From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Reflections magazine
by the Rev. Michael Marsh
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 Las Vegas, Maria, Irma, Harvey, Charlottesville, the ongoing wars and violence in the Middle East, terrorism, and the multiple genocides currently taking place in our world.
What is going on in our world today? I’m not the only one asking this. Several of you 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 phobic 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 scripture we hear the Israelites asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7).
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 (Ps. 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; Ps. 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 June 1 through November 30 is hurricane season and storms are to be expected. 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 you answers I don’t for a minute think any of you would say, “Ok, 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. So I turned to Rachel and the Feast of the Holy Innocents as a guide and teacher.
Rachel offers us a way forward in this season of tragedy, loss, suffering, and grief. It is the way of tears. It is the way of lamentation, bitter weeping, and the refusal to be comforted.
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more”
(Jer. 31:15; see also Mt. 2:18).
Rachel knows what it means to have her heart pierced. Her lamentation and bitter weeping have never ended. Her voice is heard throughout our lives and our land today. Her tears protest the circumstances of her life, her grief, and the suffering of others. Just like our tears hers come from a deep place of love, compassion, sorrow, loss, and justice. They hold before God her broken heart. Her tearful protest does not answer the question of evil or human suffering; rather, it helps maintain her sanity in a world that has seemingly gone mad (Rabbi David Wolpe, The Healer of Shattered Hearts, p. 144).
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. They are where God’s life and our life intersect. Maybe that’s why God hears the voice of Rachel. Maybe that’s why God says to her, “There is hope for your future” (Jer. 31:17).
The way of hope, however, is often a tearful path. Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (see Jn. 11:35). He wept over Jerusalem (see Lk. 23:28). Tears water and soften the soil of our heart. They are our preparation for God “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
I want to stand with Rachel today. And I want you to stand with Rachel today. I want us, with Rachel, to refuse to be comforted. Rachel will not accept the false comfort of answers or easy explanations. There are no satisfactory answers or acceptable explanations. And yet, in every tragedy that’s one of the first things we seek. We want motive, someone or something to blame, a solution to our extraordinary grief and suffering.
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” (Ps. 80:5)? That sure seems to be the way of Rachel and it may just be the way of faith amidst faithlessness, the way of hope amidst despair, and the way of prayer when we have no words.
Lamentation, bitter weeping, and the refusal to be comforted. Our tearful prayer of protest pierces the heart of God. It did for Rachel and it will for us. 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. It mirrors Rachel’s lamentation and bitter weeping. Rabbi Levi and Rachel speak to our hearts. We recognize ourselves in them.
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.
For your own reflection
As you make a new beginning in Advent, what sorrows need to be addressed to make a good ending?
The Rev. Michael K. Marsh is rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church n Uvalde, Texas. His blog is http://www.interruptingthesilence.com.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org