The Gutter of the Shadow: Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Dear friends,

The Sunday after last year’s Boston Marathon bombings was the fourth Sunday of Easter — popularly known in liturgical churches as “Good Shepherd Sunday” — on which Psalm 23 is always read.

I began this post last year, a few days after Good Shepherd Sunday, in the wake of that terrible week.

At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to share it.

As I remember in my prayers all those who were affected by the violence and anguish of the events that happened one year ago today, and try to let my heart be vulnerable to the violence and anguish of Holy Week, the time feels right to offer these thoughts to you. Below are the words I wrote last spring, in April 2013.


Naming Psalm 23 as your favorite is kind of like admitting that Casablanca is your favorite movie: A little clichéd, but such a classic that no one can really argue with your choice.

casablancaOf course, it can also be like saying that The Great Gatsby is your favorite novel: Your listeners may assume that you read it once in tenth grade and haven’t cracked a book since.

gatsbyThere’s no disputing that I could stand to spend more time with the other 149 psalms in the Bible, but I don’t care what anyone else thinks.

I love Psalm 23, even if it is a cliché.

I love the green pastures and the still waters. I love the idea of goodness and mercy following me around like twin lambs.

lambsAnd on a certain recent Sunday morning, I was grateful to see it coming up on the roster.

After the week of April 15, which is already beginning to seem like a lifetime ago — after frantically calling my friends at the Boston Marathon on Monday and watching as a Texas fertilizer plant exploded on Wednesday and cowering in my house during a citywide manhunt on Friday — I really, really needed to hear that the Lord was my shepherd.

text_from_heatherHere in Somerville, Massachusetts, two blocks from the Cambridge city limit, I was at once in the midst of the tragedy and oddly removed from it.

Harvard Text MessagesThe bombing and the events that followed it were all a little too close to home — the MIT shootout was three miles from our house, the horrific events in Copley Square and Watertown each five miles off — but not so close that I could hear them happening.

And, thank God, everyone I know is safe.

But I am a different person now than I was two weeks ago.

After a lifetime of sleeping through police sirens, I have begun to flinch when I hear them.

boston_policeI am newly preoccupied with knowing where my wife is and what time she will get home from work.

The other morning in the shower, I pulled out a handful of loose hairs and noticed that half of them were gray.

Two weeks have passed since the Boston Marathon. During that time, I feel like I have aged ten years.

aging_handsI still take great comfort in Psalm 23.

But now that I am this new self, there’s one line that has begun to strike me the wrong way.

It’s that business with the “valley of the shadow.”

valley_shadow_kittenThis might be one of the most famous lines from the entire King James Bible, and with good reason.

It’s resonant. It’s lyrical. It’s lovely.

And that’s the problem.

“Valley” is appealing because it calls to mind lush green landscapes and the splendor of mountains.

beautiful_valleyIf a valley is scary, it’s only in a Lord of the Rings or Dark Crystal way, the kind where all the drama is artfully planned and you know everything will turn out fine in the end.

dark_crystalIn my romantic vision of mountains and valleys, there is no room for unscripted, randomized, continuously unfolding horror.

Valleys are not littered with body parts. Valleys do not scream with sirens.

The week of April 15 was not a valley at all.

Whatever it was, though, we were down in it, and there was no question about the looming shadow of death.

Maybe a better word would be “gutter.” Or “trench.”

trenchIt is hard to see your way out of a trench when you’re in one.

A trench is not exhilarating. A trench is filthy and dark.

In a trench, you feel at once sluggish and hypervigilant; you know some new nightmare could come your way at any moment, but you are too exhausted to care.

At the bottom of a trench, there is no guarantee that the good guys will win.

A “valley” is pure and clean. A valley is what you feel as you mourn this month’s senseless deaths with the people of Boston, and Cambridge, and Watertown, and West, Texas.

chicago_bruinsA “trench” is what you feel when you know your spouse or child or best friend is near the scene of a crisis and your phone calls won’t go through.

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate knowing that God is with me in the valley.

But during the last two weeks, any small comfort I’ve found has come from the God who is also with me in the trench.

Amidst the chaos and darkness of those awful days, the thunderous noises and the eerie silence, I thought a lot about the last days of Jesus’ life.

The crowds. The confusion. The ongoing threat of violence. The omnipresence of police.

passion_christAll the disciples filled with dread, trying to account for their friends.

Over these dark days, I have heard so many voices asking: “Where is God in this?”

The owners of these voices are hurt and angry. They have every reason to be. They want to know:

Where was God at the finish line?

Where was God at the plant explosion?

Where was God when all those innocent people died?

jesus_draggedAnd I have heard other voices offering comforting platitudes.

God was there in the way we all came together and helped each other.

boston_love_flagsGod was there and I know it because my cousin, who runs the marathon every year, totally would have been crossing the finish line when the bombs went off, but he got a blister on his heel and he stopped at mile 26 to bandage it and so he was a block away from the blast and came home without a scratch.

God was there in the doctors and nurses who cared for the bombing victims. And even the bomber!


Shout-out to the good people at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who showed superhuman compassion to the Boston Marathon bomber and the many other injured people they saw that week.

I believe that God is working everywhere, all the time, so I am willing to accept that these things are true.

God is present in those happy accidents and triumphs of the human spirit, just as God is present in Jesus’ exultant march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and his glorious resurrection on Easter.

But God is also with us during the stuff that happens in between.

Where was God a year ago today, when so many others were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

I think God was lying on the ground, dazed and terrified, wondering if a son or daughter or lover or friend was still alive.

I think God was bleary-eyed from tacking countless extra hours onto a 36-hour shift, pounding weak hospital coffee, desperate to stay awake through one more emergency surgery.

I think God — in whose image we all are made — was present somewhere deep in the hearts of the Boston bombers, though only God can know what else was in their hearts that day.

The Holy Week story tells me that God was dragging his own weary body across that finish line, broken, battered, carrying a cross.

The Holy Week analogy fails, of course, because we already know how that story ends.

risen_christIt is not so easy to craft a resurrection story out of a trauma that is still happening.

And as much as I believe in the power of God to make all things new, I am having a hard time believing that there is a way out of this trench.

The best I can offer is that God is down here with us, too.

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1 Response to The Gutter of the Shadow: Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing

  1. Margaret Dosch says:

    Good to ponder, thanks.

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