“I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.” Psalm 77:1
The kid was eighteen. He was in his last year of high school, the last month-and-a half really, and he was on his way to the state high school basketball tournament.
It was one of those accidents that could have happened a hundred miles away but didn’t. It happened on a non-descript intersection people have passed for years on their way to work and never, ever noticed, an intersection minutes away from his home. The three of them were on a little trip to the state capital, they’d just started, and just like that one of them was dead.
It makes a difference how, I suppose, but I’m glad I’m not the law because what kind of penalty could you exact that would be worse than what has already been given? The guy is dead, someone who, by all accounts, was a great kid, someone who, just days before, had professed his faith in God. For that death, someone else already has a life sentence.
The poet of Psalm 77 starts with history, repeated like a mantra. “Here are the facts, Lord. In the past, when I cried out to you for help, you answered. That’s what I know of your love. You were there when I needed you. My cries were never bootless, never empty, never unheard.” That’s what he’s banking on now.
Just one of the reasons the shocking, accidental death of a kid a couple hundred miles away from the chair where I’m sitting is so frightful is that so many of his friends likely have no such history. Many of them—just kids—can’t testify the way the poet does in Psalm 77; many of them can’t—if they’d be asked—recite chapter and verse of earlier distress or horror. All of this—the sudden, inexplicable end of a life—is new.
Yesterday, a friend of mine once held forth in chapel about hairs falling from heads. He did a careful analysis of every such simile in scripture and showed—forcefully and convincingly—that the phrase itself, “not a hair can fall from your head,” is scriptural shorthand for life itself. He referred to specific tragedies suffered just recently in the community, even mentioned the loss of his own son, years ago; and then passionately offered this eternal bromide: God himself will never leave us, even in death.
He was speaking at just about the time some very tragic news was hitting a rural community in Minnesota—one of their own, a really good kid, was dead.
I never knew the kid. He’d decided to come to the college where I teach next year, but somewhere in a campus office sometime soon, his application will soon be filed elsewhere. If years were moments—and in an eternal way, they are—he might have been in chapel that day to hear the powerful lesson about hairs falling.
The Apostle Paul says in Romans 5 that suffering builds perseverance, perseverance builds character, and character creates hope. It sounds so good at distance, in a rearview mirror. Makes great sense if we’ve got a history.
But in rural Minnesota this morning there are hundreds crying, many of them kids. They’re losing some innocence and gaining a history. Maybe someday the words of the poet will be theirs just as surely as they were his: when I bawled, you wiped my tears—remember? But this morning they’re just learning all of that.
May the God of peace answer them, just as he’s answered the chapel speaker, as he’s answered me, as he answered the poet. Past tense. And present.
Be there. That’s all the poet asks. And all of us do.