My recent trip to the Somme Battlefields led me to the discovery of a man called David Jones. He was a young student artist who fought in the trenches but, unlike so many others, survived. Almost twenty years after that war, he wrote in an amazing and powerful way about his experiences. “In Parenthesis”, as it is called, is half poetry – half prose, and is described by TS Eliot as “a work of genius”. But what the book does not explain is what happened to him afterwards. So many people faced with that horrific experience, or others like it – war and violence created by man, or other awful things like earthquakes, or the tragic suffering of a family with a severely disabled child – so many people faced with such things say to us quite fairly “How can you believe in a God of love when so many terrible things are happening and have happened in our world?”
Yes, David Jones might have turned away from God as he remembered the horrors he endured. He was plagued ever afterwards with depression and had two nervous breakdowns, and yet instead of turning away from God, he turned to God and in 1921 became a Catholic. He said that it started for him when he was foraging during the war and, approaching an old barn, peeped in and saw some of his fellow soldiers kneeling round a priest at a makeshift altar lit by candles. There they were, in the midst of carnage, deep in prayer.
But what good can prayer do? Their prayer did not stop the war, just as our prayer sadly does not stop the killing in Syria and Iraq, nor the awful destruction during the recent earthquakes in Italy, nor many other forms of human suffering. So what do we think we are doing? What kind of answer should we expect? In our Gospel today (Luke 21:5-19) Jesus speaks of such things. He says “This is something that must happen.” But he does not go on to say that if you pray hard enough they will all go away. No, instead he says that this “Will be your opportunity to bear witness.”
I suppose our answer, our bearing witness, must start, faced with such tragedies, simply with an expression of our emotional need to share them with God. We say “Well what else can we do? The other choice, to stop believing and praying, leads only to the conclusion that the world is a sad mad chaos and that there is no hope, and nothing worth doing about it.” We might well go on from there to say that simply sharing it with God helps us, just as we might share some sadness with a friend, knowing the only help they can give is to listen and show they care, even if there is not much else they can do. But we might go further, because there is an answer that God can give, he can give us courage and love and care to do what we can, however small it may seem.
The non-believer too may do great acts of love for others in sad situations, and we may admire them for that; but we would say that all of us humans need to turn to a greater power than ourselves to strengthen and support us to do this work; and indeed we would go further and say that it is only because God exists, only because there is a power of love and goodness underlying the universe, that any one of us (including the non-believer) can love and care at all. As those people in Mosul struggle to survive, huddling in cellars or on the floors of their homes whilst their streets and homes are riven with conflict and gunfire, they tell us that all they can do too, is to pray. They are praying, as I hope we do, that God will give them the courage and strength to get through it, that God will help them to support one another rather than turn against each other, that God will support and strengthen those who are trying to bring help to them, and help those who are trying to find a way to bring peace to their troubled land.
That surely is why we are here to pray. Not to hide away and forget the troubles of the world, but to offer it all to God, sometimes even in tears. But then to affirm, with all our strength, the power of love and goodness at work in even the most awful and tragic situations our world can offer. We believe in a God who does not stand separate from the world, looking on from a safe distance, but a God who enters into the darkest places to bring us all a little bit of light and hope. We believe that God is like that, because we believe that his presence has been most fully revealed and expressed in Jesus our Lord and our God, dying on the cross. So when Jesus tells us that when we face troubles that is our opportunity to bear witness, it is this that he wants us to proclaim – and note that this need not be in clever words but from whatever simple struggling words we can utter coming deep within us, from God himself.