Tragedy can strike any of us. Yet, we can persevere and even draw strength from it. This is the message that Vice-president Joe Biden shared as the commencement speaker at Yale University this year. He speaks from personal experience. Immediately after being elected to the US Senate at age 29 in 1972, his first wife Naomi and their year old daughter were killed when their car was struck by a tractor-trailer as they returned from Christmas shopping.
Their two sons were in the hospital in critical condition and the doctors were not sure they would live. Biden recalls, “By the tone of the phone call, you just knew, didn’t you? You just felt it in your bones. Something bad happened. And I knew. I don’t know how I knew.”
Biden speaks frankly about the anger, crisis of faith and wounds that don’t really ever heal, “I was angry. Man I was angry.… I remember looking up and saying, ‘God.’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?'”
His two sons did live and they became very close as a result of that tragedy. Joe took his oath of office in the hospital room where he was staying with his sons. He later regularly commuted from his home in Delaware to his Senate office so he could be with his sons. As a result, he became a deeply committed family man. Now recently his oldest son Beau, who was only 46 years old, died of brain cancer.
Biden’s experience has made him sensitive to the losses of others. Speaking to military families several years ago, he remarked, “Just when you think you’re going to make it, you’re driving down the road and you pass a field and you see a flower, and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up into the night and, you know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”
Still, he told those families that there is hope, “There will come a day, I promise you and your parents, as well, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later” (The Washington Post, May 31, 2015).
Psalm 130 speaks to such tragedy. It begins in the midst of overwhelming loss, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” For many this is initially expressed as anger at God. Such feelings are understandable but we can’t blame God for such tragedies because God doesn’t control events or our lives in that way. The source of suffering and of evil is shrouded in mystery. What we can be sure of is that God suffers with us and responds with compassion, empowering love, and healing grace.
The psalm moves from that depth of pain and anguish to expectant waiting, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” We will survive, we will gradually heal, and a day will come when it doesn’t hurt so much. Psalm 130 expresses it as a confident assurance of trust in God, “Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” It’s a promise that healing will come.