mountain valley

Where Was God?

If you can, try to place yourself in my shoes last Saturday. It is 11:35 in the morning, and you are standing in order to make room for others to find a seat. It is a memorial service, and almost every chair is taken. People have come to grieve, and it is a severe grief. An obituary is read. It is not so long. She was only in her mid-20’s. An opportunity is given for people to share a memory. Only one stands to share, a friend who recalls the woman’s bubbly personality and positive outlook on life. No one else takes advantage of the opportunity to speak; most are simply consumed with a deep sadness. Some are in the valley of despair. This is not supposed to happen. This woman was murdered, brutally stabbed in her apartment. Sadly, there was this darker side. Missteps and poor choices, and an unfortunate relationship led to her untimely death.

And now it is time. “Shepherd Like a Savior Lead Us” is led from the piano, but few are singing. Hearts are too preoccupied, asking how could this be? Why did this happen? Most are numb. And now, as a pastor, you are called to speak. Called to bring some sense, some comfort, some hope. What do you say?

It was just over a couple of months ago that I again found myself in a similar situation. A young man with the future before him, in his first year of university, was shot by a confused man who walked on campus and began to randomly fire his gun. Like last Saturday, most people sat in shock. There were the wonderful tributes to a kid who had an unusual capacity to bring joy into a room. His parents are faithful followers of Jesus. The irony was that he was pursuing psychology and mental health, with a view to helping the kind of unstable person who walked on campus and took his life. The music was sung. What do you say when the moment comes and you walk to the platform and look out at a grieving family and nearly 900 hundred others?

I know how such moments are portrayed in movies. The reverend (almost always with white skin and pastoral gown) quotes a couple of lines from Psalm 23, like so much window dressing. His words are nice and sweet, a timely balm for any who might be listening. But, at least on TV, no one is really listening. There are more important subplots. I can’t recall a script where everything turns on the pastor’s words, lives are changed, and people leave determined to live differently. It does not happen near enough in real life either.

It’s a pastor’s fear that he is like the flowers on the stage—little more than a decoration, a necessary memorial expense. Who wants to stand up and go through the motions, performing the necessary but irrelevant part, expressing bland words to fill the space? Eugene Peterson, my mentor of sorts, sometimes talks about this unseemly role of a pastor, to feel nice but insignificant. “Nice words pastor, but now we have to get back to real life.”

Forgive me if this sounds like an ego that needs to be stroked. I was not standing there thinking—“I hope they realize how important I am.” But I am wondering—will they take God seriously? Will they hear His words and realize in this moment that they need them more than anything else? More than poems that talk about puffy clouds and angels and how she is now having so much fun (the stuff of American religion, but nothing to do with what Scripture says about our future).

mountain valley

A couple of years ago, I worked through Thomas Long’s What Shall We Say? In it, he wrestles with the problem of evil. He reminds preachers that they do not have the luxury of dismissing in the pulpit the serious questions that arise from the pew. Some of those questions include—“Where was God?” “Is God still at the helm?” We should be humble in light of mysteries too deep for words, but it does not mean we stand there silently.

It is clear to me that a fundamental task I have as a pastor is to start with this—

  1. God is none other than wise in everything He does
  2. He is good in everything He plans and purposes
  3. He is powerful to accomplish everything He wills

And yes, I understand that more must be said. This is where Long’s book has been particularly helpful. He points to a text that is a necessary complement to Psalm 23. In Psalm 23 I want to compassionately (yet forcefully ) say: God is anything but distant, impersonal, aloof. He has not left us to sort things out and go through our grief alone. It is the vocation of shepherds to come alongside and give rest and make repairs and journey with us through the darkness. We do not take this truth with enough seriousness.

But Long brings into perspective another text, one I have never heard at a memorial service, but one I used in one of the two services—Matt 13:24-30. Jesus tells a story of what life is like in His kingdom: a farmer plants a field, but while he is asleep, an enemy comes and sows weeds. When both the wheat and tares grow, the field workers are upset (“We thought You sowed good seed!”). They want to know how this happened, and what should be done. Jesus replies—

  1. an enemy has done this
  2. leave the weeds. You might uproot the wheat
  3. a harvest is coming, when both will be sorted out

What does a pastor say? First, it is important to say to those who are trying to preserve and protect the providence of God (e.g., He was behind this tragedy, using it to carry out His ultimate purposes), or to those who are wondering if God is really good (really in control)—that an enemy has done this! God is not the source of evil. Evil is God’s enemy. How this evil exists and why this enemy works to destroy are beyond our ability to know. Our light shines only so far. None of this has caught God unawares, or found Him helpless. But this much can be said for sure—there is a devil, and this is why there are weeds amongst the wheat, bad people amidst the good.

Second, while there is a tendency to make things right and help God by pulling up the weeds (e.g., strike back, take people out of society), the parable makes it clear this is not our mission. If so, we will run roughshod, plucking up both weeds and plants. If God were to come right now as a farmer with a machete, who of us would stand? All of us have something of evil in our hearts. We are called to wait.

Finally, one day, God’s grace and his justice will have its way. The same mercy and justice that sent His Son to the cross will right the wrong. The enemy will be destroyed. And sadness and death and mourning will be no longer.

It is something of this that must be said–something that gives some explanation of why. Jesus did this. Something that affirms our God cares, for He is the God of the Gospel. His mercy and justice do reign and will reign. And the one in grief will need to hang on to these things once the crowds disperse and one finds oneself alone and needing to turn to Him to put life back together.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

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