"Where was God?" Clearly many struggle to reconcile their belief in a loving God with recent tragedies. I respond simply, "God did not cause this." Then I ask the key question underlying every question concerning God's relationship to suffering, "What is our image of God?"
The answer in the New Testament is simple: God is love. And the most dramatic sign of God's love for us is Jesus. With Jesus, God has demonstrated the greatest possible love and given us the greatest possible gift, a gift that can sustain us in every circumstance, yes, even in suffering.
When believers turn to God to deal with suffering the first question we usually ask is why: Why did this happen? Often implied in the question: Why, God, did you do this to us?
But God doesn't answer this question. I believe it is the wrong question.
We have walked through the Christmas season and into a new year. John the Baptist exhorted us to "Prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths." We wanted to "make straight" our hearts so the Lord would enter without resistance - so we would really experience him.
If, like John the Baptist, we can let go and simply open our hearts to Jesus as our friend and Saviour something happens: we know God’s presence in a new year.
The prophet Isaiah gives us hope that the light can continue to shine in our lives even in darkness, the darkness we may experience in the start of a new year. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing" (Isaiah. 9:1-2).
So the best I can offer to us for handling tragedies is to humbly seek the sign of God’s love – Jesus - and ask for his help. Jesus always is present to us when we call upon him in faith - indeed even more present when we call upon him in need, "Come to me all you who labour and are burdened and I will give rest."
God of love, Father of all, the darkness that covered the earth has given way to the bright dawn of your Word made flesh. Make us a people of this light. Make us faithful to your Word, that we may bring your life to the waiting world.
"And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John. 1:5)
Nordic Noir is a recent phenomenon – The Killing, Borgen and, my fave, The Bridge – are TV crime series that show gruesome killings and the dark underbelly of Scandinavian life. It’s a bit ironic since the UN considers Denmark to be ‘the happiest country to live in’. Now I am no Scandinavian expert – I cycled round a section of Denmark this summer and I have watched a few things on the TV. But it’s worth considering why the Dark Side is so vividly explored, exposed and popular in these series.
Soren Malling, actor in The Killing, said "maybe it’s because we are comfortable with exploring our dark side that it makes us happier - we see ourselves as we really are and we are not so hard on ourselves and each other." Some of us in the UK suffer from pointing out the criminals and attempting to punish as harshly as we can, in the mistaken belief that punishment will satisfy and restore us.
There were some uncomfortable studies done at the time of the tragic death of Jamie Bulger in the early 90s and the trial of those who caused his death – the boys were not yet teenagers. The research compared the UK response to this crime and the Norwegian reaction to a similar crime in their country. It showed that our punitive and judgmental response was in sharp contrast to an enlightened Norwegian society that upheld the status of the criminals as children and they should be given anonymity and an opportunity to continue their lives away from the prison system.
Jesus said to his friends to deal with the whacking great plank in their own eyes before they pointed out the miniscule splinter in someone else’s. Let’s not be hard on others and give a little bit of attention to our own selfishness. Then, instead of being hard on ourselves, let’s allow God to show what grace, mercy and forgiveness is all about – we might be pleasantly surprised and amazed.
I’m just back from a wedding celebration that had a wedding planner – when I got married I think that was my mum’s job! Having someone who knows what’s happening is especially helpful for a wedding celebration -someone who knows what’s important and what needs to take place next.
For a longer term project, e.g. training for a triathlon, there needs to be a different plan. A triathlon can’t be done by someone else who is planning every detail. There needs to be a lot of self-motivation and self-discipline.
Recently I took part in a triathlon relay – 3 events completed by 3 people – I did the cycling leg. The distance was further than I normally do – I am used to 8 miles in the morning and 8 miles in the afternoon. Anything further than that, I lose energy and pace.
