That was my question on Monday evening as I read psalm 121 for a group of mourners who were visiting the site where a young man from the congregation was killed while crossing at the crosswalk. It was a psalm designated by our prayer book as appropriate for times of tragedy:
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Lord will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Nice message, eh? Comforting. This psalm is supposed to soothe the sorrowing heart, to give hope to those who suffer. But I couldn’t help but wonder why those promises didn’t apply to the young man who perished while walking home with his brother. Is God really our shield? Does God really keep our feet from being moved? Or do these promises apply to some and not to others? I'm not being sarcastic. I really want to know.
When I read this psalm to the crowd, the vibe I was getting back was: this means nothing to us. These are pretty words but they didn’t stop our friend, son, and brother from getting killed.
This is not an isolated case. One children’s gospel song finishes with the words: My God keeps me safe.
“Really?” I thought to myself upon hearing it. Does God really keep children safe? Does God keep Lebanese children from being blown up by Israeli bombs? Does God keep African children safe, the ones whose parents have died of AIDS and are abandoned to a lonely, painful death? Walking through the pediatric ward at the hospital, I wondered how a 5-year-old in the final stages of cancer hears that song.
So what does God promise? And does God always keep biblical promises? Or should we lower our expectations?
That’s my question for today.