This past June my family and I walked on the boardwalk in New Jersey, just like I had done as a child. There was a new undercurrent of appreciation and amazement, though, against the backdrop of rebuilding from hurricane Sandy. Just this past week, though, much of it was destroyed again in a raging fire. For those whose lives are more deeply intertwined with this national landmark, I can only imagine the cry “How long, o Lord?!”
Floods have ravaged portions of Colorado, claiming lives and rendering property useless. A shooter is loose in a public place once again, injuring and killing willfully, ruthlessly. A deadly hurricane in Mexico. The Taliban continues to terrorize. The situation in Syria remains volatile. A new diagnosis of cancer for a friend. A lost job, a broken relationship. The woes of our world seem endless.
Where is there a balm, where a great physician? Where is there relief from our personal suffering and the suffering of the world?
This week’s texts are tough. Jeremiah grieves deeply for the despair of his people, taking on their sorrow. “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1) He does not ridicule the cries of the poor and suffering. Instead he joins them in their anguish.
The Psalmist wonders why it is that those who know and follow God are suffering while those who do not acknowledge the God of Abraham and Isaac seem to get off scot-free. And yet in the end, their desire is not so much about the other as it is about their God: “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.” (Psalm 79:9)
Amos is a bit less charitable. The poor and needy are trampled and ruined. This prophet spins a note of retribution, repeating, “I [the Lord] will never forget any of their [perpetrators’] deeds.”
These Old Testament texts are strong and courageous, speaking out loud the emotions and truths of hurting people. Nothing is held back. God is challenged and put on trial. The shortcomings of humanity are exposed. The power of cosmic forces is displayed. There is real pain and anguish. The sense of betrayal is palpable.
Herein these texts are the cries of people like you and like me.
As we continue reading through these texts, though, we are not left in despair. Rather, we are given a word of hope and an expression of confidence. “ [The Lord] raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” the Psalmist declares. (Psalm 113:7) “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all,” attests Paul. (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
The startling thing about God is that God did not remain above the fray of our humanity. When we pour out our suffering, God knows exactly what we’re talking about, because the Jesus God knew deep, human suffering as well.
The world needs to know this empathetic God, the one who chooses to save the world by loving it to its own death, rather than conquering it by means of death. It is this God who walks with us through the struggles and challenges of life. It is this God who is worthy of such lofty praise as, “Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 113:2) It is this God who deserves our undivided devotion (Luke 16:13).
There is a balm in Gilead – African-American spiritual
Healer of our every ill – Marty Haugen, GIA Publications
Blessed be Your name – Matt Redman, Thankyou Music
Great is thy faithfulness – Thomas Chisolm & William M. Runyan, Hope Publishing, Co.
Check out this clip from the film Patch Adams in which Patch, played by Robin Williams, questions God about human suffering: http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/patch-adams/challenging-god
from The Book of Common Prayer:
Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to cleave to those that shall abide;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the manner of the texts:
Compassionate and empathetic God,
thank you for walking with us in the trials and pains of life.
Our cries of anguish and loss are loud and strong; you listen patiently and with understanding.
We shout angrily at injustice.
We exclaim indignantly at the oppression and suffering of your people.
Help us, O God of our salvation.
Restore our health. Soothe our injured spirit. Heal our brokenness. Deliver us. Forgive our sins.
We wait on you, the one who sent Christ Jesus to share in our suffering, and raises the poor from the dust, lifts the needy from the ash heap, and gives the barren woman a home.
Blessed be your name! We praise you, Lord.