Category Archives: reflection

God is in the response

The Rev. Dr David Pitman preached at Centenary UC yesterday. His sermon is full of wisdom for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Here it is:

 

INTRODUCTION

In a recent episode of Call the Midwife…. 

Sister Julienne says, “God is not in the event, God is in the response”

This is very good theology!

 

Back in 1982, the Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner, wrote a book entitled, When bad things happen to good people. The book came straight out of his own experience. He and his wife had a son, Aaron, who at three years of age was diagnosed with “progeria”, a disease that causes rapid ageing. Aaron looked like an old man while still a child and died two days after his 14th birthday.

Filled with grief, Rabbi Kushner confronted in himself the eternal question, “WHY?”

Why Aaron? He was an innocent child!

Why me? I am a deeply religious person committed to a life of serving others!

And, why does a God of love allow things like this to happen?

Over the 45 years of my own ministry, this has been the question most often asked of me, in a great variety of different circumstances, as people have endeavoured to deal with:

  • The death of a baby
  • The ravages of cancer
  • An unexpected and tragic accident
  • The injustice of dismissal or redundancy
  • The debilitating impact of alzheimers disease
  • The loss of a business due to the actions of ruthless financiers
  • The destruction caused by natural disasters
  • The horrors of war and genocide
  • The bashing of elderly people in their own homes
  • The cruelty and rejection of someone thought to be a friend

 

WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN?

There have been many attempts to offer an answer to the eternal “WHY?” Numerous philosophical and theological books have been written on the subject. The book by Rabbi Kushner is a very good one. It also happens to be very personal and readable. We have another one in the Old Testament. We call it the Book of Job.

I want to summarise a couple of the responses made to this most searching and difficult question, and tell you why I think they are inadequate, or even misleading.

 

The bad things that happen are God’s punishment for our sin.

This response suggests that because we are sinful and disobedient people, God has to punish and discipline us in order to make us more obedient and faithful, and God does this through inflicting on us those crises and experiences that cause us pain and struggle and grief.

Now we understand very well that some of our actions are foolhardy and that we often suffer the consequences of our foolishness. In such circumstances we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we have any sense, we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them. To blame God for our own foolishness does no good at all, especially for ourselves.

However, the belief that God is the initiator of pain and suffering, in order to promote obedience and holiness, makes no sense. For a start, we see plenty of people all around us who live fundamentally good lives. They are essentially honest and caring folk who do their best to be responsible parents, faithful friends, and reliable employees. Yet they seem to be on the receiving end of all manner of bad luck.

This was certainly the experience of Job. The OT book that bears his name is devoted to an exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job’s friends were in no doubt as to why Job had suffered so much pain and loss and grief. He must have sinned in some awful way and was experiencing his just punishment. The problem for poor old Job was that, no matter how hard he searched his heart, he could not understand what he could have done to deserve so much tragedy.

On the other hand, we all know people who are irresponsible and selfish, who act dishonestly or unethically, and yet whose lives seem remarkably free of struggle and strife. If God wants to promote obedience and holiness through the experience of personal crisis, he seems to be going about it in a decidedly odd and ineffective manner!

In any case, this is a belief that Jesus specifically rejects. In John 9, we see the religious authorities asking in regard to a man born blind, “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither! Yet through this man’s blindness the power of God will be revealed!”

Is suffering God’s punishment for sin? NO!

So, let’s make a conscious decision right now to put this false and misleading belief out of our minds. All it does is make us think badly of both God and ourselves. And it is not true to the faith of the New Testament!

 

God makes bad things happen to test our faith.

I have heard this statement many times over the years, and a number of variations on the same theme.

For example:

  • Suffering is God’s way of seeing how much we trust him.
  • God has a reason for everything. All we need is to have enough faith and we’ll be able to see what that reason is too.
  • Suffering is good for us. It makes us better people.

