Getting older confronts us with questions we tend to ignore when young, healthy and active.
Questions about how God can allow us and our loved ones to suffer; about why he doesn’t always answer our prayers for healing; about why, if he is all-loving and all-knowing and all-powerful, he doesn’t just step in to clean up our messes.
Especially those of us who have spent our adult lives in a movement called Youth With A Mission, we need to stop living in denial and accept that our bodies ain’t what they used to be and can’t do all they used to do.
Years ago some of us formerly involved with the European leadership team of YWAM decided to retreat annually together to encourage each other to finish strongly. As you read this Weekly Word, most of us are gathering near Geneva in Switzerland, while others are joining in via zoom unable to travel due to physical frailty.
We call ourselves the Caleb Forum, remembering that Caleb was eighty-five years old when he set himself to claim a mountain as his inheritance in the Promised Land (Josh. 14:12). We have become a group mainly in our mid-seventies, give or take a decade. Several of us suffer from Parkinsons; one of us was recently ‘promoted to glory’ due to the sickness; others have struggled with cancer, loss of sight, family difficulties, heart irregularities, worn-out knees… stuff many in our age group live with daily.
The big question we all have to face has a name: theodicy – how to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of evil. Of course, if you don’t believe in a God of love, there’s no problem with pain or suffering. That’s just what happens. Why should bad things surprise or upset us?
But that raises another problem, the problem of goodness. If we reject a good God, where does our concept of goodness come from? Yet we all have an intuitive sense of goodness even if we can’t define it. Try to imagine society without any sense of ‘goodness’ to guide behaviour.
The psalmists wrestled with theodicy, for example, in Psalms 13, 22, 44 and 88 in their direct, honest, even accusative dialogue with God. Much Hebrew literature explores lament as part of suffering in Jewish history.
Is there a more relevant prayer than that of Habbakuk (1:2-4) as we pray for Ukraine in response to Russian aggression?
How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
Our guide in our discussions this week has been a forty-something-year-old mother of two who happens to be an Anglican priest married to another Anglican priest. Having suffered herself from two miscarriages, depression, anxiety and darkness, Tish Harrison-Warren digs deep into church tradition and Christian literature to explore the question of human vulnerability and divine providence. She has packaged her thoughts in what promises to become a devotional classic: Prayer in the Night (IVP, 2021). Written in thought-provoking, creative prose, the book combines traditional insight with contemporary application, theological orthodoxy with personal anecdote.
For Harrison-Warren, theodicy is ‘an existential knife-fight between the reality of our own quaking vulnerability and our hope for a God who can be trusted.’ It’s a problem that canot be answered, a mystery to be endured. True mystery invokes things that are fundamentally beyond our grasp, she writes, an encounter with an unsearchable reality.
The church has always known this paradox, she acknowledges, but has let it persist. In the story of redemption, God enters into our vulnerability. He does not keep bad things from happening even to himself – as the God-man.
The book explores the night-time prayer Compline (‘completion’) from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which speaks to God in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disillusionment. Harrison-Warren talks of a time when, even as a priest she could not pray, God taught her to pray again through the ancient tool of liturgical prayers.
‘When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church – the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office – we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up ourselves,’ she writes.
As we sat around in our lounge in Switzerland sharing from personal vulnerability about the realities of growing older, we found ourselves comforted repeatedly by the author’s encounters with the doctrines of the church ‘not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news’.
Christianity does not give us a concise explanation for vulnerability, loss or pain, Harrison-Warren explains. But it gives us a story, a story of a God who enters into our vulnerability.
Till next week,