A reflection on the readings for Proper 22C: Lamentations 1:1-6, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10
It’s early in the month of May, in the year 1848. A young woman boards a ship with two small children in tow, a four year old boy and a two year old girl. The woman is three months pregnant and with her two other children is about to embark on a five month journey from Manchester, England to NYC and then across the United States to Utah. She leaves behind her husband, who will continue to work, earning money to support his family as they make the long journey. The father will follow in a year or so.
The woman and her children cross the Atlantic Ocean; it takes more than six weeks on the ship. A tragic outbreak of small pox claims the life of her two year old daughter. Landing in New York the mother and son take a boat and train from the coast, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, across Illinois to St. Louis. There they meet up with other members who are gathering for the wagon train journey. Soon they will travel northwest through Missouri into Iowa, across Nebraska and Wyoming, arriving some 13 weeks later in Utah. The wagons carry their possessions, the people walk. The woman, now five months pregnant walks too, and by the time she arrives at her new home she is 8 months pregnant. A month after her arrival at her new home she gives birth to a healthy baby.
This woman, my great grandmother, five generations back, made this journey for her faith. For me she stands as a powerful witness of faith in the face of adversity, suffering, and struggles.
For several weeks now the lectionary has offered us readings from Jeremiah. But, today’s reading takes us away from the prophet Jeremiah and offers us instead a reading from Lamentations. Although the author is unknown Lamentations is often considered to have been written by Jeremiah. It’s a collection of laments, in poetic form that echo poems that were common in ancient Mesopotamian cities. In this reading the narrator is actually a city, crying out from deep suffering, blaming God for the pain of the residents of that city. God, the narrator believes, has punished the people for failing to remain faithful to God, and now this voice cries out in sorrow and shame. Losing faith, losing sight of God comes with heavy consequences, or so this passage seems to tell us.
The Letter to Timothy suggests something else. Perhaps suffering is less the act of a punishing God, and more the reality of what people feel when, for some reason, they become disconnected from God. Suffering is not so much the consequence of punishment inflicted by an angry God but more the consequence of our actions and what it feels like when we are separated from the God who loves us. More than that, I surmise that suffering is an aspect of life, it just is. No matter what, the one thing we humans all have in common is suffering. We all experience times in life when we struggle and suffer, sometimes as a result of our own actions or the actions of others, sometimes the cause of our suffering is random, a storm or an illness. Regardless these times of suffering challenge our faith. We cry out to God, feeling abandoned in the desert, suddenly residing in the deep night of the soul.
John Newton, known to us as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” also authored a profound book on the spiritual life and the struggles of faith. He was a ship owner and slave trader before becoming a priest in the Church of England. He went through a mighty conversion and from this change of heart worked to end the slave trade and wrote Amazing Grace. He spent his last years as a parish priest in London. In the Works of John Newton from the section titled “Grace in the Ear” Newton lays out a cyclical three step process of the faith journey.
The first step is “Desire.” A person has a sudden experience of God and a desire to grow in faith. The person has a profound sense of awe, and a new found awareness of God’s grace and love. This first phase is like the Hebrews freed from Egypt, it brings with it a sense of elation. Eventually this “awe-filled” sense of God’s love and grace shifts and the second phase begins.
The second phase is “Conflict.” This is the “deep night of the soul” phase where one wrestles with God, with faith, and often faces challenges that were not experienced in the first phase of Desire. If Desire is marked by elation like that of the Hebrews freed from slavery, this phase is marked by a sense of being lost; it’s the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. Ultimately this is a time of growing more dependent on God and deepening our trust in God as we travel through one challenge or another. This second phase is the longest phase in the spiritual journey.
The third phase, which Newton calls contemplation, is marked by an internal shift, a sense of peace prevails despite the obstacles.Filled with a sense of peace, one becomes less emotionally engaged in the challenges and more able to view them with some distance, having finally learned to put one’s trust in God. Newton is careful to spell out that one is not necessarily a better believer or person in one phase or the other, rather one’s sense of dependence on God increases through each phase.
This reminds me of a Mary Oliver poem:
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Paul reminds Timothy that he inherited from his mother and grandmother gifts of faith which will sustain him through the trials and tribulations of his life, even those that threaten his faith. Paul says: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you….
In the midst of deep suffering it can be difficult to imagine rekindling the gift of God that is within us. The odd thing is, we don’t actually rekindle it. God does. Somehow in the midst of despair, if we remain diligent in our prayer and practice of faith, even through those times when it feels futile, there rises within us a new sensibility, of hope, of peace, that can only be of God. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it is true. God has hold on me, on you. Somehow, being held in God’s embrace, infuses this peace, this hope, into our beings.
I wish I could say that once in Utah, and especially when her husband joined her a year later, that life was good and all was well for this ancestral grandmother. I wish I could say that she lived a life content in her faith and grateful she had made this journey. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Historical records indicate that this great great great great grandfather followed the tradition of that church at that time, the 1800’s and took additional wives. He even spent time in jail for polygamy. Some in that church consider him a saint. My great great great great grandmother, however felt otherwise, and divorced him. She spent the last of her days dependent on her children, poor and struggling. Somehow though she retained her faith, despite the heartbreaks she suffered.
Likewise, a life of faith does not mean that our lives will be like a Cinderella story, and all will work out in the end. But then again, in a way it does .Life has a way of throwing us curve balls and challenges. We sometimes think that a life of faith means our problems ought to disappear or we will never have problems in the first place. But as we all know the circumstances of our lives will bring challenges; just because that’s life. However a life of faith will remind us, over and over again, that we are held in the hand of God. Our faith, though it be small like a mustard seed, is enough. Timothy reminds us that God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power. Moving through the challenges of life we find a profound sense of peace arises in us. God’s grace is powerful. God’s grip on us is powerful and God isn’t letting go.