Thornton Wilder wrote a book in the early 1960’s called, The Eighth Day. It is a story about a family ruined by bad luck and the hostility of others. The novel has no happy ending. Instead, Wilder offers us the image of a beautiful tapestry. Looked at from the right side, it is a work of art, unique and colourful in its design and detail. But from the other side, all we can see is an ugly maze of seemingly unrelated threads and knots. Wilder’s message is that beyond the pain, grief and suffering of life, there is ultimately something beautiful and good. We may not be able to see it now, but one day we will.

Wilder is right!

Suffering is not good. It is bad!

Bereavement is not good. It is bad!

Tragedy is not good. It is bad!

We should never pretend otherwise. And we should never use the language of faith to obscure the fact that these things are bad!

It is true that our faith and trust in God will help us to cope with and live through these crises.

It is true that we may be able one day to look back and see that we have indeed become better and stronger people because of what we have been through.

But this does not mean that the original experience was somehow good in and of itself. Nor does it mean that God inflicted it on us to find out how much faith we have. The problem with all these so-called explanations is that they assume that God is the cause of human suffering. God never caused a bad thing to happen, and God never will! God’s purpose for us is only ever GOOD!

 

PERMISSION TO ASK “WHY?”

It is inevitable that at various times during our lives we will experience personal and family crises and, like so many others before us, will ask “WHY?”

Asking “WHY?” has always been the response of God’s people to crisis.

Called to lives of ministry and leadership in extremely difficult circumstances, people like Moses and Jeremiah asked “Why me?”

Immersed in the catastrophe of personal pain and loss, Job cried out, “Why me?”

Again and again in the Psalms we hear that same cry.

Psalm 13:1-2
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Psalm 77:7-9
Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

Psalm 22:1-2
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no rest.

It is our experience from time to time, in the complexity of our life’s journey, to feel that God has left us, that he is absent, that for some reason he has forsaken us.

Yet at other times we feel that God is as close to us as our breath, that he is in the very depths of our being.

It was so for Jesus.

Listen to the words of his prayer for the disciples in John 17, as he gives expression to his strong sense of unity with God the Father:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. May they be one, as we are one.”

Within a few hours, Jesus is dying on the cross, and cries out in pain and grief and loneliness:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So, take comfort and courage from the personal experience of Jesus.

God never leaves us, or forsakes us.

But there are times when it feels that way.

There is no shame or weakness in recognizing and expressing our feeling that God has left us alone in our struggle. With God’s people of old, we can cry out to God from our heart:

For it is in the acknowledgement of our weakness that God can become our strength

It is in the acknowledgement of our loneliness that we can know the love and companionship of God as never before

It is in the acknowledgement of our grief that we can experience the peace of God that passes all understanding

It is in the acknowledgement of our anger and frustration that the grace of God can bring resolution and renewal

Out of the loneliness and pain of the cross, Jesus cried out in anguish,

and in his grief experienced yet again the reassuring love of God,

so that he was able, with confidence, to declare in regard to both his life and his dying,

“It is finished!”

In this life, there is no clear and final answer to our “WHY?”

We can feel that God is absent at any time, but in that moment, as we are honest with ourselves and with God, our faith takes us beyond our feelings into the reality of God’s unceasing presence, and the power of his love and grace.

Psalm 22 begins, as we have seen, with the anguished cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Listen now to how it concludes.

“I will tell your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
Those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!”

(Psalm 22: 22,24,26)

And what of Psalm 13, that begins: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Listen to how this Psalm ends.

“I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

(Psalm 13: 5-6)

The witness of the scriptures is very strong at this point. When we openly and honestly pour our hearts to God, the healing work of his love and grace can begin in us, comforting our sorrow, restoring peace to our troubled spirits and instilling a sense of hope and purpose for the future.

This is a deeply spiritual reality. Ultimately we are healed and renewed because we have encountered the love and grace of God when we are most weak and vulnerable. God cannot help those who believe they are self-sufficient and can do it on their own!

