This sermon was preached on the occasion of the great Asian tsunami at Christmastime in 2005. It may have some relevance to the horrific shooting in Connecticut today.
–Pablo Picasso, The Weeping Woman
Psalm 69:1-3, 13-18
If you’ve been following the news coverage of the South Asian tsunami, by now you will surely have seen something that has torn your heart out –- piles of bodies unceremoniously bulldozed into mass graves; a child with impossibly big eyes standing alone, staring into the distance; the stunning before-and-after satellite photos of a ravaged coast.
Or perhaps you saw the report in which a journalist is speaking with several Indonesian survivors, some of whom have lost entire families. They tell their stories to him, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Then, in the background you hear an unmistakable sound. It is Friday, and somewhere in that desolate place, a muzzein is calling the faithful to prayer – as if to remind the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.
Allah akbar! God is great! There is no God but God. Come to salvation! Come to prayer!
Hearing the call to prayer, the reporter asks the men if they are going to the prayers. Some nod yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his family are dead, shakes his head. Through the translator he says simply, “No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.”
When I heard the call to prayer invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, I felt something rebel in my stomach. In spite of my deep conviction that God had nothing to do with making this horror happen, my mind filled involuntarily with the age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who seems to have stood by and done nothing while it unfolded?
In that moment, it was not enough for me to answer myself by saying that God was not responsible when tectonic plates collided, and the sea floor rose, and the displaced water needed somewhere to go. It was not enough for me to affirm, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” When my stomach lurched at the call to prayer, it was because my soul needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that about God; to be able to say not only where God was not, but also and more importantly where God was.
And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. Everything that came to mind seemed inadequate, even repulsive. I went down the long list of standard explanations and theological considerations, each one leaving me emptier than the last – until I heard that poor man say, “No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.”
His was not an answer, not a solution, not an explanation. But it rang true – a simple acknowledgement that there are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything can be done but endure it.
And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will serve only to shield us from reality, our prayers will be only a game of “make nice,” and our faith will only separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the carnage of war, a mindless mass shooting, the stupid waste of a death by drunk driving, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s untimely passing, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be before God in our truth and to allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass in us for faith is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.
I have no quarrel with the people who got up to go to Friday prayers. I am glad for them that they could go to God as the one who saves. But I found a great relief and blessing in that grieving man’s refusal to worship God right now. I also found a great relief and blessing in his refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his implicit confession that it is not up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.
We Christians find it hard to refrain from overwhelming great empty spaces and terrifying silences with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence. We are people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is a second nature reflex, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when we rush too quickly to Easter, times when we take Jesus off the cross and usher him into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps this haste is a reason why, as Anthony Padovano once observed, Easter is doubted by so many.
There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and of all our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our lives, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. Times when we need the cover of night.
Sooner or later, we all wonder with Job why we were ever born. Sooner or later, we all pore over the lexicon for a word with which to fashion inconsolable laments—and we find, the cross. Padovano calls it Christianity’s most believable symbol, because it offers no answers. It offers instead a common lot: sooner or later life deposits us all at the cross. It is the gathering place for the world’s sorrow, its wasted efforts, its murdered children, its unimaginable catastrophes, its utter silences. When we arrive at its foot, we also discover its hope – not the hope of Easter so much, but the hope that comes from having a place to gather when the pain is unspeakable and the sorrow beyond all bearing.
It is not yet the dawn. Not yet. We need to be healed, and we will be, but not yet, not too fast. It takes time. We have to wait. And we have to stay together, bearing with every loss and horror creation has ever borne. We have to stay together so that it is not too frightening to wait, so that our waiting does not become despair. Like that inconsolable man in Indonesia, we may even prefer to wait, just as long as we are not alone. Together we will outwait death and come startled and blinking to Easter.
But no, not yet, not now.
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