Tag Archives: David Pitman

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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Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A, 22 May 2011)

While I was enjoying a weekend off, Rev Dr David Pitman preached the following sermon. Thanks, David!

STONES – AND THE ROCK OF AGES

Readings
 Acts 7: 54-60
John 14: 1-14

You may remember reading in the paper some time ago a story about the world’s first inflatable church! It’s made of poly-vinyl and can be transported anywhere on the back of a truck and inflated on the spot. Inside there are inflatable pews, and a blow-up organ and altar. The church even has false stain-glassed windows.

The inflatable church is the invention of a British entrepreneur who reminds us that God’s people once worshipped in a tent that could be put up, taken down, and moved to another place as required. He has a point! Nonetheless, this variation on the bouncy castle children love to play in, runs the risk of being not much more than a lot of hot air!

You and I know that there are no instant churches. At the heart of every church is a community of people who love and serve Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit…..

who build their lives on the strong foundation of faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

Today, within the context of the sermon, we will remember three individual disciples of Jesus who did just that:

The German Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Stephen, the first Christian martyr

and David Sheppard, once Bishop of Liverpool

This year marks the 66th anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed. Bonhoeffer was betrayed, imprisoned in 1943 in the Flossenbuerg Concentration Camp in Bavaria, and eventually hanged on the 9th April 1945, only a few weeks before the end of the war.

Whether, as a Christian, Bonhoeffer should have involved himself in the plot to kill Hitler has been the subject of much debate. Bonhoeffer himself believed that the death of the Nazi Dictator was for the greater good of humanity and could, therefore, be justified. He was, at any rate, prepared to give his life for the cause, and finished up doing just that! The letters and papers he wrote while in prison were later collected and published and have been influential right up to this present time.

His personal faith and courage were a powerful witness to those around him. The testimony of the prison Doctor at Flossenbuerg has often been remembered:

Through the half-open door in one of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.

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Third Sunday in Lent (Year A, 27 March 2011)

I’m on an ill-deserved weekend away at Coolum with Karen. (Having a fabulous time, wish you were here etc etc.) Here is some evidential proof of just how fab it is here:

 

 

I am grateful to the Rev Dr David Pitman for preaching this weekend, and continuing our series on the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the pure in heart

 

Readings
Exodus 17.1-7
John 4.1-41

 

Jesus said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

(Matthew 5:8)

The phrase, a “pure heart”, occurs only 5 times in the Bible. We can read about having a “clean heart” on three other occasions. The various contexts in which these passages can be found suggest that the words “pure” and “clean” can be used interchangeably…..except for the time Jesus uses it in the Beatitudes.

This is very interesting because, as we might expect, the use of these words is linked in Scripture to those personal qualities and behaviour we associate with living lives pleasing to God…honesty, integrity, love for others, sincere faith, avoiding controversy and quarrels, obedience.

Jesus, however, makes no attempt in this particular beatitude to define the significance of “pure”, nor what it means in reality to “see God”. We have to look elsewhere for clues as to the message he wanted to convey.

To that end, we turn to the story in today’s reading from John’s Gospel…the encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman.

One of my teachers at University 45 years ago was a Professor of Philosophy. I attended his first lecture for the year as a raw and somewhat naïve 18-year-old, and hardly understood a thing that was said. I went away from that lecture with a poor opinion of philosophy and an even lower opinion of the lecturer.

The following Saturday I was playing cricket for Teacher’s College against Adelaide University, and guess who was playing for the Uni team?

In that totally different context I discovered that the Professor was a friendly and engaging person, and I went to the next philosophy lecture in a completely different frame of mind. The lecturer was now my friend. Meeting him as a person had made all the difference, though it still took me most of the year to come to terms with the language and content of the course.

This story from reminds me of that experience. In her meeting with Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman hardly understood anything that Jesus said. The theology was a mystery to her. But her face-to-face encounter with Jesus changed her life. It was his response to her as a person that made the difference in the first instance. She may, in time, as I did with my introduction to philosophy, have come to understand the deeper meaning and significance of what she heard, but it was the way Jesus treated her and the manner in which he spoke to her that really mattered.

From our perspective, that is an important insight. When we read the gospel records it is abundantly clear that people mattered far more to Jesus than correct theology; relationship always had priority over orthodox doctrine. We need to remember that in the life of the church!

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