This is the testimony of the apostle Paul, who in his own personal and life-time struggle with what he described as a “thorn in the flesh”, heard Christ saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” And he was able to affirm, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

(II Corinthians 12:9-10)

And it is also the testimony of Rabbi Kushner who, at the end of his book, writes:

“I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realise how much I have lost and how much I have gained. Yesterday seems less painful, and I am no longer afraid of tomorrow.”

 

CONCLUSION

We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. What we do know is that terrible things happened to the greatest and best person who ever lived. He did no wrong, yet was crucified. And because of him we too can say, “Yesterday seems less painful, and I am no longer afraid of tomorrow.”

 

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Why do we call this Friday ‘good’?

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Those lines are from Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot. Why do we call it ‘Good’ Friday? What do you say when a child asks you if Jesus died today, why don’t we call it ‘Bad Friday’?

We have quite a mixed attitude to the Cross of Jesus Christ.

We hear words based on Psalm 22, and are reminded that Jesus felt abandoned by his Father God on the cross, saying:

My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?

The physical torture of the cross was surely more than enough for Jesus to endure, but he also experienced the absence of God for the first time in his entire life. For him in those moments there was no vindication. No rescue. Just the sheer agony of godforsakenness.

But we also sing,

When I survey the wondrous cross…

How can an instrument of sheer torture be ‘wondrous’? Are we mad?

The Cross is an absolute scandal. Yet we see in it the deep, deep love of God:

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet…

And we see also a great victory here:

or thorns compose so rich a crown?

This is something like no other thing on earth. This is something that we have no comparison for. It stands alone.

Why do we call this Friday ‘good’? Why do we remember this man who died on a cross above all others who died on crosses, and above every other victim of injustice, terror and political envy?

Quite simply, we remember this man because God our Father raised him from the dead.

His friends and followers were totally demoralised when Jesus was betrayed and arrested. Peter denied him, the others scattered. A few women looked on from afar. It was all over.

Their world was shattered. Their hopes were gone. There could be a knock on their door at any time. They might be dragged away too. Nails could also be driven into their hands and their feet.

God hadn’t just abandoned Jesus. God had abandoned them too.

Before long, though, these same people were saying, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ And they were filled with a new energy and power that they recognised as God’s Holy Spirit.

How on earth…?

The resurrection.

They had to grapple with what the cross meant. It could no longer only be an instrument of shame—we see sorrow there, yes, but also love.

As they looked back, they saw that God had brought something supremely good out of an absolute horror. Jesus lives—Jesus forgives those who had left him in the lurch, and even his killers—and Jesus is alive in them.

They began to see that death does not have the last word. The life of Jesus overwhelms death. Death is the second-last thing to happen; the last thing is resurrection to new life in God with Jesus Christ.

They saw that Jesus died for them, and they were transformed.

That same transformation is there for us today. We too can know the life of Jesus within. We can know too that the deepest, darkest losses and disappointments of life are never the last thing. The last thing is resurrection to new life in God with Jesus Christ.

And it starts now.

Easter Sunday isn’t a postscript to an ugly death. It isn’t a happy ever after ending. It’s a new beginning, a second chance at a new life. Don’t hang back from the Crucified One—he is risen!

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Eureka Street comes of age – Eureka Street

A thoughtful reflection from Andy Hamilton of Eureka St about the ways online publishing influence public conversation.

Eureka Street comes of age – Eureka Street.

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World Day of Prayer 2012

One of the great things about the World Day of Prayer is that we catch a glimpse of the world through the eyes of other people. I have no real experience of Malaysia; I know a number of people who were born in Malaysia, I’ve had a few hours in the airport at KL, but no more than that. So I’m uniquely unqualified to preach this evening.

The World Day of Prayer reminds us that we are part of a worldwide family. The borders of the church don’t stop at our congregation or even at our tradition. They are broader and wider—perhaps broader and wider than we can imagine.

The World Day of Prayer calls us to remember that other members of this family are in very different situations from those we find ourselves in.

