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The Revd Mark Godson

When things went wrong, the people brought to us in the texts of the Bible seem to display an unerring ability to lose sight of what God has done for them preferring instead to complain and grumble.

But then who doesn’t enjoy a good moan occasionally. Some even seem to delight in it, one might think of the character of Victor Meldrew,  from the sitcom ‘One Foot in the Grave’, who declaims, “I don’t bel-ieve it!” or “un-be-lieve-able” or my favourite, “What language are you talking in now? It appears to be bollocks.”

One might even imagine the compilers of our liturgical texts coming up with something like:

The Lord be with you
And also with you

Jeez this mess stinketh.
Yea, verily it doth.

Let us not grumble
Neither let us whinge nor whine

For the C of E is a mighty tortoise
And all its works are a mystery.

But to be serious, when we’re ground down by the sheer weight of despair in ourselves or others, there seem few avenues available for us when it comes to expressing that in church.

We’re often encouraged to endure the hardship with a sense of stoicism, gin [sic] and bear it perhaps, act on our principles and not on our moods… reflecting the thought that there is no God, it’s all down to me and my ability to bear what life throws at me.

Or to close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening at all. Stick our heads in the sand – although apparently ostriches just don’t do that. Thanks to the Romans, the myth of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand in times of danger has been perpetuated for around 2000 years. What they’re actually doing is picking up sand and pebbles to help their digestive system, and when their flight or fight reflex kicks in, given that they don’t have wings but do have rather powerful legs, they run – and boy can they run –  at some 40mph.. not that they’d get to that speed on the Marylebone Road very often.

Grumble;

endure stoically;

pretend it’s not happening;

or…

lash out, retaliate, escalate the suffering in ourselves or in others… that’s bad enough when individuals do it and fights break out, it’s devastating when nations do it.

My own experience of depression is that it initiates a frightening form of unbelief which challenges everything that previously gave life meaning and purpose. It’s like moving from a meaningful universe to a meaningless one. Suddenly the world looks different, old maps and familiar landmarks no longer make sense.

It’s also an experience of feeling the bond that binds me to the world as a being-in-relationship to be ruptured. The sense of being abandoned by God is more than just a negative cognition, it’s indicative of a wide, gaping wound where once there had been a source of hope, love, meaning and purpose.

There’s a loss of self, a void of unknowing and a corresponding tendency to withdraw because at those times I don’t have the strength, confidence or inner motivation to reach out to others. There’s not a loss of desire to connect with others, in fact I feel that quite desperately but I’m unable to express that desire and reach out for the very thing that might bring healing.

At times, my spirituality will sustain me. At other times the darkness of depression is just too dense for me to be in touch with that source of meaning and hope. In this, it’s only the faithful presence and sustaining faith of others who will risk living my experience with me, that reaches into my darkness and draws me into the light.

On the whole, the church is very poorly prepared to deal with the sense of abandonment and helplessness. The combination of an intellectual approach to worship and a failure to meet experiential needs leaves little scope for a therapeutic response. Yet, our reading this evening provides one way in which the rituals and symbols of faith can bind us, even when we’re filled with a crushing sadness, to the religious community that transcends our intellectual struggles.

In the Book of Lamentations, as in much of the Book of Psalms, we find a similar conflict between knowledge and feeling. Alongside this comes the possibility of hope and a radical reframing of experience.

We can read and say these texts relationally. Rather than mining the Bible for ways to apply it to my life, a somewhat cognitive task, we can seek to relate to and identify with the characters we encounter in its texts, reflecting on their experience in the light of our own.

This relational/emotional way can provide a template for making sense of our own situations and current relationships with God, self and others.

            The thought of my affliction
            and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!

Lamentation is a deep despair turned over to God. Rather than turn it inwardly and compound our sadness and hopelessness; rather than turn it outwards in complaint or even lashing out; it is given to God so that a new perspective can be gained.

            My soul continually thinks of it
            and is bowed down within me.

The writer is looking out at city in ruins, a people who have been captured, hope has been lost, and fear runs rampant, like looking out of a window in the middle of the holocaust. There is an honest acknowledgement of the reality of the pain but also the possibility of meaning beyond it.

There aren’t glib answers in Lamentations. Just honest feelings of grief, sadness, doubt, confusion, anger, frustration, and questioning that reflect the inconstancy of the deep wounds and defensive scar tissue we have built up as a way of surviving.

Holding our corner in the interaction between love of God, love of neighbour and love of self, all of which are intimately bound together, is sometimes intensified for Christians who are taught so much about dying to self. You cannot give away what you never had in the first place.

Let’s not then be quite so ready to pass by on the other side of the people portrayed in the Psalms and in Lamentations, the experience of many of the prophets, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Passion of Christ, and the life stories of the saints and mystics who have learned how deeply the experience of loss resonates in what it means to be human in relation to the mystery of the reality of God.

When we are tempted to give up on life may we be enabled by God’s mercy to take on the gift of human freedom through God’s known presence or God’s felt absence. And may the Church be more help in this.

            The thought of my affliction
            and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
            My soul continually thinks of it
            and is bowed down within me.
            But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
            The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
            God’s mercies never come to an end.

 

 

2nd April 2017