“Why” question

Incoming freshmen at the military academies are only allowed to say four things when spoken to by an upperclassman:

“Yes sir.”

“No sir.”

“Sir I do not know.”

“Sir, my I ask a question?”

Freshmen are also taught that the only acceptable answer to a “why” question is, “No excuse, sir.”

There are good reasons to drill into future officers the discipline of not making excuses. When lives are on the line, there’s no place for excuses.

And often little time to explain “why.”

Perhaps the most famous “why” question in history was the one Jesus cried out from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

You might know that, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line of Psalm 22. What you might not know is that, in Jesus’ day, when you quoted the first line of a passage, it was a way of calling to the reader’s mind the entire passage. All the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, referred to Psalm 22. In other words, Psalm 22, the ancient cry of one who felt abandoned by God, is a key to understanding who Jesus is.

Many of us have never experienced such a prolonged time of discouragement and abandonment like we’re going through today, and we want to know why.

If Jesus prayed Psalm 22 from the cross, shouldn’t we pray it too?

Jesus so identified with our feeling of abandonment that he cried the words of Psalm 22 from the cross. No matter how discouraged, how abandoned we feel, we know without any doubt that God identifies with us.

God has not abandoned us.

It’s OK to ask God the great “why” questions.

Nobody likes a complainer, right?

My first duty station in the Air Force was by far the worst.

Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, wasn’t the coldest of the northern tier bases. It wasn’t the snowiest (184 inches our first year there). It wasn’t the remotest (the nearest mall was in Bangor, a town of about 30,000, 170 miles away).

Loring wasn’t the leader in any single category; but Loring was the sweepstakes winner.

When the weather finally did get warm enough to go outside, the black flies made it nearly impossible. (Black flies are to mosquitoes what murder hornets are to bees.)

Loring had been on the base closure list for years, so the infrastructure had been neglected. Our first home was a 750 square foot apartment in a fourplex with no garage or carport. Sometimes the snow completely buried our Corvette.

Loring was so unpopular that maybe a third of people who received orders got out of the service rather than accept the assignment. The ones who were left found their three-year assignments extended to four, five, or six years.

But for me, the worst thing about Loring was the complaining. Nobody but the hardiest outdoor types wanted to be there; everybody else complained.

Jana and I escaped Loring after three years, and every assignment after that was better. But even when we were assigned to great places, some people still complained.

Nobody likes a complainer, right?

But here’s an interesting thing. God says, “Bring your complaints to me.”

Something supernatural can happen when you cry out to God.

When you focus on God, your “why” questions can become “who” questions. Who is this God who cares about me?

I’m not saying that self-centered whining is OK. Neither is pouting when you don’t get your way.

But the one who set the stars in place cares about what you’re going through.

Telling the truth

I recently read a book about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” (it likely started in Kansas, not Spain) called The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John N. Barry. It’s not an easy read, with many different narrative threads. But it’s also one of those books everyone should read, because there is much to learn from the great pioneers of science and medicine from a hundred years ago.

And much to learn from the mistakes of the past.

There are two interrelated and overarching lessons of The Great Influenza: leaders must tell the truth, no matter how hard; and the virus will have its way, no matter what.

In 1918, truth was the first casualty. President Woodrow Wilson had mobilized every facet of the country’s life to fight the war in Europe. Telling the truth might, he reasoned, hurt morale and damage the war effort. Wilson never said a single public word about the pandemic.

In 1918 medical science and virology were in their infancy. The way viruses behave is so much more complex than most people realize. Not just the way the virus spreads, but the way they interact with human beings, changing, mutating as they spread. Sometimes getting stronger, sometimes weaker. 

The way we communicate today, with sound bites and tweets, makes it hard to get the truth out. And with our limited attention spans, are we even willing to listen?

By the time the Spanish Flu had played out, after the world had seen three waves of it, only a few of the remotest places on earth were spared. Remote Eskimo villages had been wiped out. Even in the cities that did everything right, in the long run casualties were just high as everywhere else.

Psalm 77 has some powerful imagery of God bringing order out of chaos. In verse 17, the psalmist says, “The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed.” And then in verse 19, “Your path led through the sea…though your footprints were not seen.”

God is bringing order out of the chaos. Nature can see it, even the water can see it. Shouldn’t we?

Through this pandemic, God has given us an enormous opportunity to seek God and to teach our hearts that we are not in charge, of nature, of our lives, or really much of anything.

But God is.

This takes practice, work. Like the psalmist, we have to keep reminding ourselves that God is the one who brings order out of chaos.

Here’s another truth.

We’re not in charge, but God is.   

Low grade depression

This week, former First Lady Michelle Obama spoke for tens of millions of us when she talked about how difficult the last five months have been for her. She described her feelings as “low grade depression.” I’ve had many conversations with people who described exactly the same thing. They’re worried about their businesses, their kids, their future, their country. They have trouble sleeping; they’re on edge, ready to snap.

I feel the same way too. And I worry about the homeless and marginalized who come to the church for help.

This must be how they feel all the time, pandemic or not.

Mark 7:24-30 is the story of Jesus venturing north out of Jewish territory to the Gentile city of Tyre. If Jesus’ presence became known there it could derail his whole mission. It was then a Gentile woman came to him, desperate for him to heal her daughter.

She must have felt this way all the time.

Marginalized, low grade depression, and on top of that, her child was demon possessed. Her conversation with Jesus seems shocking to us. Wasn’t Jesus being cold and sexist? No.

Jesus didn’t come to heal a few people of one tribe or region.

He came to redeem all of heaven and earth.

He came to fix what was wrong with us all.

Mrs. Obama said she was depressed by what was happening in the White House, but she was encouraged by the peaceful protests she saw.

Others say they’re depressed by what the Democrats say and by the violent protests they see.

Look, if we are all depressed, and if we all think the problem is them, maybe the real problem is something deeper.

Maybe defeating people with different political beliefs won’t solve anything.  

Maybe the problem is not them, it’s us.

It’s our fallen hearts

Jesus loved us all so much he let a fractured world tear him apart.

It was the only way to put our hearts back together.