During the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I decided to enroll in a class being taught by one of the most popular Religion professors at my university. The class was called “Psalms and Old Testament Wisdom Literature”. The course title alone was enough to convince me that by the end of the semester I would become a 19-year old near-expert on ancient biblical wisdom.
Turns out, here is the only thing I remember from that 4 1/2 month long experience: President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq.
My professor, an Ivy League educated Baptist minister and Vietnam War veteran, walked into class the morning after President Bush made his announcement with a guitar under one arm. After closing the door behind him, he was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, he invited us to pray with him. When he prayed, his words were thick with grief. After he finished praying, he got out his guitar and put melody to the most mournful of the biblical Psalms:
Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish.
How long, O LORD, how long?
Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning;
all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My 19-year old self was stunned.
No “man of the cloth” – and certainly no professor in a business suit – whom I had ever known had engaged with a political crisis in this way. The only explanation I can really remember him offering to our class on that day was this: “How many of you have been to war? None? Well, I have. And let me tell you this: war is hell. Hell on earth”. He said this with a kind of solemnity that shocked me.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
“You’ve heard people say, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole’?”, he asked us. “Well, in my experience there were only atheists in foxholes. The idea of benevolent God seems impossible when you are surrounded by hell”.
My heart is severely pained within me,
And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,
and horror has overwhelmed me.
He continued to sing until his singing faded into silence. The silence that followed continued until the clock on the wall signaled the last second of our scheduled time together. I don’t remember who left the room first, or how we managed to do this at all, but I do remember that when I did finally walk out of that classroom, I felt ill.
“Of course war is hell”, I thought. “Why has no one else ever said this to me before?”, I wondered. “And why in God’s name have I never really let myself consider this before?”. The day before when I had learned about the President’s declaration of war, my response had been very detached. I remember that I said a quick prayer of protection for the troops, resolved to trust God with the outcome, and reminded myself of the promise of eternal peace in the after life. “What the hell was wrong with me?”, I marveled.
Suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – I was extremely troubled. Troubled by the thought of war, and troubled by the realization that I had never been truly troubled by it before then.
The idea of war was so far removed from me – both historically and geographically. Born in 1983, I only had vague recollections of yellow ribbons being tied around trees during the Gulf War. My dad had been drafted to Vietnam, but was excused from duty because of legitimate health concerns. My maternal grandfather had done clerical work in WWII, and my paternal grandfather had served in the Navy in WWII. Yet, neither one of them had ever discussed it with me – other than to tell me about their visits home, their relief when the war ended, and the people they met along the way.
The following Sunday while attending church, my pastor mentioned the war, and prayed that the men and women fighting in the war would “seek God’s face”. He then invited us to trust in “God’s sovereignty” and the promise of eternal life for those who believe in him, and then moved on to the regularly scheduled programming.
I sat in my row of chairs feeling supremely disappointed. “Is it possible that I learned emotional detachment from the church itself?”, I wondered.
After the service was over, I sat alone for awhile and tried to recall a time the church had invited me to weep and groan in response to human suffering the way my professor had earlier that week. I knew that I had cried quite sorrowfully over my own ‘sinfulness’ on many occasions, and that I had shed happy tears during baptisms and faith conversions, but I couldn’t remember having ever been shown how to get down onto the ground level of human despair alongside those who were feeling it.
Later that evening, during my regular end-of-day reflection time, I thought about how Jesus responded to the pain of the world.
I didn’t doubt that he had faith in God’s goodness, of which he preached about regularly. Nor did I doubt that he trusted God during times of great pain, which he demonstrated quite dramatically. And yet, when confronted with human pain and suffering, he wept. He healed. He reached out. He cried out. He touched the people no one would touch. He talked to the people no one else would talk to. He lived amidst pain. He died in pain. He went willingly into hell himself, and he emerged with physical, touchable scars. Nothing about his life, ministry, death, or resurrection was removed from the pain of being human.
He was human himself, after all.
It took me weeks, maybe months, or perhaps years to understand why and how my “Psalms and Wisdom Literature” professor’s real-world engagement with the Bible impacted me so viscerally, but it made me feel thirsty for more of the same.