The women of Malaysia live in a predominantly Muslim land, with very different ethnic and cultural realities to ours. There is corruption on a wide scale, restrictions on Christian worship, churches are burnt, asylum seekers are greatly mistreated—that should give us pause for thought—people trafficking and the forced relocation of poor rural folk. Apart from that, the women have a difficult place just because they are women.

I’m sure they can identify with the woman who kept knocking on the judge’s door much more than I can.

I was very impressed with the story of Irene Fernandez, the social worker who spent thirteen years fighting in court because of official resistance to her work among migrant workers and people in immigration detention camps.

Women like this show us lives given to Christ in different contexts to ours; we need to pray with them and support them. But we also need to see where the justice deficits are in our own situation.

We know about asylum seekers, for example. They are called ‘illegal’, which they are not; they are vilified and kept in detention for long periods. All this is at great cost; it would be cheaper to process them in the community.  This is one area where justice, compassion and economics speak as one. Both sides of politics have demonised asylum seekers; one prominent politician recently published ignorant remarks about infectious disease coming into Australia from these people which a public health official issued a public letter to refute.

Why do I talk about this? Because Irene Fernandez has emboldened me to.

Those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary may be looking at these words of Jesus on Sunday:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

It seems that we admire most those Christians who seem to put these words of Jesus into practice. We all know about the great witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta; now we also know about Irene Fernandez, knocking at the door of so-called justice for thirteen years on behalf of the poor. Let us allow ourselves to be truly inspired by her witness, and follow Jesus in our own time and place. Amen.

Irene’s story:

My name is Irene Fernandez. I’m a social worker. I work among the migrants and other poor and oppressed people in Malaysia. In 1991 I helped establish Tenaganita (women’s force), a grassroots organization committed to establishing “protective tooIs” for women.

I did research and published a memorandum in August 1995 about the terrible living conditions of the migrant workers in detention centres. I interviewed over 300 former detainees who described insanitary conditions, inadequate food and water, frequent deaths from beatings and lack of medical care. Sexual abuse and corruption were common in Malaysia’s immigration detention camps. The government asserted that the memorandum contained errors.

l was arrested for “maliciously publishing false news.” I was on trial for seven years and then was found guilty. I was sentenced to one year of imprisonment. I appealed to the High Court. As a convicted person, the price I paid was high. My court battle took another six years. Finally the High Court overturned my earlier conviction and acquitted me on December 31st, 2008.

During all these years Tenaganita has succeeded in establishing reform amendments to rape laws, model contracts for overseas domestic helpers, and a domestic violence act which opened up complaint procedures for victims. Now we are turning our focus on people-trafficking, the heinous crime of modern-day slavery. We seek a partnership with government to change the systems that support human trafficking. At the same time the survivors of human trafficking need psychological and social support. With our advocacy and help the survivors can restore their lives and regain their feeling of self-worth and dignity.

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Finders Weepers, Losers Keepers: Reflections on Mark 8

A reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel that really engages the imagination:

Finders Weepers, Losers Keepers: Reflections on Mark 8.

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Ash Wednesday (22 February 2012)

I’ve decided no sermon tonight at our Ash Wednesday service…I’ve found something that can say it better. Or somethings

Check out

Proost

Rachel Held Evans

Ash Wednesday and Lent in two minutes

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Knowing the poor by name

I didn’t preach on Sunday; I shared the services with a remarkable band called Remember Seven, and Katie Wallis preached. I’ve written about Katie before here. And here. Oh, and here too. It’s great to hear a capable preacher (I’m including you in that, kt!!).

The Old Testament reading concerned the Hebrew midwives, and Katie drew inspiration from them and their  refusal to conform (Romans 12) to the edict of Pharaoh. She spoke of knowing the poor by name, as people. It struck me that we know the names of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.

How many women don’t we know by name in the scriptures? It seems women didn’t count too much… Yet we do know the midwives’ names. They were and are women of consequence.

Get to know some other people—Angie, Daniel, Grace, yourself— by reading these excerpts from Katie’s journal (thanks, kt!). Oh, and look out for her book, it’s coming!

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