Over 2500 years ago, the Babylonian Empire destroyed Jerusalem, slaughtering many, enslaving the rest, carrying most into exile. A horrified observer wrote:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations…
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks.
My mother, in the years immediately following my father’s death, as Alzheimer’s disease insidiously robbed her of all memory, spent her days sitting in her easy chair, a quilt draped across her lap, flowing over her knees to her feet, onto the floor. On a side table, stacks of letters, written by my father during their fifty-three years of marriage; words on tattered pages she read and reread, each time for the first time, her lips moving in silent speech, at other moments, sounding the syllables aloud, each breath, an increasingly faint whisper of her past. Next to the letters, a small frame with my father’s picture, smiling his half smile, gazing at her. She would look back and smile. Then a time came when she asked repeatedly, “Who is this?” Enveloped in the cloud of her unknowing, her amnesia was anesthesia for her lonely despair.
This image of my mother, etched in my mind, is my portrait of desolate Jerusalem: How lonely, like a widow, is the city.
Save for the Book of Job and those psalms known as songs of desolation, no other word in scripture shouts, screams of unrelieved pain like Lamentations. Though it’s hard to hear, one inescapable reality of human living calls, commands us to listen: Suffering. For some of us, all the time and sometimes, for all of us.
Yes, happiness can be found in this life. Yet, when it is the fruit of favorable circumstance, we know, given the fickle nature of everything we don’t control, it won’t, can’t last. Therefore, Lamentations mirrors our universal experience of suffering, whether on global, national, local, or individual stages of life’s drama, whether through endless war, terror’s threat, natural calamity, personal tribulations of accident and illness, or by our own will whenever we, under the reign of unruly temperament or unlicensed affection abuse ourselves, souls, and bodies, or those of others.
Engulfed by this tsunami wave of suffering, is there anything beyond weeping that we can do? The one who wrote, “How lonely, like a widow, is the city”, later answers emphatically, Yes!
The thought of my affliction…is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, therefore I have hope:
God’s steadfast love never ceases, God’s mercies never end;
they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.
It’s unbelievable that one who has endured horrors unspeakable, whose lament is ever-fresh, can utter this stirring a word of trust! But perhaps not! For what value is a word of assurance spoken by one who hasn’t suffered? Virtue resounds in the claim of confidence only from one who knows sorrow. As an anguished Job declared, “I know my Redeemer lives…and after my skin has been destroyed, then in my flesh, I shall see God,” so Lamentations proclaims, “My soul is bowed in affliction, yet I have hope, for God’s love and mercy never end.”
Now, we could believe the sincerity of the speaker. Nothing more. Nothing else. After all, anyone who suffers desires release, at least relief. Yet this is a word of anticipation, looking forward for something to come and expectation, looking backward on a historical relationship with a God of unconditional, unconquerable love.
Still, to speak of God and suffering in the same breath raises theodicy’s nagging question: How can the evil of suffering whether of human or natural cause exist in a creation of an omnipotent benevolent God? Years ago, at a time of turmoil, then the worst of my life, a spiritual dark night of my soul, my experience of God’s absence, God’s abandonment of me, I often cried: If God is all-powerful, then God, allowing evil, can’t be good; and if God is good, desiring the welfare of all, then God, unwilling or unable to restrain evil, can’t be God.
I’ve come a mighty long way since then. This is where I stand today. Whene’er I or you suffer, I have hope. Sometimes, measured in the depth of my desire for you and me to be free of pain, my hope is great. Sometimes, when I see only a flicker of a possibility beyond the sorrow, small. Yet whichever, I can – I am able and willing – to hope. For I no longer place my hope in God. My hope is God. The existence of my capacity through spiritual eyes to look beyond what is to behold a vision of what might be is evidence of God’s presence and power. Because that is true, whate’er suffering befalls, anticipatory, hopeful visions always come. Therefore I can sing:
Great is Thy faithfulness,
Great is Thy faithfulness;
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
Photograph (by Walt Calahan): me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006
Illustration: The Flight of the Prisoners (The fall of Jerusalem, 586 BCE) (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902), The Jewish Museum, New York City
 For example, Psalm 22 and Psalm 88
 Job 19.25-26, my emphases
 A paraphrase of the word of the character, Nickles, in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.: A Play in Verse (1958)
 Words (1923) by Thomas Obadiah Chisolm (1866-1960)