Recently, our family travelled up to the “book capital of Britain”, Hay-on-Wye, for the day. We hadn’t banked on our three year old demanding a book in every single bookshop we stepped foot in, but, apart from a continually screaming child, we had a lovely time. On the way back, we saw signs to Aberfan, and, as my daughter was studying the tragedy that had taken place there at her school, she asked whether we could take a detour to the memorial. The memorial is on the site of Pantglas school where, fifty years ago, over 100 young children, a whole generation, were lost with the collapse of the colliery tip. There are two sections to the memorial – first, a beautiful and peaceful garden and, second, a lovely playground for children. As I watched my daughter playing on the swings and the slide, knowing she was the same age as the primary-school children who had lost their lives, my mind slipped into a prayer of protest – where were you, Lord, on that horrific day? Were you sitting on your hands on your golden throne?
On Wednesday morning, as I watched the news on TV, I found myself asking the same questions. I watched the harrowing images of the fire in the Grenfell Tower, the tears and grief of the friends and relatives, and the photos of the smiling children and adults missing. How could a loving, caring Father God allow this to happen? I started feeling disappointment with God, disheartened in my faith, a little angry even. A church in Tamworth was vandalised earlier this week, with “God has Failed” sprayed on its walls. However inane that act of vandalism was in itself, part of me could understand how people could come to that view in light of tragedies, wars, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. If we are truthful with ourselves, many of us feel like the 50% of participants in a recent US opinion poll who, when asked for their “approval rating” for God, thought that the Almighty should be able to handle things in our world a little better.
When we Christians start feeling that way, though, we actually stand in a long line of faithful who have challenged God when facing pain, grief, and suffering – Job, the Psalmist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, to name but a few. Even Jesus himself cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such a response is natural in light of our personal relationship with our Father. As in any intimate relationship, nothing is too trivial or too important, and nothing too painful or too secular, to be excluded. A father-child relationship allows us to lay bare all our humanly experiences and emotions before our creator God – not only our joys, but also our pain, our despair, our questioning, our cries for help. God is not threatened or intimidated by our prayers of protest and our honest cries of confusion. In fact, as John Bunyan wrote, “the best prayers have often more groans than words”.
None of us, whether we are people of faith or not, have any answers to explain, in the words of Dostoevsky, “the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre”. In facing suffering, we cannot explain away or justify its apparent senselessness. But, in asking where God is in such tragedy, we are led to relate suffering to love and hope, as St Paul does in Romans 5 (see verses 1-11). In light of my own experience of ministry to those facing so much tragedy and grief, I have come to recognise that God’s kingdom does not simply break through in our stirring moments – in beautiful walks in the countryside, uplifting pieces of music, and heartening moments with our friends and family. Instead, God’s kingdom also breaks through the dust, dirt, and despair of our suffering, and our call as Christians at times of tragedy is to focus our gaze through our tears to recognise glimpses of his love.
In an article in the Sunday Telegraph in 2004, Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected on the horror of the Boxing Day tsunami, which had just devastated South Asia. In facing such horrors, he wrote that our faith has no “answers”. Yet we still witness the kingdom in the sacrificial compulsion of people to care for each other and the impulse they have to make a difference. It is in those driven by, in Rowan Williams’s words, “the imperative for practical service and love” that we see God’s light shining. After all, when pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, those who face heartbreak, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done.
We’ve seen this in just the most amazing way these past few days. Alongside the tireless work of the emergency services and the hospitals, we have seen, on the ground, “an army of caring”, as the press have dubbed it – huge distribution centres, with donated toys, water, food, and clothes; churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all open and welcoming those of any or no faith; sports centres and community halls open; individuals travelling many hundreds of miles to help; celebrities, politicians, and bishops pulling their sleeves up and standing alongside those in their loss; locals opening their gardens and houses for anyone to pop in; people cooking meals and giving them out freely; and three million pounds donated within 48 hours.
A friend of mine who lives directly opposite Grenfell Tower posted the following on her facebook page yesterday: “There is a place for God in this. He is in the hearts of those who feel empty and want to do something, he is with those who give money or time to help, he is with us as we weep and mourn. But can we see it? Do we recognise him where he is to be found?” There are certainly times when we, his followers, can’t offer any words to explain tragedy, less still can we take any pain away. But we are comforted that, through the cross, God knows about grief, loss, pain, abandonment, and fear, and, because of this, he stands alongside those who cry out in distress and agony. In very real and practical terms, he does this through the love and compassion of those who are made in his image. As Teresa of Avila put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” On Mount Sinai, God revealed himself as “the God of compassion and mercy” (Exodus 34:6), and so when his people, of whatever background or tradition, are inspired to reach out in compassion, God himself is present. That is the hope that springs from suffering, that is the glimpse of God’s kingdom, that is the rainbow in the storm.