So I decided to aim for the 20 miles. To get there at any pace I would need a new plan. It turned out I had to change a lot of what I currently did. I had more rest days. I stretched out my morning ride – this meant getting up at silly o’clock and cycling for longer. All that required a chunk of self-motivation and self-discipline.
A colleague of mine said to me in the middle of this new training regime, when I was whinging about my ‘8 mile legs’, ‘you are what you train for’. He was reminding me that I had 8 mile legs because that’s all they were used to and if I wanted 20 mile legs, I had to train for that.
His comment was incredibly encouraging. I felt more determined and hopeful. But it also raised some questions for me – What am I training for in my life? What am I working towards? What am I motivated for? What am I disciplining myself towards?
Maybe it will mean I put a training plan together for my life that expects sacrifice, forgiveness, grace, perseverance, joy and suffering and ends up with me achieving my goal – to be a follower of Jesus.
Going to a death camp in Poland isn’t everyone’s idea of a pleasant day out – and it isn’t. Yet I went with 200 teachers from across the country to visit Auschwitz to deepen my understanding of the Holocaust.
Most people told me they either went and it was incredibly moving, have put it on a ‘bucket list’ of places to go at some point or could not bear to go.
For me it was one of the most significant places I have ever visited. This was down to a number of factors. Firstly, the Polish tour guide - a woman who takes one or two groups a day. She was full of empathy, compassion and integrity. Secondly, our group leaders, who shared stories of people who were perpetrators or victims. They provoked, moved and inspired me. Thirdly, the place – it overpowered me and saddened me with its history.
However, nothing prepared me for the time of reflection at the end of the day. I can’t paint pictures with words but let me list the ingredients – sitting with 200 on the side of the national memorial at the top end of Auschwitz, the sun was setting through the tall birch trees, all the birds were singing, someone read Psalm 23. Then a rabbi stood up and read a prayer in Hebrew, blew the shofar, led us in a minute’s silence and then shared about the complexity of good people suffering.
I will never forget what the rabbi said; "Some people, when faced with the horror of the Holocaust, cry out 'Where was God?' but I cry out 'Where was humanity?'"
But Jesus encourages us "to treat others as we would like to be treated" – I can positively change your world with love. So I intend to respond positively to the call from God, "Who shall I send?" with a "Here I am, send me".
Multiply or Divide?
Take 1 thing and change it into 2 things and you would normally refer to that as division. However looking at our bodies, we would refer to that as multiplication of cells from conception all the way through our lives.
At this point I will leave the ‘science bit’ to those more qualified. What I observe is that any species in the biological world that doesn't give birth to a new generation dies. This is true in the biological world as well as in the small-group world. Groups that don't multiply die or become stagnant.
This week I was preparing to start a conversation with one of our Cell Groups about multiplying and I reflected on one of my own regular questions as an overseer of Cell Groups at Revelation, ‘why do people in Revelation not embrace change/multiplication? – we are supposed to be radical, pioneering, etc’.
As I prayed I got a bit of insight. Many of us have families that live a long distance away so our instinctive experience of ‘family’ has been removed from us. This can mean that we invest a lot of emotional energy into a Cell Group as we see it as a ‘family’ – for some this will be traumatic if the Cell Group is multiplied.
What do I do with that insight? Do I give up on the idea of growing and multiplying? Do I wait til ‘reluctant multipliers’ see things from my perspective?
Well today my response is to remain focused on growth. However I sense a compassion for those who really struggle and maybe we can discover grace and faith as we create open, generous, safe and liberating communities.
What’s your insight on this?
Ipod, Blackberry, TV, washing machine, car, PC, laptop – have many things in common but I have a thought that has troubled me this week. It’s a bit complex. It’s open-ended. And it might provoke me for a few more moments.
I always want these objects to go faster. I don’t like it when they go slow. I get frustrated when they take a little longer than I demand. They are designed to make my life ‘more stress-free’ but they fail. I find that many of these objects unfortunately add stress to my life.
