There was almost nothing to see. Just flowers on the grass. Just posters on the fence. Just people standing in silent clusters, gathered to cry and to pray. The boy fell silent and I took his hand. We stood where Walter Scott had fallen. We said his name.
The sky was gray and smelled of rain. And the ministers gathered and stood in front of the microphone. “We have only come to pray,” one of them said. “No speeches. No interviews.” Then we prayed. Asked for strength. Hoped for courage. And choked for a moment on our own anger and confusion. Why were we standing here in this field? Why was he shot in the back? Why did this keep happening over and over again, all of us watching in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, North Charleston. We stood by the flowers and prayed.
Then just as suddenly as we had begun, we stopped. We stood in the sticky breeze and hugged each other quietly, nobody knowing whether to stay or to go. We looked at the ground, trying to imagine. We should carry this place with us. Everyone should. “The rain is coming,” said one of the ministers. “But it will not wash the blood away.” Nor the flowers, which were left there in silent witness.
We walked back toward Remount Road, where the boy stopped at a booth. Black Lives Matter t-shirts waved in the wind. We counted out ten dollars and he pulled the shirt over his dress clothes. It bore the image of a red stop sign, its message childlike and pure. Tears like raindrops stung my cheeks. What kind of world is this?
The past two weeks have not been an easy time to reflect on who we are and what we are doing. But they have been a time that has forced the question. It was pushed to the surface of our consciousness by a video taken and shared. We watched and we witnessed. And many of us were sickened and sleepless. So we come to church again, this Earth Sunday, normally a high and holy day and a festive one, but this time we come with a heaviness of heart and mind, a soul weariness born of story after story of unarmed black men killed, now drawn close enough to us that we can walk to it and stand there, laying flowers on the grass. Perhaps the grass itself has something to say, reminding us that our days are fleeting and should be put to good use. Or perhaps it can strengthen us somehow, if we lie on it and take a rest there, hoping for the hum of the earth to soothe us.
It seems a good time for the lectionary psalm, which may have been written by one equally weary and confused. “Answer me,” it begins, “when I call, God of my justice! Give me relief from my distress!” It’s a far cry from confidence. The poet calls out to the God who is sometimes hidden. The author is looking for justice, looking for relief, and he cries out, hoping to hear something other than his own voice. My old professor taught this as a classic lament. The psalmist, he said, desired not so much a dialogue with God, but a simple confirmation of God’s presence. Are you there? he wants to know. Can you hear me and answer? Even so he prays, because he is drawn to do it, raises his voice as the rainclouds come. “So many are asking,” he utters, “‘Does good even exist anymore?’” It sounds like a prayer you might say in a field.
The psalmist doesn’t stop there, but he stays there for a time. He bears witness to his own voice and to the struggles of his own people. It’s a trademark of Hebrew literature, this honest speech, threaded through a tradition not often preached. The lament tradition. The motif of God’s hiddenness. The shouting of prayers at a slate sky. It’s an acknowledgement of our grief and the ways we wish for something clearer. Would that a voice would answer. Would that a light would break. Would that justice would be done. The dead would rise and be restored. Those responsible held to account. But for a moment the psalmist just holds it all. He neither smooths it nor offers a salve. He just names the truth of experience. “So many are asking,” he says. We are all asking. He is not the only poet to do so.
The Kentucky farmer’s words rise to the surface as well, his lament the same as ours, his search for comfort in a comfortless time. “When despair for the world grows in me,” he writes:
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The theme of lying down and resting, another motif in the psalms. For along with the praying to a hidden God is lying down in the arms of the world. They go together, challenge and comfort, related somehow if not in an easily discernible way. “In peace I’ll lie down,” says the psalmist. “In peace I will sleep.” After one day’s tears and before the next day’s struggle, we’ll breathe deeply and lie down in a kind of natural rest.
In between the morning newspaper deliveries and their worsening headlines, we took bicycles to the Sea Islands. Past St. Helena, through an historic Gullah landscape, to the lighthouse nestled among coastal pines. The peace of wild things. The boy dug his feet into the pedals, the rise of the trail challenging him, his tires spinning on slippery needles. But the air smelled of earth and wood. And the sound of wind in branches was a nourishment, the call of laughing gulls gliding overhead. What kind of world is this?
The writer said that she knew even as a child what kind of world it was. A world of blinding good and evil both. But a world to which we all belong. “I was born knowing how to worship,” she said, “just as I was born knowing how to laugh.” It comes to anyone who has ever walked through the forest in wonder or stood at the shore or climbed into the branches of a great shade tree. The problem is that we are taught to divide it up. To parcel it out. To draw distinctions and divisions among people and places and animals and plants. Then, having compartmentalized things for our own small purposes, we lose the sacred sense of the whole. Worse, we violate it. We do harm to it. We minimize it and begin to forget it. Until we think the neighborhoods really are different. Until we think the people are. Until we think the earth is, and we fall into the delusion of separateness. But the writer and the children know that we can do better. They know that we can see more. So they stand with us, holding hands and laying flowers. They ride with us, hollering through the forest, letting go of the brakes. They call to us, asking us to take the risk of crying and resting and savoring and then getting up again and going back to work. That’s what the earth does, bearing her seasons, one after the other. You’ve seen this all before, she says. There is death. There is winter. There are long rows of stormclouds drawn toward the sea. And there is also life. There is springtime. There are flowers that bloom and are carried, placed on the grass where we remember and give ourselves in love.
“You [do] put a joy in my heart,” says the psalmist. In spite of it all. For the beauty is still there. And the earth holds us all. Which is as earnest as our thanks can be this Earth Sunday in Charleston. We are grateful for the natural beauty of our place and we hold it in reverence and wonder. Every day we delight in it and move with its tides and seasons. And we are grateful for the breath we are given, praying only that we will use the days we have in a way that honors the sacred whole. We name as a part of that sacred whole our brother Walter Scott. And the grass where he fell. And the flowers laid there. And the rivers that surround it. And the forests by the sea. And the laughing gulls folding their wings to rest.
“So many are asking, ‘Does good even exist anymore?’” To which we can only answer that it does exist. In the hearts of men and women. And in the good earth that sustains us every day. We bear witness to it as the poets and children always have. By telling the truth. By laying our flowers on the grass.
 Psalm 4.1a, The Inclusive Bible.
 Samuel Balentine, The Hidden God: The Hiding of the Face of God in the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 153.
 Psalm 4.6a.
 Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things” in Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (New York: North Point Press, 1987) 30.
 Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 11.
 Alice Walker, “The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven is that You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind” in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 298.
 Psalm 4.7a.