Pain, Compassion, and Faith

So I read the passages from the lectionary this week and cringed. If there are going to be any passages that I find cringe worthy and just in general try to avoid it would be the ones you heard this morning. I have a list of passages that I struggle with and avoid preaching on and these two are amongst them. But as I read these passages, I thought to myself that perhaps we need to hear and feel these passages more fully. We need to grapple with the questions and the emotions invoked by these passages. So this is what I did trying to liken it to our experiences as Christians and faith community today. I know there are those, like my older cousin, who say, “The Bible is just a bunch of stories from old dead men. They offering nothing of value to me.” But I say that people who believe this are wrong and are not seeing these passages and how they connect to the actions of today’s society.

I struggle with passages that call for the killing of children. It physically makes me sick to my stomach. Yet, as I read and listened to hymns based on this Psalm, I heard something there that I never heard before. I heard grief, anger, and terror in the words of a survivor. The author was a victim of the Babylonian exile. The Babylonian army came through their home, desecrated and burned down their temple, raped and pillaged the country side and forced thousands into exile, some sought refuge in other lands and others were forced to live in Babylon being pressured to assimilate. This Psalm was written in response to devastation on a level not seen in the developed countries since World War II.

The author wrote a song, a lamentation of grief, and poured into his words his sorrow of what he lost, his national pride, his resentment of his captors, and threw in there a curse upon the Babylonians that they might know such pain, so they might never do to another people what they did to his. If you read Psalm 137 slowly enough you will feel the pain and although we may not know exactly what the author felt, we all do know loss. We all have experienced loss, questions, and grief that shake the very foundations of our faith. Yes, we can read on and have empathy. We can sense the power of the pain that has shaken the world of the Israelites at this time changing their lives and nation forever.

When I read this Psalm, I am reminded of the struggles and the pain of holocaust survivors, survivors of the Rwandan genocide, of the pain of all those who suffer persecution today. As a teacher in 2009, I was faced with this fear, anger, and sadness first hand. I had a little boy in my classroom from Latin America. He was petrified of going outside to play to the point of full body meltdowns. I found this to be alarming. So I scheduled a meeting with his mother to discuss what I was observing. And what she shared with me has haunted me ever since.

Where they lived in Latin America was run by the drug cartels. So many parents did not allow their children to play outside fearing that they might go “missing”. The pain in her voice as she shared those memories still sticks with me. I am reminded that just a change of scenery does not heal the grief. But that it becomes a part of who we are, shaping how we interact in the world. Dietrich Bonheoffer a 20th century theologian shared this about grief,

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”[1]

As someone who suffered extreme loss at the hands of the Nazis, he understood the intricacies of grief. The memories of loved ones, the way things were, are what move us forward. They remind us of better times. They remind us of love. They remind us that joy is not gone forever as one might think while in the depths of grief. But rather those memories of what was lost spur us forward, encouraging us to seek something better, to work towards experiencing that joy once more. The young mother I spoke with lost loved ones in her home country and thus she sought something safer and better for her child. She sought to give a life where he did not have to worry, or live in fear, and could truly treasure the love that was felt in that family.

Jesus too speaks of grief in the scriptures for this morning. He too refers to the experiences that test our faiths as individuals and as communities. The disciples dealt with anger, grief, and experiences that caused such emotion that they could not see the will of God clearly. This is why we hear about faith. Christ says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you”.[2]

We are to seek God and believe that, though we may ask questions, though we might experience loss and grief, though we are certain to have strong emotions in this life, that God has not forgotten us. God has not left us feeling empty for no reason. God allows for us to feel so completely because those emotions shape us, our communities of faith, and our world. We are called to cherish our memories of what has been lost. We are called to honor those memories through our faith and by living into his call through kindness, warmth, and compassion. We are called to use our experiences to deepen our faith and reach out in compassion to a world that is in need.

[1] Bonheoffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison.

[2] Luke 17: 6, NRSV.