Japan’s pain touches the heart, mind, and soul of the whole world and there are many responses at every level of life. Many came from throughout that nation and around the world to rescue, others to provide relief and soon they will come to rebuild. The responses have been economic, diplomatic, and scientific. The Japanese people themselves have been both stoic and heroic—an example to us all. This tableau of pain and response, need and care, grief and comfort is part of the human story, well worth the attention we and history give it. But we have a particular slice of that story before us this evening. We gather in a house of faith. I stand before you as a man of faith. So it is faith’s perspective that I ask you to consider with me.
The shock of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis with their attending destruction and suffering almost require that we look up and wonder about the larger context in which we live—in other words look into the realm of faith. This kind of tragedy raises questions about life and meaning in ways that our routines rarely do. One wants to look into the face of God and ask hard questions.
The first one is simply “Why?” Why do the innocent suffer at the hands of inert tectonic plates and normally placid oceans? Why do these things happen? What necessity is met by them? When we demand that God tell us, the answer is inevitably silence. Neither the universe nor its mysteries will fit between our ears. Human understanding can reach only so far and the answer to ‘why?’ is beyond us. We can no more profitably question the reason for tragedy than we can question the reason for love or beauty or tranquility.
Stumped but not rebuffed faithful people turn to “How?” which we must admit comes with an accusatory tone. How could a loving God, or even a mildly interested God, allow this sort of thing? Could God even have made it happen? Does not Love take care of its own? Again the response is silence. As the reading from Lamentations reminded us, God does not willingly afflict or grieve us, but by the same token a relationship with God is not a protection plan. We are fragile people who live in a dangerous world and God’s love for us does not change that reality. Every faith story includes the fact of our vulnerability and the reality of world’s dangers. If my Christian tradition were about protecting us from harm, we would not have chosen the cross as our primary symbol. No, faith is not about protection from danger or harm.
If faith neither explains nor protects, what does it offer? What does faith bring to the myriad of questions about suffering in general and this suffering in particular? There are as many answers to that question as there are reasons we remain faithful. But two that are consistent across many faith traditions are strength and guidance.
In honesty we must admit that most of us do not want strength and guidance from God. What we want is a set of circumstances where neither is necessary. What we really want is a world in which our own strength is adequate to the tasks of living and a clear enough understanding of life so that we know what to do without the need of guidance. Alas, reality conspires against those hopes and we must rely on God’s strength and guidance to live fully and honestly.
We rely on God’s strength to be joyful and hopeful even though we remain fragile and the world remains dangerous. It takes a particular kind of strength of Spirit to acknowledge that nothing can be called permanent if it is built on something that is impermanent; to apply the wisdom of Archbishop Williams when he reminded us that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment; to see, even in the mind numbing calculations of death tolls, that every life is precious, precious beyond the telling. We need God’s unique strength to hold in check the degree to which we are part of the world’s danger and a threat to the fragility of others.
We need God’s guidance to see and live into the deeper truths of life even as we join in the multiple tasks of grieving and rebuilding. We need guidance to work through the maze of grief to finally come to the kind of truth that Anne Morrow Lindbergh found after the death of her child when she wrote: “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable”. Such wisdom is hard to find on our own.
In the myriad tasks of rebuilding, we need God’s firm hand to hold us to the truth that Reinhold Niebuhr pointed to when he wrote: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our life time, therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore, we must be saved by love.” That is hard to remember without God’s help.
That is the kind of strength and the kind of guidance faith receives when tragedy makes us look up into the face of God. And if we hold our gaze a little longer we see something else. We can see God weeping over Sendai as God has wept over countless cities, hamlets, and homes. But if we hold our gaze a little longer we can see that God’s tears are not like ours. We weep for what is lost—lives, communities, hopes, and dreams—but nothing is ever lost to God. We weep for our fear of the uncontrollable—disaster, tragedy, and all that is dangerous and unforeseen—but God is neither threatened nor frightened.
God weeps as a parent weeps with a child. Not because of the toy or the friend or the dream but because of love for the one who weeps. God weeps with us because God loves us. There is no vision of God that can be considered complete without seeing God weeping when we do.
So as a man of faith in a place of faith at a time of deep and powerful pain, I ask for peace on my terms. I ask why and how but get no answer. As a fragile person in a dangerous world, I ask for protection and it is denied. Instead I am offered what I would like to be able to live without: God’s strength and guidance. Strength to live joyfully and hopefully in the midst of danger, guidance to build truthfully and realistically through suffering and on a foundation of hope, faith, and love, and all of this given by the God who weeps with us.
Is it what I wanted? No. Is it what I need? Yes. Is there more than this? Yes, of course. With God there is always more. Is it enough? Yes. Sometimes barely but it is enough to give peace. Not peace on my terms, not the kind that can be captured by words, not the kind that bends to my thinking but the kind that passes understanding and fills the heart, mind, and soul even while they are full of pain. Faith provides that kind of peace. And it is good.