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March 31, 2020
A Word from John D’Elia,
President and Professor of Christian History and Culture
New Theological Seminary of the West
Dear Friends of NTSW,
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, as we begin another month in captivity.
OK, so maybe that’s overstating things, but it feels like a form of prison, especially for the extroverts out there (and right here). It’s a good thing we’re all doing—staying at home, keeping our distance, doing our best to keep each other healthy—it’s a good thing, but it’s not easy.
As the novelty wears off and we’re faced with at least another month of the status quo, it’s natural for us to have questions. No need to dilute this part—here’s our real question:
Where the heck is God in all of this?
Right? I find myself praying for those close to me, for the church and seminary I serve, for friends and strangers and the whole world. At some moment in all of those prayers I say out loud to God: “Where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you stopping this?”
It turns out I’m in good company. In the Bible we find most of our worship language in the Psalms. It’s in this book right in the middle of our Bibles where we find “make a joyful noise” and “clap your hands all you people” and “this is the day that the LORD has made.”
But it’s also the place where we learn something about what it means to lament.
We don’t talk about lamenting nearly enough, except maybe when we’re complaining about someone else’s tendency to complain (read that again). Lamenting has become synonymous with our daily rhythm of whining about how things didn’t go our way, but in our faith tradition it means so much more than that.
N.T. Wright is one of the best Christian thinkers out there. If you haven’t read anything by him, look him up. He publishes academic books as N.T. Wright, and more accessible things as Tom Wright.
In a recent edition of Time magazine, he offers this thought:
“Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer.”
All of us are asking “why?” and not getting much in the way of answers. I want to encourage you today that it’s OK that we don’t have all the answers—if you knew exactly why people were dying, would it make you feel any better? No—our questions are deeper than that.
Where is God?
How will God sustain us in our fear and illness?
Can we trust God to redeem this time of suffering?
Those questions put us in the long tradition of people who love and trust the God of the Bible, even when we can explain why things happen—even when we don’t have all the answers. Don’t believe me? Read Psalms 13, 22, 88 and 89.
Just as a side note, did you know that there are more Psalms of Lament in the Bible than any other kind? That means that more often than not, when God’s people sat down to write their worship language, what came out was a lament.
I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting today. How about you?
My advice today, even though it may sound strange, is to allow yourself some room to lament. Allow yourself the “why?” questions, even without expecting some tidy answer right away.
When we do that—when we lament the way people of faith have done for thousands of years—when we cry out and ask our questions to the God who made us, who loves us, who died for us, and who promises us a future, we live into our faith as disciples of Jesus.
I know this is hard—if lamenting were easy, they would have called it something different. None of this is easy, and none of this is meant to gloss over the pain we’re seeing and the fear we feel. But…it’s a good reminder that we love and serve a God who is sovereign and whose grace can be trusted from generation to generation.
God isn’t afraid of our questions, so go ahead and let them fly. It’s not a burden or an annoyance to God. It’s a declaration of trust.
Blessings to you as you all continue to shelter in your homes. Know that you’re in our prayers.
(A word about Giving: Our financial commitment to the seminary doesn’t stop during times of crisis. We are still paying our staff and our bills, and we have multiple ways for you to keep up your regular gifts of support. You can use the Donate option on the seminary website, or mail your gifts to the seminary office at 626 Foothill Blvd., La Canada CA 91011. Thank you for your faithful support!)