01 May What Trust Looks Like: Lament with Jesus
At the turning point of his life, Shasta finds himself on a deserted way, high up in the mountains. Far ahead of him are his friends, and close on their heels is a fast and ruthless enemy. Fog has rolled in across the slopes, just as night falls. The protagonist of C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy finds himself alone in strange and open country, with danger all about him. And it’s at this point in the story, just as he is overwhelmed and despairing, that Shasta finds he is not alone: some huge, unseen person has come alongside him in the fog and dark, and is keeping step with his horse. Shasta is terrified; but this other one, very strange and very present, speaks to him: ‘Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”’ And Shasta, lost in the mist, skirting danger nearby and with certain battle ahead, does just that: he tells his story of grief to this unseen companion.
Friends, grace and peace to you in Jesus’s name. Many times, as I’ve prepared to write this piece, my thoughts have gone out to you and to those you’re alongside. Our prayer has been that God strengthens you to stand well in these times and that his love, which orders all things well, will give you grace and self-discipline to trust him with the whole of your life.
Like me, many of you will have experienced a churn of emotion in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday, 20 April: I was relieved to hear that thus far we’ve met the challenge of the pandemic, that we’re doing well where the virus is concerned; as the news came of the shift to level 3 and maybe level 2, perhaps like me your mind raced ahead, pleased to allow yourself to think through the details of life at different response levels. But relief was quickly mingled with the sober realisation of just how long a path lies ahead of us—not only the continued effects of physical distancing on daily life, but also the massive, pervasive, and persistent economic impact of the pandemic, impact that for many of us is already personal. Indeed, part of the challenge of these harder times is the way personal circumstance is infused by predicament of much larger scope. The road is unknown, and the fog has come down.
And yet, as we were reminded in the first issue of Common Ground, the extremity and scope of these times does not mean they introduce something new to our creaturely situation. Andrew Shamy pointed us to another of piece by Lewis, his sermon “Learning in Wartime”, in which Lewis reframes the urgency of his times. Poland had gone down fighting to the Third Reich, as the Soviets moved in from the east. Jews were being deported to concentration camps in newly occupied Poland, while the British Army massed in France to prepare for a German offensive. Just a week before Lewis’s address, the Luftwaffe made their first air attack on Britain. Those times, too, were unprecedented. And in the midst of this Lewis’s response is to affirm that our life—like the road Shasta takes in the fog and darkness—has always been lived on the edge of a precipice, in the midst of the great drama of salvation. Whether we’re alive to it or not, our real context is, yes, a world beset by darkness—and also, a world sustained and loved by the One “in whom there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5).
Tell me your sorrows
Apprehending our real context will certainly reframe the present moment, and most likely in ways that set us on our feet. But there remains the question: what might my trust in the living God look like here and now?
I cannot simply set aside the sorrow of the times—I know enough of our nature to understand the physical and spiritual risks of suppressing hurt, whether mine, or another’s which I carry. Even a cursory rifle through the Psalms and the Gospels emboldens me in the conviction that faith does not dress up grief in pious theologising, but that it cries out! For there is, as we were recently reminded by Nathan, a time for everything: a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to refrain from embracing, a time to give up, a time to die; even as there is a time to laugh, dance, embrace, to plant and build (Eccl 3). Indeed, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart” (Eccl 7:3). Whatever the occasion, when we find ourselves walking in a valley of grief, it is good to grieve.
I cannot say whether grief might indeed be part of the journey for you. But the large scope and personal impact of this pandemic is such that some understanding of grieving may prove timely. It is, like an unhazarded road, a hard way, but made easier by knowing that it is a way—a process, a valley through which at some point we each walk. The stages, which play out variously in individual lives, typically include denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. And if you find yourself grieving, or all at sea emotionally, it is helpful to reach for a simple description of the grief process or talk with someone experienced in grief counselling. Such understanding helps us to map what we’re experiencing, and to name where we are. This practical wisdom is important if we are not to get emotionally stuck. Nevertheless, such things are not the journey itself, but only ways of getting our bearings. The real food for the journey is this: God’s way is with, and through.
God’s way is with, and through
Such was the way walked by two as they left Jerusalem on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:13ff). As they walked, going over and over the raw tragedy of the last few days, the Lord came unrecognised and joined them. His questions are instructive for us here. He asks them ‘“What are you discussing together as you walk along?”’ When they respond with incredulity at his ignorance of the events of the passion, he presses the invitation: ‘“What things?”’ So much more, we know, follows their first response: his teaching from the Scriptures, his acceptance of their invitation to eat with them, his revelation at the breaking of bread, and the incredible outbreak of hope in the midst of their despair.
But we cannot afford to run on too quickly! We ourselves cannot run ahead to the end of the story, however much we must keep it in mind. Here, at the end of great hopes—hopes of health and wholeness, of the much longed-for political and economic peacemaking of Israel’s Messiah—Jesus’s invitation to these two men was to walk and talk, to navigate the difficult path of grief by telling him their sorrows. Here, in the midst of our story, it is good for us to accept the same invitation.
