This was not a good week.
That may be the understatement of the year. But it’s true. This was not a good week. It seemed that at every turn this week I found myself asking “Now what?” Every time I turned on the TV or the radio or looked on the internet or heard the phone ring: Now what?
Reports of bombs at the Boston marathon; an explosion that practically wiped out an entire town in Texas; a police shootout and lockdown in a town just a few miles away. Now what?
The stories coming out of Boston were so big that they shut out other, equally troubling news; news from as far away as China where over a hundred people were killed in an earthquake and as close as Sudbury where 13 year old Tabitha Feldberg died after suffering a cardiac arrest.
It just felt like too much.
Even before all of these stories began to break, it had been the plan to focus on the 23rd psalm today. I knew that the psalm is a favorite of many people and it just happened to be one of the texts suggested by the lectionary. On top of that, Allen has been leading a wonderful Bible study at the Meadows focusing on the psalm so I had lots of materials that I could steal…I mean a lot of conversation that I could rely on as inspiration.
In fact, on Monday, just hours before the bombs went off, the group at the Meadows was talking about how and why we like Psalm 23 so much. Everyone spoke about how familiar it was, how comforting. We spoke about how it is often used in funerals and memorial services and I asked about that: Why was that so? Was the psalm speaking about the deceased, saying that he or she had travelled through hard times but was now going to live with God in heaven forever? Well, maybe but everyone around the table didn’t see that as the primary message of the prayer. For them it was about comfort and courage for everyone.
The psalm is filled with wonderful images: green pastures, still waters, and, of course, the valley of the shadow of death. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” It’s a powerful illustration of how we can rely on God even through the terrible situations we face throughout our lives. Even during the best of times, it’s a great message. And then we have a week like this past week – a week where the valley of the shadow of death becomes more than just artistic imagery and poetic writing, a week where the valley becomes real and we find ourselves surrounded by shadows.
I was awakened by my wife early Friday morning. Both of our girls have been struggling with illness this week and everyone needed something that morning. As things settled down in our household, Rachel told me about the news coming out of Watertown. “Now what?”
I did exactly the wrong thing that day. I started to follow the news and I never turned it off. For something like 14 hours I was glued to the internet: toTwitter and Reddit and Boston.com and Facebook and anywhere else I could get even a shred of an update on the massive police operation and manhunt. It was terrifying and by immersing myself in the news, I just found myself getting deeper and deeper into the valley of shadows. But I couldn’t turn away. There were updates from police scanners and cell phone pictures from people who were right there. I just knew that if I looked away for even a second that I’d miss something.
As if that mattered somehow. As if that somehow meant that the suspect would get away and it would be my fault or if I missed something it would be like missing the best part of the movie and I wouldn’t know what everyone was talking about the next day.
So I stayed focused on the news all day. Then, suddenly and dramatically, it was over. Almost as satisfying as an episode of Law and Order or CSI, they caught the suspect. The horror and the terror of the past five days was over. There were celebrations in the streets and impromptu parades and as I closed my laptop I confess that the first question to pop into my mind was: “Now what?” The news, and our lives, had been consumed by this story all week. Maybe we didn’t have all of the answers just yet but the suspects were taken care of, the city was reopened, the danger was gone. Now that it was over, now what? Do we just go back to what we were doing? Go on like nothing had happened? Return to “life as usual?” That seemed pretty tempting.
But the fact is, unfortunately, there will be more weeks like this. There will be other times of great tragedy and violence, times when towns or cities, the nation or the world will come to a standstill, focused on catastrophe, plunged once again into the valley of the shadow of death. Other times when we ask “now what?”
So now, during this momentary reprieve, we need to take a second to rest. But we also need to take an inventory of our blessings, give thanks, and focus on the future. Now is the time that we must not just go back to “life as usual” but to strengthen our resolve for next time. Now, when we have a chance to sit back and breathe, we can look at our relationship with God, recognizing that God was with us as we walked through the valley, giving us comfort when we needed it and pushing us through our fear when we needed to grow; understanding that even during terrible times, God sets a feast for us even when we seem to be surrounded by enemies and evil.
This week, God’s feast was evident in the many good deeds that we witnessed. From the first moment – only seconds after the bombs went off – we saw God’s children at work. The first responders, police, military personnel, EMTs, even other runners and spectators who ran to the site of the explosion tearing away the barriers trying to get to and help the victims. We heard stories of runners who continued past the finish line and kept running to the hospitals, hoping to aid the effort by giving blood. Throughout the week, our friends and neighbors came together in prayer and worship, looking out for each other, leaning on one another, maybe being just a little bit kinder. And I know that there are stories that we haven’t heard, the tireless work of hospital workers who have continued to work on the victims throughout the week, the law enforcement personnel who did their best to protect the city, and countless other ways in which God was with us. Surely, our cup overflows with goodness and righteousness.
Now what? Now, it’s not time to go back to life as usual. It wouldn’t be right for us to do that. For Lingzi Lu and Martin Richard and Krystle Campbell and Sean Collier, it wouldn’t be right. Now, we need to let our lives be changed. We need to find comfort in God and to continue helping out our neighbors. We need to give thanks for the good and to work harder to create a world off peace and equality and justice.
And we need to forgive.
That may sound impossible. After a week with so much pain and suffering, how can we be expected to forgive? Not grant clemency or let the crimes go unpunished but to truly forgive in our hearts, to release the hatred, release our own evil thoughts, release the desire for vengeance. It sounds impossible. It sounds unreasonable. But as followers of Jesus, it is what we are called to do. Facing his own death, in the last moments of his life, Jesus was able to look towards the heavens and plead with God on behalf of his own persecutors: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” We need to strive to do the same.
We’ve made it through a tough week, we’ve walked through the valley once again and we’ve found our seat at the table of God’s feast. Now what? Now, we continue to seek out and recognize God in everything we see and do; we continue our journey towards bringing the kingdom of God to life, and we continue our work towards creating a better future – a future of strength and comfort, of justice and equality, of peace and forgiveness. We continue our walk through the valley and we do it knowing that God is with us.