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“From Why? To How?”
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?”
With those words, today’s psalm raises the kind of question which lives in the spirit of many dear and good souls, who, in the face of much sorrow or long struggle, wonder, with the one who wrote this morning’s psalm, why God doesn’t relieve more suffering, stop more tragedy, heal more disease and protect more people from more pain.
The kind of question which is a sign, not of doubt, but of faith. After all, if we thought God was lacking in either love or power, we wouldn’t wonder why God doesn’t do more. (Lacking love, God could do more, but wouldn’t. Lacking power, God would do more, but couldn’t.) But, since we believe that God has an abundance of both, love and power, some of us do, sometimes, wonder, and ask, “Why?”; a spiritual question which actually places us in the best of spiritual company, from Moses, in Numbers chapter eleven, asking, “Why is my life so unbearable?”, to Job, wondering, in the book which bears his name, “Why won’t God give me some relief?”, to the prophet Jeremiah, lamenting, “Why is my pain unceasing, and my wound incurable?”, to, of course, Jesus, himself, quoting, from Good Friday’s cross, this Sunday’s psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
All of which is to say that no one should ever feel badly about asking why God does not always step in and stop the pain, cure the disease, reconcile the relationship, fix the brokenness and save the day. In fact, in life’s worst moments, “Why?” is, sometimes, the question we can’t not ask; like Jesus, on the cross, asking, with the one who wrote this morning’s psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But, while “Why?” is a question we sometimes need to ask out loud, knowing why we are suffering is, generally speaking, not as helpful as knowing how to live the life which is ours to live, while bearing the pain which is ours to bear. More often than not, “How?” matters more than “Why?”.
As Frederick Buechner once wisely observed, concerning poor Job and the tragic loss of his ten children and his own health, “Even if God had given Job the answers to all his questions about why so much suffering had come his way, Job still would have been staring at the same empty chairs and clawing at the same itching sores. What Job needed,” Buechner concluded, “Was not answers to explain his suffering, but courage to face it.”
Which is often true for many of us. Knowing why what happened happened, and why God didn’t do more to stop it from happening, is almost always less important than knowing how best to go forward. As Stanley Hauerwas once said, “What we need is not an answer capable of explaining our grief, but a community capable of absorbing our grief.”
Which, for most of us, is how we go through what we did not get to go around; with the help of a community capable of absorbing our grief; the people of God, surrounding us and supporting us; their prayers for us, God’s arms around us; their kindness to us, God’s presence with us.
A truth to which the poet Mary Oliver bears a beautiful witness when she says, “That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.”
Indeed, that is how most of us go through things so hard that if someone had told us ahead of time we would have to go through them, we would have sworn we could never make it. But we do; we do go through, with the help of God and the people of God.
We may never know why we go through what we go through, but we always know how we go through what we go through; with the strength-giving Spirit of God, and the care-giving, phone-calling, note-sending, visit-making, check-writing, meal-delivering, card-mailing, prayer-lifting, burden-bearing, sorrow-sharing, grief-absorbing, people of God.