Friday, February 26, 2021

Special Lenten '21 City Notes | Prayer in the Night: The Story We Mysteriously Enter into in the Midst of the Pain, Questions

Francis Spufford: "We don't have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story." This is why, no matter what we claim to believe or disbelieve, what rises to the surface in our most vulnerable moments is inevitably the story on which we build our lives. + Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night

Christianity does not give us a concise explanation for vulnerability, loss, or pain, but it gives us a story – a real story in history. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, "There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil (and human suffering)." 

It takes the whole story of redemptive history to shape our questions about God's presence in the darkness. There may be no tidy solution to the problem of pain, but this is not because these questions are unimportant or, in a final sense, unanswerable. If there is anything remotely approaching a Christian answer to our questions about theodicy – the logical dilemma of how God can be good and all-powerful even as horrible things regularly happen in the world, including the crisis of faith that often comes from encountering suffering – the story is the answer.

When my friend, Julie, sat in a hospital waiting room as surgeons carved her infant son's tender skin, she committed herself to deciding whether God could be trusted, regardless of the result of the surgery. She had to decide if she believed these claims that Christianity makes about God's goodness. She quit the poker game, folded her cards, and decided to trust a God who did not guarantee that bad things would not happen to her or her son. 

But this was not an arbitrary decision; not a leap in the dark. She was not simply ratcheting herself up to affirm the goodness of God in spite of contrary evidence. She did look to evidence, though not the evidence of her life, nor the tally of the total amount of good in the world versus the total amount of evil. Instead, she looked at the life of Jesus. It's on this story that she anchored her decision about whether she would trust God, without knowing what would happen next. The Church has always proclaimed that if we want to see what God is like, we look at Jesus – a man "acquainted with sorrow" (Isaiah 53:3), no stranger to grief, a peasant craftsman who knew suffering, big and small, and died as a criminal, mostly alone. Mysteriously, God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it. 

Jesus left a place where there is no night to enter into our darkness. He met with blisters and indigestion, with fractured relationships and the death of friends, with an oppressive empire, the indignity of poverty, and the terror of violence. One night He sweat blood, asking the Father to spare Him from agony, weeping in the lonely darkness while His friends fell asleep. He said, "Not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42), and soon afterward He was tortured to death.

God did not keep bad things from happening to God Himself. To look to Jesus is to know that our Creator has felt pain, has known trouble, and is well-acquainted with sorrow. But our hope in suffering is not merely to gaze on the biography of an ancient man frozen in the pages of the Bible. The story of the Gospel is not a mere mantra or a relic of history. It is alive and ongoing. The work of Jesus continues, even now, in our everyday lives. So in hardship we do not look to Jesus solely as one who has been there before, once upon a time in a distant past. We find He is here with us, in the present tense. He participates in our suffering, even as – mysteriously – in our suffering we participate in the fullness of Christ's life. 

But we cannot embrace the Christian story or Christ's ongoing presence in our lives by an act of sheer will or an exercise in cognition. Our hope in sorrow is not something we carry around as a brute fact or, worse, a pat answer. I do not come to trust the Christian story in the same way I trust that Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes or that bread is made of yeast and flour. 

The story we live by is one that we somehow enter into – we discover our own small lives and stories in the larger story of God and His Church. We do that through the practices and prayers we receive from those who have gone before us. We take up and learn the craft of faith that allows us to know an actual, surprising, frustrating, and relentlessly merciful God. In the present tense. 

Years ago, during a vacation in New Hampshire, my husband, Jonathan, and I climbed Mount Washington, which is notorious for erratic weather. It can change from sunny and warm to snowing in a few hours. The wind is so strong that it once held the record for the fastest wind gust on earth ... So the good people of New Hampshire have made cairns along the trail: massive, towering rock structures that plot the course. When the fog descends and the weather is dangerous, hikers can make it to shelter at the bottom of the mountain or at the top by walking from cairn to cairn in the white out.

In times of deep darkness, the cairns that have kept me in the way and story of Jesus were the prayers and practices of His Church. When I could not pray, the Church said, "Here are prayers." When I could not believe, the Church said, "Come to the table and be fed." When I could not worship, the Church sang over me the language of faith. Inherited ways of prayer and worship – liturgical practices – are a way that the ancient Church built cairns for us, to help us endure this mystery, to keep us on this path of faith, to guide us home.


Theodicy is in no way "solved" for me. It is not in fact solvable in the here and now. In many ways I am still wandering in the fog. But I have found cairns to follow, and they have guided many others in the midst of this crazy and unpredictable weather.

*As Flannery O'Connor wrote, theodicy is not "a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured." ... (the mystery is) an acknowledgement that the world crackles with possibility because it is steeped in the shocking and unpredictable presence of God.

The content above is an excerpt from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren

Bonus: Here is a recent song to complement the content above:

Maverick City Music, 2020 A.D.

The hour is dark and it’s hard to see
What You are doing here in the ruins,
And where this will lead ...
Oh, but I know that down through the years,
I’ll look on this moment, see Your hand on it,
And know You were here ...

And I’ll testify of the battles You’ve won,
How You were my portion when there wasn’t enough.
I'll sing a song of the seas that we crossed,
The waters You parted, the waves that I walked ...

Oh, my God did not fail! Oh, it’s the story I’ll tell!
Oh, I know it is well! Oh, it's the story I’ll tell!

Believing gets hard when options are few,
When I can't see how You're moving
I know that You're proving You're the God that comes through!
Oh, but I know that over the years,
I’ll look back on this moment and see Your hand on it
And know You were here ... (Pre-Chorus + Chorus)

All that is left is highest praises,
So sing hallelujah to the Rock of Ages ... (Chorus)

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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