What does faithfulness look like in the face of tragedy and loss?
There’s a part of me that just wants to scream, “Enough is enough! Make it stop. How much more can we take?”
I am talking about the pandemic, the ongoing wars, racism, the killings and violence in the Middle East, terrorism, and the multiple genocides currently taking place in our world. I am talking about the many loved ones that people have lost this year due to the pandemic, due to killings and due to natural disasters. I am talking about the history of violence throughout the world. The list is long, painful, and bloody.
What is going on in our world today? I’m not the only one asking this. Several people have asked me if this is the end time. Is this the apocalypse? Is that which we call evil going to win? How do we live in the midst of this without becoming fearful of the future, the world, one another? What does faithfulness look like in the face of tragedy and loss? What will happen next? Where is God in all of this? Even if you haven’t asked me these kind of questions, I suspect you’ve asked them to yourselves or discussed them with friends and family.
We are certainly not the first or only ones to struggle with this. The question of human suffering is universal and has always been a part of our faith journey.
In Exodus 17:7 the Israelites asking, “Is the Lord among us or not” ?
The Psalmist accuses God of being asleep, tells God to wake up, and wants to know why God is hiding God’s face and ignoring the affliction and distress of God’s people (Psalm 44:24-25).
When the angel of the Lord says to Gideon, “The Lord is with you,” Gideon answers, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us” (Judges 6:12-13)?
And let’s not forget the cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt. 27:46; Psalm 22:1-2)?
What do we do with all this?
We could accuse and blame God, chalk it up to human free will, remind ourselves that God suffers and weeps with us, or acknowledge that God’s ways are not our ways. Each is well within our scriptural and theological tradition, but do those really answer our questions or offer comfort? We know illness sometimes leads to death and we know that this year throughout the world we have had storms, hurricanes, floods, famine, war etc. Those are not, however, acceptable responses to someone whose loved one has died or to one who has lost his or her home. We could enact stricter gun laws, deal honestly with climate change, provide better care for the mentally ill, work to eliminate racism, seek the good for all countries, religions, and people; and I hope we will. Maybe those things will have an effect on our future. But what about right here and right now? What about the suffering of today; yours, mine, our country’s, the world’s?
I have no satisfactory explanations or answers to any of the questions I’ve asked or a thousand others like them. And I will not pretend to give you any. And even if I gave your answers I don’t for a minute think any of you would say, “Okay, that makes sense. I now understand and accept what has happened.” The suffering is too real, the pain too deep, and the tears too many. We don’t need answers and explanations as much as we need a way forward.
What tears do we weep today? For ourselves? Another? The world? What is our lamentation and bitter weeping about?
Sometimes our tears are the only and most authentic part of ourselves we have to offer God. They are all we have. They are who we are. In those times they are our prayer, the tether between us and God. The presence of our tears in the tragic is as important as the presence of God.
The way of hope, however, is often a tearful path. Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John. 11:35). He wept over Jerusalem (Luke. 23:28). Tears water and soften the soil of our heart. They are our preparation for God “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
What if tears are our true nourishment in the days of loss and sorrow? What if we have been given the “bread of tears” to feed upon and “tears to drink in full measure” (Psalm 80:5)?
Lamentation, bitter weeping, and the refusal to be comforted. Our tearful prayer of protest pierces the heart of God. However tearful prayers of protest are not an answer to what is happening in the world today, simply a way forward.
I recently read the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s protest and prayer (Wolpe, p. 158). It was the opening service of the Day of Atonement. The sun was setting and the time to begin was near but the Rabbi remained silent. He waited until the last possible moment to speak.
“Dear God,” he said, “we come before You this year, as we do every year, to ask Your forgiveness. But in the past year, I have caused no death. I have brought no plagues upon the world, no earthquakes, no floods. I have made no women widows, no children orphans. God, you have done these things, not me! Perhaps You should be asking forgiveness from me.”
There is brutal honesty, deep compassion, and profound grief in his protest. Rabbi Levi speaks to our hearts. We recognise ourselves in him.
After his protest Rabbi Levi paused and in a softer voice said, “But since you are God and I am only Levi Yitzhak,” and then he began saying the words of prayer for the service. “There is no escaping the pain of suffering and the tormenting questions of God’s silence…. Therefore we continue to pray” (Wolpe, p. 159). We continue to lament and weep bitter tears. We continue to refuse to be comforted. We continue to protest. That’s what faith looks like on days like this.
Finally I recall Mary Oliver’s poem “At Black River” which ends with this: ‘… death comes before the rolling away of the stone.’ I read it and my anxiety vanishes. God is with us. I think of this whenever I am troubled.
Many times when we feel like we can’t go on and it is hard to trust God, remember the verses from Isaiah 55:7-8. “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'”
There are many things we don't understand, and it is difficult for us humans to go forward without knowing exactly why things are happening or at least having some kind of plan. He has never let us down; everything He has led us into He has also led us through. The only option is to trust Him completely. We don’t know what the future holds but we know that God will preserve us and make everything work for our very best – our eternal salvation.