In his book A Cry of Absence, Martin Marty explored the ways the psalmists cry out to God in despair. The brief introduction to the book noted how Marty intended to do a study of the Psalms shortly before his first wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He became attuned, he writes, to the psalmists’ need for God in their dark places and how that expression found voice in their writings. Using Karl Rahner‘s understanding of faith dispositions, Marty says that the psalmists often stand on the edge of the abyss with the atheists but refuse to turn their backs. People with this predisposition don’t focus on the how good things are around them but look for God’s presence in the wilderness.
An example of reading the Psalms this way is to read Psalm 23 but instead of noticing the upturn of God’s redeeming presence at the end—and why so many people read this psalm at funerals—notice the need to “walk through the valley of death.” In this form of spiritual meditation, the person does not ignore the pain and suffering around her but recognizes God’s presence in the midst of the pain and suffering. I had always been drawn to the way the psalmists embraced the humanness of our experiences. The upturns at the end to explain that God’s purposes would be revealed one day never mattered to me. The psalmists appeared to inhabit the world. I am grateful for Marty’s book because I encountered it during seminary when everyone around me looked so secure in their faith and calling. During that first year of studies, I was not sure why I had even gone to seminary. A Cry of Absence let me know that there are many ways to approach spirituality and scripture. I am still an outlier of sorts within my community of faith, but I realize much of scripture is made up of outliers and Marty’s book help me learn to notice that fact.
The first Sunday of Lent finds me where I often am in moments of spiritual reflection. In a world created so beautifully, why must there be so much death and suffering? I’m never interested in finding the correct answer to that question, but I am satisfied to sit with its profundity. We learn to see God’s presence in the very places we expect absence. In death, particularly of the young, we look for an explanation or meaning. God’s presence exists in the very act of caring for the bereaved in silence and compassion. The root of passion is not enthusiasm (as we often claim) but suffering. Compassion then is the ability to suffer with someone. It is in the showing up and caring that we find God’s reality. The reminder this Lenten season occurs in the blooms of winter. In the fallow season where we expect an absence of life-affirming reality, the seeds of life’s presence are there buried beneath the surface ready to push forward. The very cycle of death and life is a reminder of how creation holds God’s presence. In Georgia, we get to experience the Spring season in Winter. It will be cold again in the next few weeks, but the reality of new life bursts from that place of barrenness. We must learn to listen to its promise.