I rely on my Blackberry to alarm me out of bed but last week it crashed in the middle of the night. That sparked chaos at 7am! My laptop decided to slow to a halt this week and my day’s work was thrown into a black hole.
More importantly, I think these highly developed machines seem to make me less human. Why do I need to go faster? What is the big rush? Is the end of the world approaching? What’s so amazing about getting things done quicker and also quicker than anyone else?
Isn’t it true that a slow-cooked curry is better than a 2-minute one? Isn’t a slow-cooked stew tasty? Having a bath isn’t quite so life-affirming if it’s quick. Even speeding up a conversation is mechanical and functional.
I am convinced that slowing my life down opens up my awareness of those around me – my wife, my son. It makes me a better listener. It makes me a more thoughtful speaker. It makes me a better teacher.
The psalmist said something which can seem quite bland and insipid, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ – it seems tame and featureless. But it’s not. The background is of war, stress, violence and intimidation. Into this comes the strategy – stillness and knowing. It certainly isn’t escapism. It’s a road for the brave warrior who wants to face the battle, who wants to remain victorious, who dares to believe there’s an alternative to speed.
So, slow down!
What is football? No, seriously, it’s an important question. I know I was on a Philosophy course last weekend, and I tend towards exploring bizarre questions, but if someone was to ask you ‘what’s football?’ what would you say?
Some might answer with an outline of the rules and regulations. A few may give a disdainful answer along the lines of ’22 men chasing a bag of wind’. Some could point to great matches of the past, some may even take you along to a match and talk you through it. A more experienced footballer may get a football out, take you down to the park and organise a game to show you it first-hand.
All of the above would certainly go some way to answering the question. But I struggle with some who talk as if the game played by the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter Milan, etc is the real game and the local under-8s is just a kickabout. The view of under-8s can often be - its preparation for the future - even the large multinational teams talk of their youth academies as investments for the future. Why can’t it be a great game of football today that can be enjoyed and relished? A little bit like my life or yours. We can spend so much time preparing for the future that we lose out on the present.
Jesus said to his crew that the kingdom of God is within you. Now that’s not ‘it’ll be better soon’ or ‘what takes place in the future is what really counts’. Jesus is repeatedly saying to his followers that running into him today is so much more fun than praying for that meeting to happen in the future.
Take some time to watch a young child. They don’t live for the future. They live for now. They don’t have any concept of an hour, a day or a month into the future. They are caught up in experiencing the now. I think that’s some of what Jesus wants in his followers. He wants us to be like children. He longs for us to run to him. He desires our passion and devotion. He wants to see the fire in our eyes. So I don’t have a plan for my life. I have a relationship with God that is dynamic, ever-changing and transformational. As long as my eyes are on Jesus I believe I will relish every moment.
I don’t care too much for weather forecasters who predict snow in 2 months time. But I love the forecasters who talk about what's going to happen tomorrow morning. Why? I find them a whole lot more reliable. From my experience the weather forecaster at 10.30 on BBC1 gives a fairly accurate forecast of what is going to fall from the sky as I cycle to school - and, more importantly, the wind direction and speed.
Why prattle on about predictions? Well, I sat down the other night to read a couple of articles and I thought I'd dip into my vinyl collection instead of flicking on the radio. I plucked out an old album from Steve Butler, a Glasgow songwriter I admired back in the day. Once I finished reading I dipped into the lyrics of a track I've always loved - 'Best is still to come'. Here they are for your consideration:
Sweat it out – I’ll burst my brain
Trying to do the best for me
Lying awake – worried sick that
Everyone is better than me
Going out I’ll shoot my mouth off
Impressing nobody but me
Stop stop – will I ever grow up Lord
Rescue me from me
You don’t want me just trying hard
Or even free use of my bankers card
So I try to bring my broken heart
But the best is still to come
Coming here that way
How did you do it Lord
Everything you said is everything
I need to know
I don’t need no invitation
I just need my usual second chance
I believe every word is true about you
And that I can leap this final fence
No use me just being alright
Content to settle down
No writer could ever write all you’ve done
But the best is still to come
The best for you
The best for me
I have a future orientation because of Jesus. I look to the future with hope because of Jesus. Sure there will be mistakes. Sure I’ll fall on my face. But I know for certain that my life has the best ahead because of Jesus – grace, healing, forgiveness. The Best Is Still To Come.
