By Paul Talley
April 27, 2009
What affected me most was the teens. Covered in blood and stained with emotion—their stories were vivid and painful as they desperately tried to convey the twisted violence they had witnessed with anyone who might offer a chance to explain this new evil to them. It would be their faces, covered in blood, with eyes fixed on me asking, “Why?” that would haunt my dreams. Who can look into the face of lost innocence and survive? It was like watching helplessly while someone was being raped. My stomach turned as the innocence of their youth was taken from them by a bloody and ruthless adversary bent on destruction and death.
I wanted answers. From the moment I left Columbine high school 10 years ago, I wanted answers. I needed to know “why.” I was 24 years old, ready to take on the world and fresh out of seminary—but all the training 40 grand could buy was suddenly derailed by the simplest question: Why? Why evil? Why kids? Why here? Why me? Why now?
In the coming days and weeks as events unfolded, I discovered a deeper horror: isolation. Withdrawing from family and friends, I found it hard to relate to others. Small and insignificant issues erupted into big mountains as I grasped at straws while edging closer to the cliff. The nation-changing event known as “Columbine” slowly became my own private “Columbine” as I silently suffered. I suffered with what I saw, what I did and, most importantly, what I thought God didn’t do. Why didn’t God show up for me like He did for others?
Christians today often seem to celebrate only the big moments. Christian books and videos are filled with tons of celebrations of how God showed up in some big way to save the day. Well-meaning preachers parade a constant stream of feel-good stories in pulpits across America. But what about the other times? What about the times when God simply chooses to not show up?
During the 10 years since Columbine, I have come to understand Scripture differently. Hidden beneath the felt-board stories and trite explanations is a deeper sub-story—a subversion of the popular health and wellness Gospel preached on every street corner these days. What is this subversion? It’s a slow and painful waiting. Just a quick look at Scripture will reveal this. Many of the Bible’s big characters had to wait. Abraham, Moses, Joseph, John the Baptist all believed in a promise that was decades away. Skimmed over in the “verse of the day,” quick Bible school readings are reference to this slow and painful waiting. Genesis 40 tells of Joseph lying in prison for years for a crime he did not commit. One day, as if by a stroke of luck, he finds an official of Pharaoh who promises to put in a good word for him when he gets out the next day. In perhaps one of the most understated lines in Scripture, Genesis 40 ends with these words: “ The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph, he forgot him.” Genesis 41 starts by saying “When two full years had passed.” Two full years! Two years of waiting and prayer; two years of expecting to be released any day; two years of hoping.Last week I found myself waiting on Columbine once again. This time my waiting had a timeline. As I sat on the plane waiting to go to Denver for the 10th anniversary of Columbine, I could not help but ask more questions. Why was I going back? What did I hope to gain? Would anyone recognize me? I had visions of parents stopping me and saying, “Hey, are you the guy who sat and prayed with me when I found out my daughter was killed?” Each question spurned more questions, an avalanche of hope, desire, pain, all flowing down into my valley of darkness. What would happen? How would my personal Columbine end for me? I was desperately searching for my feel-good faith moment, looking behind every corner for hidden meaning, replaying every conversation for a sign or a signal that would finally reveal to me why I had to bear witness to such pain.
It never came.
The anniversary came and went. I went to the candlelight vigil and the memorial service and nothing happened. No one recognized me. My anticipated feel-good faith moment never came. Spend too much time hanging out in the halls of faith and you will see faith’s dirty little secret: nagging questions. They chase us at every turn and haunt us at every intersection of life. Why? Why here? Why me? Why now? Stealing away our joy, we never escape them. When one of life’s great questions gets answered, another always surfaces in its place like a lost buoy at sea, bobbing into our consciousness, causing us to drift into confusion. A deeper look at our Bibles will reveal to us that these questions are not new. The Old Testament writer of Psalms 13 says this:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?”
Listen to this ancient passage and hear the rhythms of faith pulsating hard.Why? Why here? Why me? Why now? These questions, as painful as they are, do something to us. Questions destined to destroy our faith, once embraced, do the exact opposite. When we embrace these tough and brutal questions, we find a real and authentic faith, stripped down from all of the false gospels. When we stand in the presence of the Creator and lay bare our questions, faith suddenly becomes real and deep, we play for keeps. When we have the courage to stand strong and embrace the questions we cannot answer without God, we move away from felt-board faith and into a new hope.
My Columbine didn’t end.
And I am OK with that.