Rector's Blog

Lent II

A Message of Hope for these Troubled Times

We are living in dark times.  We are fearful, we are anxious, our hearts go out to our sisters and brothers in Ukraine and for countries along its borders struggling to support and help the stream of refugees.  For the Russian people whose rights are being taken from them, for the people of  Belarus, which now it seems  is virtually a puppet state of Putin. We are frightened at the speed in which war has returned to the streets of Europe, something we never thought would happen again and we worry about how worse things might become. This could so easily spin out of control. 

Throughout history in times of desperation, when we don’t feel God is listening or even feel angry at God who doesn’t appear to answer our prayers, people have been drawn to the psalms.  The book of Psalms has been at the centre of both Jewish and Christian worship for thousands of years and when we pray the psalms. These words join us with millions of both Jews and Christians across the world. Those who have gone before us have used these songs as part of their prayer life, often in times of great suffering. So I am very much drawn to the psalms now.

Compiled from lyrics used in Temple worship the psalms contain hymns, psalms of thanksgiving, royal psalms and psalms of lament. The word lament is not one we hear very much nowadays.    We don’t do a lot of lamenting.  Our TV advertisements are full of happy, smiley people. We are fed a message that we should flourish and thrive but that seems to mean we should expect and seek individual happiness above all else.  If you look at films and dramas it seems the only love that is worth having is romantic love between two individuals and that should be one which always has to exist in a heightened state of excitement. We also do a lot of blame – it’s always someone’s fault but not our own – as if the whole world was some sort of ambulance chasing exercise.  But lament is not about blame and it’s not about pretending things are different to how they really are. Lament is an expression of deep grief, a reflection on the pain and sorrow of the world.  Lent is a season of lament but as we look around our world – at the war damaged buildings, at our fears for the future of our planet if we do not tackle climate change, at what this virus can still do especially in countries without access to vaccines – this year especially seems a time to lament and lament is something we do collectively not just as individuals.  We confess our sins of commission and omission as communities, nations and indeed as humankind. 

And the psalms help us see that down the ages people have felt as we do. They are brutally honest – the psalmist is often angry, hopeless, desperate. The psalms help us see that faith does not mean and never has meant that we are insulated from the troubles of the world.

The psalm appointed for the Second Sunday in Lent is Psalm 27 and its words capture that ambiguity – that it is inevitable and will always haunt our faith.

Threats and danger run through this psalm.  Enemies are encircling around the psalmist, family members, even parents seem to have abandoned them. Liars rise up against him.  It is a picture of fear, and anarchy.  A picture we can recognise today.  A picture of war-torn Ukraine but also of Russia where even just to go out into the streets to protest can lead  to imprisonment, even for children.  A picture of what it is like to live in a totalitarian state where close family and friends; for fear of their own safety; often betray others.

Yet – look how the psalm begins.  Verse 1 reads “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  This is a clear statement of belief in a strong personal relationship with our God. 

This psalm tells us that whilst we face great uncertainty we also have trust.

The way this psalm unfolds speaks to me.  It begins in a victorious mode – enemies will be overthrown and fear vanquished.  But then, the tone changes.  The psalmist is apparently no longer confident that they can take on an enemy but simply seeks safety.

The psalm describes what we experience when we are anxious and afraid. There are times we think we can cope.  If God is for me who shall be against me? But there are times we feel not only that we cannot cope but that we have been abandoned: “Do not hide your face from me.” “Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.”

Because it’s very easy to say we have trust in God but very difficult to do in times of great suffering.   This is a time of lament. A time to admit we are uncertain and afraid. 

The words of Psalm 27 also include words of trust, prayers for deliverance, as well as lament and a call for help. Moving from one of these to another, points out the challenges we face as people of faith. The news on our TV screens, the circumstances of our lives can shake our belief in a loving God.  It can feel as if the only response to our heartfelt prayers is an empty echo. Why doesn’t God answer our prayers which goodness knows are good and valid ones?

Yet the psalm both begins and ends with trust.  Words of reassurance that God is indeed with us. 

And what about laments? On the one hand, yes, they are an expression of sadness and pain in a distressing and suffering world. Times of lament are truly difficult times. But lament is not a time of hopelessness.   The psalms of lament presuppose that God exists, and that God does hear us and has the power to turn things around.

I read a sermon recently which had been preached at the St Margaret’s Anglican chaplaincy in Budapest by Revd Solomon Ekiyor, a refugee from Ukraine.   He said that the “war profoundly disrupts our lives and plans but our faith also gives us the resources to meet those questions”.  He spoke of the long history of disruptions that are part of the life of the people of God from the Exodus onwards. He said God has a way of working with evil and suffering: improvising and weaving it into the tapestry of his purpose in the world.  He continued “It is for each of us now to ask his guidance on what new purpose he has for each of us in this situation”.  I was very moved by  his  trust in what are the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances for him and his family knowing how anxious and helpless I am feeling,  though this war hardly touches me in the way that it does Revd Ekiyor. His hope made me reflect on the fact that what is lamentable can change into something that is good.

Verse 16 of Psalm 27 ends on a note of trust and of hope.  “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”.    Sometimes that is all we feel we can hang on to and sometimes only hang on with difficulty but sometimes that is enough.  Perhaps right now it has to be enough. Revd Andrea Jones, Rector of St Deiniol’s, Hawarden