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How Am I Gonna Be an Optimist about This?

by Jason Herbig, worship pastor

In our "Rooftop on the Radio" series, we looked at six Top 40 songs in the hopes of engaging the culture from a Christian perspective. You can find those sermons here. B-Sides with Pastor Jason explores some songs that didn’t make the cut…

As many of us learned from our World History teachers, the city of Pompeii was famously lost in 79 AD when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried it in up to twenty feet of ash and pumice. More than 1,500 years later, excavation revealed a wealth of well-preserved artifacts that have given historians tremendous insight into city life during that time. In a gruesome twist, however, excavation also revealed empty spaces between layers of ash that once held the bodies of Vesuvius’ human victims. Many of these voids were filled with plaster, creating statues that allow us to see exactly what position these people were in when they succumbed to the eruption.

Pompeii: Garden of the Fugitives

Pompeii: Garden of the Fugitives

When I first heard “Pompeii” by Bastille, I figured it was another esoteric song by a hipster band employing a cryptic name because it sounded cool. A quick study of the lyrics left me thinking it might be about self-destruction or even the corrupting nature of sin (“Oh, where do we begin? The rubble or our sin?”). So I was a little surprised to hear the band explain that the song is actually about the destruction of Pompeii. It was imagined as a conversation between two of the people now immortalized in plaster as they grapple with their fate, realizing there is little to be optimistic about in this situation.

Though the song has been out for a while, I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot in the last couple weeks, especially its tone of hopelessness. My city has been marred by anger, violence, and hatred over the happenings in Ferguson. Robin Williams – a man almost synonymous with joy and laughter – succumbed to his own tragic depression. Things are heating up again in Iraq. And in the midst of all the bad news, I have a friend who is fighting tooth and nail against the cancer trying to destroy her body. I have another friend trying to come to grips with some crippling events in her life that she has yet to fully heal from. At the end of the day, I sometimes want to throw my hands up and ask God, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

The standard Christian answer usually hovers somewhere between “God is ultimately in control” and “the world is a fallen place; our hope is for heaven.” And while I assert both of these are VERY true, I still can’t help but feel sometimes like they are kind of a cop out. It seems like we are giving ourselves and others permission to not truly deal with tragedies. When things go badly, we shrug, say “That’s life!”, and then move forward, trying to hide the pain and empty spaces in the layers of ash that these catastrophes leave behind. But I don’t think that’s the way God wants us to deal with these things. I look at the example of the psalmists, who don’t seem afraid to let God know how they really feel. Here’s just one of many examples:

 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief…Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:6-9,14)

What are we supposed to do when our experience doesn’t seem to match up with our beliefs about who God is supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do? Maybe it feels disrespectful to throw accusations at God or express your discontent with his “plan,” but we have to remember that God already knows our hearts and our minds. Approaching him inauthentically through a façade of compliance, not trusting that his unfailing love and grace can handle our disillusionment, is the far more disrespectful way to go. So don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. It may not get you the answers you want, and it might hurt a little in the process. But as I once pointed out to a struggling friend, I have not known many people that took the effort to truly wrestle with God and did not come out of it with a stronger faith. Even if they did end up with a limp.