Romans 8:18-25

“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]

We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?

Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?

Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?

God had promised Abraham a son years earlier. God appears and says: “Don’t be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward will be very great.” Abraham responds: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless …? so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”[v] What’s the tone? Is Abraham loud shaking his fist or slumping dejectedly? Perhaps both and groaning: “This is my reality, but you said it would be like that.” Abraham created a Plan B.

God responds: No, my promise is true. I will give you your own son. Look up. See these stars. Your descendants will be this numerous. “Abraham believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”[vi]

Did Abraham begin to believe then, afterward? No, it was through the whole encounter. Believing God, having faith and hope in what is not seen, includes doubts, pushing back and questioning, shaking a fist, slumping, and groaning.

“If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” To be patient is to tolerate or endure discomfort or suffering, but it is not to deny it. Feel the suffering, express it, groan, and look beyond. Trust that God is still real and active. God will come to bring us all to healing and wholeness. Hope acknowledges present suffering and believes beyond to what will come.

What does it look like to wait with patience? Acknowledge your own suffering and the suffering around us. Don’t deny reality. What do you feel? What are you lacking? Like psalms, pray the hurt personally and corporately. Listen for and to the groans of neighbors in pain. Listen for what is being revealed among and around us with injustices exposed. Hold your own suffering, and listen to the cries of others.

There’s a story of an orphanage amid a warzone. The children have lost everything, are afraid, and have trouble going to sleep. One of the adults gets a loaf of bread and goes around tearing off a piece for each child saying: ‘Hold onto this. We fed you tonight. We will feed you tomorrow. Go to sleep.’ It is hard to go to sleep when we face all that we have lost, when we feel our fears and only see our suffering. Look back. What the ways you have been provided for? How has God met you? How have you received love and provision? Hold onto that. [vii] It’s like Abraham looking up at the stars each night, remembering God who kept coming, listening to his questions and groaning with compassion and continued promise.

How have you been provided for? What might be a symbol? What might an object you could touch or see or hear or smell—your stars—to remind you? What is your bread to hold onto?

In the suffering today, pray your hurt. Groan and listen to the groans of those around you. Look up to your stars, or hold onto your bread as hope that the God who has met you in the past is coming and will come in the future. The promise is real. There is a new Jerusalem where we will all sing together with joy. There will be healing for all the nations.

“voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[viii]

[i] “Round me falls the night” by William Romanis (1878)

[ii] Romans 4:16

[iii] Romans 4:19-21

[iv] Romans 4:22; Genesis 15:6

[v] Genesis 15:1-3

[vi] Genesis 15:4-6

[vii] Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn. (1995) Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Paulist Press. This is an excellent, accessible teaching on the Examen prayer from Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola. See also their book Making Heart-Bread (2006) for children.

[viii] “Round me falls the night” by William Romanis (1878)

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1 Comment

  1. Catharine Gibson on August 8, 2020 at 21:16

    Thank you for this. Listening to it while pondering Joseph in the pit (at a time that so many people feel like they’re in “the pits”) is fueling my reflections on the value of dreams.

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