October 19, 2019
I went to bed early last Friday night. Because I had a bad cold and a cough I slept in the spare bedroom. About 1:30am Sabbath, I was awakened by a bright light shining through the blinds. I jumped out of bed and peered through the blinds to see what was going on.
I heard a voice, “Seattle police.” I went to the front door and opened it a crack. “Are you really the police?” I asked. Not thinking clearly, since if someone was pretending to be the police they would probably not admit it just because I asked.
Yes, they were really the police. They came up on the porch and told me the name of the person they were looking for.
I recognized the last name as the same as the people who lived in the house before we did.
We talked for a few minutes. I told them everything I knew, which was almost nothing, and they left.
I went back to bed and went back to sleep.
What I didn’t know was within an hour of my encounter with police acting in an appropriate professional manner, Atatiana Jackson also looked out her window at police in her yard and she was shot to death.
The more I learned of Ms. Jackson’s story, the greater the horror I felt. She was a recent college graduate planning on going to medical school. She was a favorite aunt, a favorite sister, a favorite daughter.
I cannot get my head around the monstrosity of her family’s loss. Shot dead because she did just what I did. She went to her window to see what was going on in the middle of the night.
I wrestled with how to handle my horror, my outrage. I wondered how to honor her life and respect her death.
I was drawn to the words of our OT reading.
O LORD, the God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance,
let your glorious justice shine forth!
Arise, O judge of the earth.
Give the proud what they deserve.
How long, O LORD?
How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
How long will these evil people boast?
They crush your people, LORD,
hurting those you claim as your own.
They kill widows and foreigners and murder orphans.
“The LORD isn’t looking,” they say,
“and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care.” Psalm 94:1-7 NLT
How long, O Lord?
These words give voice to
It’s not right!
I’m waiting for things to get better. I’m expecting things to get better. But right now, now in the face of this injustice and trauma and grief, I’m crying. I’m weeping. God, do something.
I cannot change what happened when Ms. Jackson heard noise and went to her window to check it out. I cannot give her back to her family. I cannot change police practice in her town. But I can take some time to feel the awful weight of loss her family and her friends are carrying. I can grieve with them. I can lament.
And I do.
This week the news offered us pictures of Kurdish families fleeing the Turkish invasion. It looked like pictures that are familiar from the Middle East. Families–moms and dads and children–in cars or pickups or on foot with the smoke of war rising in the background.
These pictures of terrified families always kicks me in the gut.
In the Spring of 1972 I was a student at Middle East College in Beirut. War broke out between the Lebanese Army and forces located in a refugee camp. The school was between an army artillery position. As shells were passing overhead I was in my dorm room packing a knapsack with a few things so I’d be ready if we had to run for it.
I wasn’t sure where we’d run. I was a white-blond American in a sea of Lebanese and Arab peoples. I spoke almost no Arabic and did not have a local map. But the great difference between me and the families in those pictures is this: I would be running trying to get home. I was not running from home to nowhere, anywhere. If I could get to the coast there would be American ships offshore.
What must it be like to be a mother and father running with their children–where? Away from bombs, but maybe there will be bombs in the new place. Away from exploding shells and machine gun fire, but who knows if there will be more shells and machine gun fire in the place we run to.
I see these families in my mind.
I feel helpless.
How long, O Lord?
When we lament. When we carry the weight of longing for justice and righteousness and peace, we are entering the heart of God. We are keeping company with God.
During the fourth year that Jehoiakim son of Josiah was king in Judah, the LORD gave this message to Jeremiah: 2 “Get a scroll, and write down all my messages against Israel, Judah, and the other nations. Begin with the first message back in the days of Josiah, and write down every message, right up to the present time. 3 Perhaps the people of Judah will repent when they hear again all the terrible things I have planned for them. Then I will be able to forgive their sins and wrongdoings.” Jeremiah 36:1-3 NLT
God desperately wanted the best for his people. But he could see doom gathering. But he could not get his people to repent and avoid the disaster.
The end of the story of Jeremiah is a heartbreaking tragedy. There had been disaster after disaster. Finally only a handful of survivors were left in the land. They were trying to figure out whether to stay in Judea or emigrate to Egypt. They came to Jeremiah and said, “Ask God what we should do. And whatever God says through you, we will do.
Jeremiah asked for time to consult with God. Ten days later the prophet called the people together. God said, “Stay.” If you stay your fortunes will turn around. Life is going to get better. But if you go to Egypt, only misery awaits you.”
Then Jeremiah said this: “Listen, you remnant of Judah. The LORD has told you: ‘Do not go to Egypt!’ Don’t forget this warning I have given you today. 20 For you were not being honest when you sent me to pray to the LORD your God for you. You said, ‘Just tell us what the LORD our God says, and we will do it!’ 21 And today I have told you exactly what he said, but you will not obey the LORD your God any better now than you have in the past. 22 So you can be sure that you will die from war, famine, and disease in Egypt, where you insist on going.” [Jeremiah 42:19-22 NLT
Jeremiah went on to write the little book titled, “Lamentations.”
Jerusalem, once so full of people, is now deserted.
She who was once great among the nations now sits alone like a widow.
Once the queen of all the earth, she is now a slave.
She sobs through the night; tears stream down her cheeks.
Then the prophet adds his own tears:
16 “For all these things I weep; tears flow down my cheeks.
No one is here to comfort me;
any who might encourage me are far away.
My children have no future, for the enemy has conquered us.” [Lam 1:1-2, 16 NLT]
It’s important to keep in mind that Jeremiah had written beautiful prophecies about an eventual restoration of Israel. The people would return from exile. Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt. Jeremiah is not weeping because he is hopeless. He is weeping because his heart is broken–in the here and now.
And Jeremiah was mirroring the heart of God. God, too, was weeping.
And when we enter into the suffering of others we are keeping company with God.
We find this same theme of the prophetic and divine grief in Isaiah 16.
The farms of Heshbon are abandoned; the vineyards at Sibmah are deserted. The rulers of the nations have broken down Moab–that beautiful grapevine. Its tendrils spread north as far as the town of Jazer and trailed eastward into the wilderness. Its shoots reached so far west that they crossed over the Dead Sea. 9 So now I weep for Jazer and the vineyards of Sibmah; my tears will flow for Heshbon and Elealeh. There are no more shouts of joy over your summer fruits and harvest. 10 Gone now is the gladness, gone the joy of harvest. There will be no singing in the vineyards, no more happy shouts, no treading of grapes in the winepresses. I have ended all their harvest joys. 11 My heart’s cry for Moab is like a lament on a harp. I am filled with anguish for Kir-hareseth. [Isaiah 16:8-11 NLT]
Trouble in this world is not evenly distributed. If we are some of the lucky ones and we live in a place where there is employment opportunity, remember there are countries where the unemployment rate is 60 percent.
If we are healthy, remember some people were destined from conception for an uphill struggle against disability.
If we have never heard the sound of bombs exploding in our neighborhood, remember there are places where war has been almost nonstop for decades.
If we have looked out our bedroom windows at some curious noise and then gone back to sleep, remember the Atatianna Jackon’s who were shot for doing the very same thing.
Remember and lament.
And then when Monday comes, when we step back into the regular world of work and life, let us do everything we can to make it better, to extend the blessings we enjoy to an ever wider circle of humanity.
Let’s do what we can to answer the cry of “How Long?” that arises from our own hearts and all those who suffer.
Let us partner with God in hastening the day of peace.