Lamentation: Where is God in this?

So often I try to offer something upbeat. But just occasionally I feel it’s really good to just allow ourselves to be still in the pain and struggle of the moment. After all, we all have those moments. They’re part of life. So let’s not pretend otherwise. Keep it real!!

Yesterday was the feast of St Martha; today we remember William Wilberforce. Both in their own way are entirely relevant to the cry of, “God, Where are You??” Wilberforce may be more obvious in this context, as he struggled and fought to free the slaves and make slavery illegal. But stay with me – Martha has much to say in this moment. She’s not just the one busy struggling in the kitchen, though in the comparison with her sister Mary, that is often what she is remembered for!

Yesterday morning I was listening to Pray as you go – the British Jesuits daily prayer podcast – and it was about Martha. As I listened, the passage struck me anew. Some days previously, Martha and Mary sent word to their close friend Jesus to tell him that their brother, Lazarus, was dying. And now, Jesus has finally arrived at Bethany, and Martha comes to meet him. Her opening words in the gospel: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a very restrained comment. I should imagine the original exchange might have been more along the lines of “Where are you Jesus? Where were you when I needed you?” If you had been here, my brother would not have died!!!”

I stayed with those words, imagining how she might have felt. And I thought again about the act that Mary, the one who had sat at Jesus’ feet in our first gospel encounter with that family, doesn’t even come out to meet him. Why is that? Do we assume it’s because she is at peace in her heart, despite her brother’s death? Or because she feels even more let down than Martha?

Later on, I listened to another favourite podcast of mine whilst out driving. Rob Bell, a well-known modern theologian, was talking about lamentation in the psalms, specifically in psalm 137. He has a particular knack of taking ancient bible passages and making them wholly relevant to the present moment, helping us see the freshness and immediacy of the core message of the bible writers.

When in times of crisis, we must first lament what is, the current situation. That is, to look at it with love and say, Oh, I thought we had done things better than this. Oh, why didn’t we listen back then? There’s no anger in this. Only sorrow. No lasting bitterness. In this podcast, he looks specifically at America’s handling of the pandemic. How one might reasonably expect the “world leader” in so many areas to have been leading the world in an effective response to the outbreak, rather than leading the world in terms of infections and death rate. And the pain and lamentation that this realisation might bring forth.

Bell points out that, if we can lament, on the other side of lament there is imagination for a new world. A new way of doing things.

Jesus laments over Jerusalem and how stiff-necked they are.

God laments over his people, that they just don’t seem to be able to get the bigger picture.

We lament over our own shortcomings, our failures. And those of our society and our communities.

And in all this – where is God?? “Where were you when I needed you?” How often do we echo Martha’s words – “if you had been here…”

Sometimes, God seems to leave us til the 11th hour and then some. Why – I don’t know. Is it to get us to realise that we can trust him? In the case of Martha and Mary, as far as they were concerned it was way past 11th hour. More like the 13th hour! Lazarus was dead. But God is alive. And God can bring joy out of sorrow, having first walked with us through the sorrow.

The shortest verse in the bible is contained within this short gospel story – “Jesus wept.” (John 11.35)

Lazarus was his friend. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care – he did. A lot. But he saw the bigger picture.

So when we don’t see it, like the psalmist let us cry out to God. Let us lament. Let us demand, where are you!! And let God answer, here I AM.

And that answer will likely be a very small, still voice. And we need to be quiet enough to listen, to hear. So that God’s still small voice can spark the imagination for us to create together a new “world”, one based on God’s “kingdom” of love, mercy and peace.

With love, light and blessings,
Revd. Talisker