We can do so because God is with us. And, as one who shares and makes good our life, the way of Jesus is through. God’s salvation is not simply imposed, as if craned in overhead like the deus ex machina of ancient Greek theatre; the incarnate Son walks through all our life, trusting his Father at each turn. He is that one declared by Isaiah, “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (Is 53:3). And for us too then—whose lives have been secured by Immanuel, by God-with-us—the way ahead is through, trusting at each turn, though the road be fog-bound and dark. When we agree to this way we find, like Shasta, that there is one to whom we can tell our sorrows.
Learning to lament
The name of such telling is lamentation. In the life of Israel, and in the life of the Church, the decision to lament is more than a resolve to express grief or sorrow—lament is prayer, is our grief addressed to God in trust. Christian lament rests—stands steady—on the confidence that God hears our prayer and is not unmoved by our suffering. Indeed, as the psalms make clear, lament is an act of worship: just as much as praise and adoration, lament arises from our trusting submission to God.
It arises in trust, and strengthens our trust. In pain and suffering, it is possible to despair. But in deciding to lament (and very often I’ve found it requires decision) I am refusing to succumb to the temptation to withdraw from God, or the lie that there is no one to whom I can address my pain. Instead, I turn, and address my pain to God who hears me, and who will answer me. Suffering embitters us; lament prepares the ground for God’s gracious response. We lift our complaint, our anger, our grief, our numbness, our pain, to him. In doing this, we are expecting God to respond: perhaps, as Shasta found, for him to tell us a truer story of our life. We present our wounds so that God might touch and heal. In our pain this might seem like adding insult to injury. But the alternative is to give up on the possibility of God’s compassion, to assume we know what our suffering means, to foreclose on the possibility of his healing and compassion.
And other goods attend lament: where suffering is suffuse, seems pervasive, through lament it is named, detailed and placed before God. It is not everything, nor is the whole of God’s world an occasion for grief, however I might feel. As an act of life in the Body of Christ—an act of weeping with others—lament ensures that my suffering is not simply weakness or deficiency, but is dignified by loving witness, and God’s compassion. This too makes space for the possibility that suffering means something, even as, in the moment, it feels meaningless. Lament gives shape to our suffering. Like a good psalm (Ps 143, say), lamentation has a beginning, and an end, working comprehensively and honestly through the whole situation. It’s a way of resisting the lie—which we often feel, in suffering—that this will never end. It’s the affirmation of what we also know: that in the fullness of time all our lamentation will have a complete and joyous answer.
Groaning with Christ
All this is true of each who laments in trust. But as the Body of Christ there is more we must say about what it means to pray in these harder times, when grief is not only individual, when suffering is so manifold and broad. In his great letter to the Romans, Paul unpacks the life God gives through the Messiah, our life through the Spirit of God, who lives in us. It is a declaration of identity and freedom in the face of death, that culminates in his affirmation of us as “more than conquerors”; nothing can separate us from God’s love in King Jesus (Rom 8:37-39). This is more like it, you’re perhaps tempted to say! Enough of the suffering talk—affirm our victory in Jesus! And there is indeed much to affirm. We’ve received not a spirit of fear, but of Sonship, the Spirit of Jesus by whom we cry “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15). We’re God’s children; indeed, we’re heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ! (Rom 8:16-17).
All this is so. We share in the life God has opened through Jesus. That is, we share in his sufferings, and we will share in his glory (Rom 8:17). Creation groans, Paul writes, waiting for its liberation when the children of God will be revealed in their glorious freedom (Rom 8:19-21). And even as the Spirit dwells in us, we find ourselves groaning with and for creation. Indeed, the groaning is not simply weakness (although we ourselves are weak!)—it is the work of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus—in us, who intercedes for us (Rom 8:26-27). This is what it means to find ourselves children of God, and co-heirs with Christ: it is not simply that our future has been secured (albeit with a bit of groaning and weakness in the meantime); it is that God, whose way with suffering is with and through, and is victorious, has opened up the life of the Messiah to us, so we can share now in all this entails.
Jesus endures suffering, sharing conclusively in the groaning of creation, in patient hope of its redemption and the glorification of God’s children; we too are called to endure in patient hope, knowing that God is faithful, and has overcome death. Jesus, the holy and blameless high priest, always lives to intercede for those who come to God through him (Heb 7:25). And so, the Spirit he sends on women and men causes them also to groan inwardly, not merely because we are weak and in pain, but because—as co-heirs with Christ—we share in Jesus’s priestly work. Indeed, he does everything we need on this count: his “Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Rom 8:26).
In Christ Jesus, this is our dignity and strength and office before God, whether we cry out in a dark and fog-bound moment of our own, or whether—as befits these times—we come with the Spirit of Jesus into God’s presence to groan for our sisters and brothers, for our streets and communities, for our Church and its leaders, for our nation and government, for our world.
(Illustration from The Horse and His Boy by Pauline Baynes)