregnancy, the healing of broken bones, and good therapy, grief is too sacred a thing to be rushed. So the Lord, who is himself the “Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief” tends mercifully to our grief for a time, until the morning of hope should dawn in the fulness of time.
Even as we wait in grief, the text of Scripture whispers hope.
“We grieve…with hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
It’s a good thing that in times like this, hope doesn’t have to be a feeling. It is more of an inescapable, resurrection-sealed fact than it is a feeling, to be sure.
One of my favorite reminders of this is a lyric from our friend and Nashville singer-songwriter, Sandra McCracken. The lyric is from her song called “Fools Gold,” and is the best exclamation point I know of to put on the grief being felt in Nashville, Tennessee at this time:
The kids are laughing in the other room
A life more complicated, their smiles are still in bloom
They're on their own,
Take them by the hand, the best we can
We give them love, we give them love
But if it's not okay
Then this is not the end
And this is not okay
So I know this is not, this is not the end
This is not okay. Easter is coming, but everything right now feels like Good Friday and Holy Saturday, or as some call it, “The Space in Between.”
But because this is not okay, we know this is not the end.