When something terrible happens, lots of people seem to want to hear from their pastors and church leaders. We are expected to have some kind of voice in whatever conversation is happening in the world.
When there is a global crisis, we (pastors) are expected to speak wisdom into the chaos.
When a celebrity commits suicide and lots of people start voicing opinions about the nature of depression, we are expected to weigh in on the spiritual dimension of such a thing.
When a gunman charges into an elementary school, people look to pastors to say something that will give them some kind of comfort.
When nearly a hundred young girls are abducted from an elementary school in Uganda, people want to know that their pastors are concerned and are paying the proper amount of attention.
When an unarmed African-American is shot and killed by a police officer and an entire community is then hurled into the national spotlight and subjected to unspeakable violence and turmoil, people demand that their pastors say something—anything.
I think it’s always been this way. I was a youth pastor when 9/11 happened, and the Sunday that followed saw the highest attendance in that church’s history.
Lots of people, when faced with a crisis or a catastrophe or what seems like a major historic event, want to hear from their pastors.
I became a senior pastor for the first time back in February, and I have already experienced several moments when people have reacted to something in the news and looked at me as if to say, “Well? You’re on.”
So here’s my confession: I never know what to say.
Sure, I have opinions and emotions and thoughts and questions just like everybody else, but that doesn’t mean I’m any more qualified to speak out about an issue than anybody else. I went to seminary, not law school. If you have questions about the book of Leviticus or some obscure Hebrew phrase, I’m your guy. But when it comes to global events, I pretty much always feel out of my league.
My microphone isn’t very loud—compared to many of my peers, I don’t generate nearly as much traffic as someone who would be considered a prominent voice in the global community of faith—and I don’t have very many new thoughts. Most of the time I’m just as sad, overwhelmed, bemused, outraged, or heartbroken as anyone else. Whatever I say will never be enough, and I know it.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a poem in which this writer talks about all the ways he is frustrated or angry with God. He even says that he feels like God has “forgotten” him. At one point, this poet says in a prayer, “I remembered you, God, and I groaned.” (Psalm 77)
Essentially, this writer is saying that he felt such deep anguish—such overwhelming grief—that he couldn’t even muster any more words. All he could do was groan.
I can do that.
People want to know why God would allow something so terrible to happen or what we are supposed to do now in a world where something tragic has occurred. But sometimes there are no answers that could possibly satisfy anyone—sometimes no words will do.
Sometimes all we can do is groan.
I believe in God, and I believe that God is good. However, it’s certainly not always easy to convince anyone else—or even myself—of these things. Sometimes God seems like an unconcerned teacher looking the other way while the bully reigns terror at recess. Sometimes God seems like a maniac. Sometimes God seems like something we made up in order to make ourselves feel better when we go through tough times. Like the poet says in the psalms, sometimes it feels like God has forgotten us.
That’s why I don’t know what to say. I think people want me to convince them that God is still good in the midst of these tragic events, and I don’t know how to do that.
Sometimes the only thing I know how to do is groan.
As a pastor this makes me feel powerless, which I suppose is exactly what I am. I’m human, and I’m trying to figure all of this out just like everybody else.
So here’s what I can say to people who are hurting.
To people who are grieving…
To people who are afraid…
To people who feel unheard and unloved…
To people who feel that they have no home in this world…
To people who suffer from mental illness and depression and to the family members of the people who have lost someone to these afflictions…
To people in Iraq, whose children are being savagely murdered…
To people who have needed to pour milk into their eyes to relieve the pain from tear gas…
To anyone who has lost a loved one in an act of violence…
To our brothers and our sisters who are asking their pastors to please say something…
To all of these and more: I am groaning alongside you, and so are thousands of others.
If you are grieving, outraged, or heartbroken, we join you in that ache.
May we rediscover the goodness of this God as we learn to groan with one another.