“How Long?!” These words reverberate. They ring out.
On a normal day from my lips they’d sound shrill and tinny like the impatient nagging of a four-year-old on a road trip. Addressed to the Heavenly Father like a cosmic “Are we there yet?” No, we are most certainly not there yet. Not even close. But on days like this week those words are the only ones I can muster, the only ones I should.
I’m tempted by other words. Words of certainty (“God is in charge.”). Words of comfort (“We’ll get through this.”). Words of rage and vengeance. Words of blame aimed at policy-makers, people groups, and presidential candidates. Words fueled by fear or discomfort. Words proclaiming peace where there is no peace because I just can’t handle the un-peace.
Even though I grew up only about an hour away off of Interstate-4, I must confess to a certain amount of disengagement, a numbness, when I heard about Orlando. We’ve been here far too often. I didn’t want details. It seemed as if my grief-receptors were blocked. I didn’t want to engage on social media. I didn’t want to have to do the work of screening and sorting out hot-takes and politicization. I didn’t want to have to grieve out loud or arbitrate who seemed to be appropriately grieving out loud via whatever media they were afforded.
“How long before you require justice for our blood, which was shed by those who live on earth?” (Revelation 6:10b CEB)
I needed time. It is precisely this time that is afforded with a good old cold and broken “how long?” “How long?” is spacious and urgent. “How long?” forces the issue but doesn’t rush to figuring it out. It wrests control out of our hands and minds, and places it back into the loving, knowing hands of our God whose thoughts and ways are well above and beyond our own. We don’t know the answer and aren’t allowed to speculate when these injustices and hurts will be made right. It could be tomorrow, or like the Israelites, it could be forty years from now. “How long?” jumps the track of even our most urgent timelines.
“How long?” is the phrase and posture that joins those of us newly acquainted with an instance or a culture of suffering to those who have been crying, shouting, wincing, whispering “how long?” for quite some time. It is a universal cry, the cry of humanity. In this case it is a particularly acute cry from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and intersexed humanity. It is a cry from mosques, country chapels and megachurches. It is the fragile “¿Hasta cuándo, Señor?” that rings out from family and friends. “How long?” is public domain, while being so specific, concrete, flesh and blood, skin and bone, body and soul.
So why do you keep forgetting us? Why dump us and leave us like this? (Lamentations 5:20 MSG)
“How long?” becomes the soundtrack, the refrain, for God’s people through a history of suffering. It becomes the way to join their cries together into something coherent, something painstakingly real and realistic, aware of the awful hurt and agony going on. But also hopeful, leaning ever so-slightly towards some future where something must be different, where the status quo cannot and must not hold, because that would be just too devastating.
How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me? (Psalm 13:1-2 CEB)
You and I need this soundtrack, without it we can too easily make our own music to drown out the wailing and frustration of the victims of preposterous violence, hatred, terror, and injustice. A recent article at FiveThirtyEight details the “sunny music” that pervades the popular Christian music market. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah (recent Seminary Dropout podcast guest) writes, “Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices.” If we’re not careful, especially those of us with the luxury of not seeing or experiencing these tragedies and injustices, we’ll never sing these songs. We’ll just stick to a jaundiced diet of praise anthems and love ballads. “How long?” disturbs those playlists.
“How long?” in its assessment of how things are and aren’t, is a cry and a justice-song. It is a tense enough chorus to bear the weight of the tension and uncertainty of our times. Its goal is not to make anything great again, but for relief, for healing, for some just assurance that God is actually, despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, in control and the lines that have been so skewed for so long will soon be redrawn.
“How long?” reaches back to the promises of our Good Father to never leave nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). It harkens back to the truce God called on humanity as he hung his bow in the sky, that allows us to unequivocally call evil and the powers of sin and death out. It reaches back to Christ’s cry of dereliction on Calvary, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” with an empathy and an assurance, that whatever fear or distance or dissonance we or our neighbors now feel, Jesus was there in that darkness first.
‘Til You wipe away the tears from ev’ry eye/
‘Til we see our home descending from the sky/
Do we wait in vain?/
Jesus, give us hope again!”
“How long?” also groans, stretches, scratches and claws forward. Towards future reality where assault rifles are hammered into rototillers. To where all of the tears at all of the vigils are wiped away and the salt trails and salted fields of former devastation will bear fruit and yield a harvest once again. To the coming king and kingdom.
I wish I had a better or different song to sing. I wish the song that kept coming on was something with a little more swing, was a lot less discord. Until then, I’ll sing the only song that seems appropriate for times like these: “How long?” I hope you’ll sing with me, with others, in your churches, and with those whose voices don’t quite harmonize with your own.