Sometime my first week here at St. Aidan’s, I decided to take a walk around the Nave and look at each of the stained-glass windows in detail, and to read the inscriptions and the cards that tell what each window portrays and to whom it is dedicated. There are scenes from the Bible, and a window depicting Saint Aidan, and even a window in honour of women and the Girl Guides. Over in this corner of the Nave, just before you enter the Chapel, are windows dedicated to two young men, Robert Cook and Frederick Grant McCardle, who died in World War II. They were just 19 and 21 years old. And their families wanted to make sure they’d always be remembered here at St. Aidan’s. Then I lingered over the memorial over in that other corner of the Nave, noticing the plaque to World War I veterans and the beautiful book that records the names and short biographies of those who died in World War II.
One of those is Dudley Garrett, who had run track and field in his youth and played hockey for the New York Rangers before signing up for service in the Royal Canadian Navy. He died at age 20 when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of Nova Scotia on November 24, 1944, killing all those onboard. Another I read about is Lloyd Gosse, who had been a scoutmaster for a Boy Scout troop before enlisting in the Canadian Army. He served as a bombadier in an artillery regiment in England, Africa, and finally in Sicily, where he died of encephalitis and is buried in the Canadian Military Cemetery there.
David Peters is an Iraq war veteran, and a priest friend of mine in Texas, who in addition to founding the Episcopal Vetetans’ Fellowship in the United States has also written the books Post-Traumatic God and Post-Traumatic Jesus. At age 19, David was involved in a car accident in which someone in the other vehicle was killed, and David has lived for decades since with PTSD related to that accidental death. Later in his young adulthood, David served with the U.S. Marines in the Iraq War. When he returned home, he found that everyone else seemed different, his marriage was crumbling, and he was depending on alcohol to numb the pain of the further traumatic experiences he had in Bagdhad. David tells of how, like many others living with post-traumatic stress, he felt restless, hyper vigilant, and need to be always on the move.
Though David had grown up a Christian and continued to be a church-going Christian as an adult, when he returned from war he didn’t feel comfortable going into a church anymore. Sent to Washington DC when his tour in Iraq was over, David recalls being drawn to the National Cathedral there, but not being able to go inside. Instead, David lingered outside in the Cathedral Garden, he found himself pulled toward a statue of the prodigal son being embraced by his father. David lingered before that statue of the prodigal son and his father, and he couldn’t stop weeping because in this sculpture he saw himself being surrounded by God’s all-encompassing, all-accepting embrace. In the years since, David has served as an Army chaplain, a supporter and advocate for fellow PTSD sufferers (including other veterans), and now a priest in the Episcopal church, who regularly shines a light on the experiences of those who have experienced trauma, especially as experienced in wartime.
In today’s Gospel account from John 11, we hear Martha say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha and Mary experienced the trauma of seeing someone they loved very much, their brother Lazarus, die in their presence. And like many who experience the suffering and death of someone they love, they too wanted to know why. Why did this have to happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? And, by the way, where were you, Jesus, when we needed you most?
We continue to wonder this today. We live in a world in which there is always at least one war happening, somewhere. At this very moment, a war continues to rage on between Russia and Ukraine, and yet more war has erupted between Israel and Hamas. And these are just the wars we hear about most in the headlines. Violence touches us beyond battlefields, though. Where I am from, gun violence and mass shootings dominate the news and many Americans, including me, wonder how long, O God. Even beyond wars and gun violence, we hear again and again the stories of people traumatized by domestic violence and sexual abuse (sometimes, sadly, in the context of churches). All of these experiences of trauma leave wounds that people carry for a lifetime.
Each time someone loses a loved one too soon, be it to war or violence—or sees someone they care about forever changed by going through the trauma of battle or abuse—those who are left behind or touched by it somehow are wounded in their own way. When I reflect on that long list of names that Michael read earlier in the service (and when I see the plaque with all the WWI names and the book with WWII names), I ponder how each person who died in these World Wars (and in every war), that each one left a whole network of people who were devastated by their loss. A mother, a father, siblings, friends and neighbors—and for some, fiancées, spouses, and children— a whole web of people for whom life as they knew it, and their hopes for the future, would never be the same. And like Martha, many of them probably wondered: Where are you, Jesus? Where are you in our suffering? Where are you in this trauma and loss? And in this Church of St. Aidan, we may well reflect on how many funerals were held, how many prayers said, how many tears shed for each one of the 54 people whose names we remembered and whom we prayed for today?
When we experience times of suffering, be it our own suffering, or being with someone else in their pain, often we feel led to pray. And yet, just as much as we feel led to pray, equally we may not be sure of how to pray, or even what we should be praying for. How do we ask God to intercede for us or someone we care for in these times of intense suffering, mourning, and need?
In today’s Gospel from John 11, we hear of just such an emergent situation. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, and friend of Jesus, is very ill. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus to come to Bethany, so that he may heal their brother. But Jesus says Lazarus can wait. The disciples feel confused by Jesus’ lack of urgency. They seem surprised that Jesus’ first impulse is to wait, rather than to rush to his friend’s bedside. By the time they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead and in the tomb for four days.