I love my job as a teacher for all sorts of reasons. Times of hilarity. Times of inspiration. Moments of joy. And sadness. Days where everything goes so smoothly - and even the opposite can be strangely life-affirming. On some days I feel like I know so little and can learn so much. Not just about my subject or teaching or myself. I am privileged to be able to explore the lives of others and spend time reflecting on their impact on human history.
I was in Chichester Cathedral on Friday as part of a school trip. Year 7 students were being shown round by one of the most gifted guides I have ever encountered. She was genius. She also liked children with questions.
She stood us at the font at one point and drew our attention to a piece of art by Hans Feibusch entitled ‘Baptism of Christ’. She gave us the story behind the painting. It is forthright - this was a significant moment for Jesus. Everything became clearer in the waters of the Jordan. Lights were green for Go – not amber for Wait.
Another detail confirms what some of us already know – the Church isn’t that important! Don’t dismiss me yet as a heretic. It’s all in Jesus foot - his right foot almost steps entirely out of the painting.
The stepping out towards deeper waters points to the significance of Jesus adventure – redeeming the whole world. It is God’s world that is the focus not our experience of baptisms or of the intense experiences of our church. It does seem that many Christians make too much of the church. Does it have a future? Is it in terminal decline? Who do we think belongs to it? Who in reality is welcome within it?
When the church ties itself in knots over questions about its identity - when it turns inwards on itself - then it too often forgets the truth that it is merely a means to an end – God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Is the church able to point beyond itself?
It’s simply a paddling pool - a place with ledges for the unsure and the tentative - a place, more crucially, that is open, free and embracing enough to allow anyone to dip a toe in the water, and to risk splashing about a bit.
Anyone ready for a dip?
Illusions are attractive. They draw us in with their mystery and irrationality. Our eyes feel deceived and intrigued at the same time. They eat up our time and give us some semblance of purpose - we must unravel them.
In our cell group we have jumped into an amazing little book by a guy called Henri Nouwen. (I won’t give the title just now.) Nouwen was drawn in by a painting by Rembrandt in St Petersburg. It beguiled him. It spoke to his soul. This was no illusion. This was reality. This was truth.
Nouwen then explored Rembrandt's life, art and persona. And he came upon this amazing little work entitled ‘Simeon and the Child Jesus’. It is a perspective on a man called Simeon who was holding Jesus as a baby. It is a piece of genius by Rembrandt. He shows someone who has physical sight diminishing, yet spiritual sight intensifying. He is coming to the end of his life, yet so full of life. Rembrandt saw himself in Simeon.
His health was deteriorating. His sight was failing. Yet his spiritual sight was awakening. He was starting to see things a little more clearly. He had spent much of his life chasing the illusions of fame, notoriety and independence. But coming to the end, he began to see reality.
It was, in the words of one of my Year 9 students, 'a chance to see life'. In our classroom this week we had been discussing whether it was essential to suffer before you understood life. We didn't come to any final solutions to that one. But what we agreed this - suffering can open our eyes to what really is and shake us out of our ambivalence.
Now Rembrandt saw the truth at the end of his life. And sometimes we can catch glimpses of this as we walk through some suffering. As Jesus said to his people, 'Blessed are those who see what you see.' I don’t want to wait until I get to the end of my life to truly see. I want to have my eyes opened now to reality not illusions. I want to see truth not idolatry. I want to see what it’s all about. I want to fix my eyes on Jesus.
The title of the book? 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' - see if you can find it.