When the news about the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas broke I was traveling in Europe with my husband for our 30th wedding anniversary. I had been very intentional in staying away from e-mail and during the day we were mostly out of touch from any kind of media at all (and often what media there was, was in another language). Most of Europe was focused on Brexit – the impact of Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and soccer – the European Championship games were in full swing – one evening every outdoor restaurant in this market square where we were eating had dragged flat screen TV’s outside to attract folks to eat at their location.
And then towards the end of the trip I got an iMessage from my daughter, “Have you seen what is happening?” So I started searching the Internet – horrified by what I saw. The next morning we woke up to the shootings of police officers in Dallas – just as the news was breaking – as 2:00am Dallas time, was 9:00am in Sweden. I began checking my e-mail and saw the beginning threads of discussion over how should Grace Chapel respond. Pastor Bryan had just returned from China and began wrestling with this soon upon his arrival. And when he landed on the verses from Habakkuk (1:2-4; 3:2) – it felt right. I knew that our African American brothers and sisters were grieving deeply, yet once again, as well as those with connections to law enforcement, because I had begun seeing those posts on my Facebook feed. I knew that our congregation needed hope in the midst of these tragedies, but more importantly we needed time to process, to grieve. . .to lament.
I had actually pulled out a book to take with me on our trip that I had bought a year ago in the midst of other tragedies – Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah - https://www.amazon.com/Prophetic-Lament-Justice-Troubled-Times/dp/0830836942 - with the intent of reading it on the airplane (I usually choose something that is a bit lighter reading for vacation, but that is where my heart was before I left). And that book talks about how the evangelical church in America doesn’t draw from this important part of scripture the way it should, and often moves too quickly to try to find hope rather than stay in the midst of the pain and the struggle long enough – there is healing that needs to take place before we can move forward. There are things to be learned in that place of struggle that we miss if we leave it too quickly. We need to learn from the book of Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament.
When I returned I was so burdened by all that I was reading. Once again I found myself wondering – Lord, how are we are going to find a way forward? Why does this keep happening over and over? I heard the deep despair and even hopelessness in the African American community at the loss of another young black man’s life. I saw police departments struggling to know how to respond to these tragedies as well, and then experiencing their own tragedy when the lives of those trying to protect protesters were taken. I journeyed to two churches in Boston – a service of lament at Forest Hills Covenant Church in Jamaica Plain; and a conversation and sharing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church. And then yesterday, while we were in church, the lives of three more police officers were cut short, by this tragic cycle of violence in which we find ourselves.
In the midst of all this I remembered that I had preached a sermon two summers ago on the very passages of scripture that God had put on Pastor Bryan’s heart, as part of our summer sermon series on “One Word Prayers” – and my one word prayer was “Why?”
At that point none of the tragedies in the past two years that have so impacted our African American and law enforcement communities had happened. We were still reflecting on the aftermath of Sandy Hook – the horrible shooting of elementary children in Connecticut. In fact I preached this sermon on August, 3, 2014 and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson occurred just a few days later on August 9th – Ferguson would become a watershed moment for this country.
As I listened to it again I was reminded how relevant Habakkuk’s words, and the words that God gave me at that time, were, for where we find ourselves today – on one level nothing seemed to have changed; on another level everything has changed.
Habakkuk also spoke in the midst of a world of violent political upheaval. Like Habakkuk, we sometimes cry out “Why?”. . .to express our confusion with things we don’t understand. But we can also cry out “Why?”. . .to express our frustration with things we do understand. “Too often we look at tragedy and cry out at injustice OUT THERE – it is someone else’s fault. But the source of injustice often resides in our midst – even sometimes in our own hearts - because of our sin. . .or our neglect.”
“Why?” prayers don’t always lead to an immediate answer. . .the challenge to not move ahead too quickly in lament is embedded in Habakkuk’s word’s as well. But we are a culture of instant gratification. We aren’t comfortable with waiting and we aren’t comfortable with silence. An article published in the New York Times that I reference in my sermon, “No Time to Think”, summarizes a study published in July 2014 in the Journal of Science, which shows “how far people will go to avoid introspection.”
“You can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. . .Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. . . Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity.”
But most importantly, I was reminded that “Why?” prayers don’t need an answer to lead us to a better place. . .”If we don’t get the answer we want, or don’t like the answer we get, we have a choice to make. We can turn and walk away, or choose to become bitter because we feel that God has ignored us. Or we can keep pursuing understanding – not answers – understanding.
I’m still reflecting and praying on what has happened – still struggling to understand the way forward – but this sermon reminded me that sometimes we need to sit for a bit, once again, in our grief, and listen for what God has to say.
It also reminded me that I don’t have to have the answers – that whatever wisdom there is to be found will come as we as a community of faith, and the body of Christ - press into God – the source of all wisdom. Hope cannot be found in circumstances – hope can only be found in God. Only God knows what is ahead – only God can know what we will need for that journey.