So when Jesus finally arrives, Martha confronts him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In that moment, Jesus consoles Martha, telling her, “Your brother will rise again,” and reminding her, “I am resurrection and I am life.” Likewise, when Mary comes to see Jesus, she confronts him with the very same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus sees, hears, and feels her tears, and of all those who gathered to mourn, “he [is] greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” In that moment, even though he is resurrection and life, Jesus weeps along with them.
I wonder how each of us would respond in this situation. I wonder how we might pray, and what we might pray for, in that moment. I wonder how we pray in our own lives when we experience suffering, conflict, and loss—and the grief and trauma that inevitably follow. I suggest that there are three ways one might pray in the midst of such suffering, be it our own, others’, or the whole world’s.
Our first inclination is to want to pray for healing or a miracle—in other words, to pray for resurrection. This is what Martha and Mary have in mind. It’s what they’re praying for, and it’s why they’re so disappointed and frustrated when Jesus doesn’t just drop everything, race over to Bethany, and heal Lazarus like they expected him to. It’s the prayer behind their confronting Jesus, when he did finally arrive on the scene, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It’s not wrong to want to pray for a miracle, be it healing or resurrection. Sometimes the miracle we pray for happens. When it does, we feel simultaneously astounded and grateful. But praying for a miracle, for the suffering or the trauma to disappear, isn’t the only prayer we can pray.
Here’s a second way we can pray in the midst overwhelming, painful, or challenging circumstances. In prayers of incarnation, we pray for God to be with us in the suffering. Martha and Mary ask Jesus to come not solely to heal Lazarus, but to invite Jesus to be with Lazarus (and with them) in their time of need: “Lord, if [only] you had been here.” They are praying that Jesus will come be with them, as soon as possible, and are frustrated when he doesn’t arrive on their timeline.
In prayers of incarnation, we pray that we’ll be able to unmistakably sense God’s comforting, strengthening, sustaining presence with us in the midst of whatever pain we’re experiencing. Maybe that is through feeling God’s divine presence directly, as when we sense in an undeniably vivid way that the Holy Spirit is with us, even now. Or maybe it’s through us feeling that God has sent someone to be with us, someone who will stick close with us through it all, whatever befall. When we pray for someone (or for ourselves) in this way, we are praying that we will be strengthened and encouraged as we remember the ways that Jesus, too, experienced pain, disappointment, conflict, loss, and trauma. Knowing that Jesus himself needed companions in his suffering inspires us to come alongside people who need us to be with them: to be their companions in the way of suffering, their companions in the way of the cross.
But there’s still one more way we should consider praying, though it’s not the prayer we’re apt to go to first. Upon hearing that Martha and Mary had sent for him—pleading for him to come be with the one he loves, Lazarus, we hear in Jesus’ first response a nudge toward this third kind of prayer: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” In Jesus’ response, that this illness does not lead to death but rather that it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it, he is pointing us toward a prayer that moves beyond asking for a miracle to take away the problem—a prayer that moves beyond asking for the strength and companionship to help us persevere. We hear Jesus pointing us toward a third way of interceding, which is praying for transformation or transfiguration. Praying that illness, conflict, loss, grief, or trauma not be taken away, and not merely be ‘powered through,’ but rather praying that experiencing this struggle will lead to experiencing God’s presence and character more deeply. Once we have experienced transfiguration, which is a glorification of our circumstances in a way that leads to such transcendence, we are forever changed. We cannot unsee it.
This is what we pray when we ask, in the midst of suffering, that “the Son of God may be glorified through it”; that we may be transformed in our faith in Christ as we turn to him in our suffering. We pray not expecting the suffering to be taken away, or even for the strength and companionship to persevere. Rather, we pray expecting that we will be changed through our experience of suffering—that the way we respond and grow and are changed through these moments of challenge will glorify God and make us more aware of God’s presence at work in our lives and in the world.
As my veteran friend David Peters has observed about soldiers’ particular experience of trauma, “The life of a soldier in any era is a life lived close to suffering. When I think of World War I coming to an end, I cannot comprehend the scale of the suffering. Millions died, ground into the mud of No Man’s Land…. This war became known as the Great War, the war to end all wars, and yet it did not end all wars. The nations suffered the lossses of their finest young people, and the suffering of that war became enshrined in the twentieth century as the turning point in so many lives” (135). Reflecting on his own experiences of trauma alongside the trauma that Jesus himself suffered at the end of his earthly life, my veteran friend David Peters has come to realize, “The post-traumatic Jesus is the only Jesus Christianity has ever known. In Greek, trauma means ‘wound,’ a tearing of the flesh, or, metaphorically, an injury to the soul. … While other more sanitized versions of Jesus have been presented over time, it is the post-traumatic Jesus who has endured.”
Reflecting on Jesus’ appearing to his friends after the resurrection, David notes how Jesus’ “calling card is his wounds, his trauma: ‘See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.’…Healing does not mean scars and wounds go away. Healing means we have new life. That new life is limited by our scars and wounds, but it is profoundly more meaningful than it was before the moment that changed us forever. That Jesus’ wounds are still visible should tell us something about the nature of healing and our new life following the post-traumatic Jesus” (144).