Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Suffering (Page 4 of 4)

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas…

“…they said there’ll be peace on earth.” – Greg Lake

I’ve been thinking recently about writing a reflection on how Christmas, and the Christmas spirit, brings alot of peace and goodwill at this time of year. I was going to write about how people are generally nicer to each other and look out for each other a bit more in the weeks leading up to this time of year. John Smith said many years ago that if it wasn’t for Christmas, the violence and suffering in our society would be even greater.

That may have been true back then, but it doesn’t quite ring true after the unimaginable horror of Newtown, Connecticut. The truth about Christmas for most of us is that it is actually a time of great paradox. It is a time when emotions are heightened, both in a positive and negative sense. As Greg Lake sang in his profound I Believe in Father Christmas almost forty years ago, “they said there’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’ll be peace on earth.” But there is no peace in Newtown this Christmas in the families of those grieving the loss of their innocent children; there is no peace in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, and we find no peace in the families of those for whom Christmas is a time when loneliness and poverty are heightened.

I went to a Christmas show at one of the largest churches in my home city of Melbourne last week. It was a wonderful production and I had a huge lump in my throat as they went through the story of the Nativity. But I also felt disappointed that the full story was not told. As usual in church circles, the story they told was a sanitised version. It actually wasn’t the real Christmas story. There was nothing of Herod wanting to kill all boys under two in his attempt to dispose of Jesus; Simeon’s talk to Joseph and Mary did not mention that a sword would also pierce their souls as it would Jesus’; and Mary’s revolutionary Magnificat was not even mentioned.

When we sanitise the Christmas story, we not only do not do it justice, we not only leave out part of the Gospel, but we also distance it that much more from the realities of our own lives. In other words, we bring across the impression that the Gospel of Jesus is not as relevant as it really is. The story they were telling last weekend did not contain as much good news as it would have had they told the whole story. The truth is much more powerful when told within the context in which it happens.

Christmas is not a nice story with fluffy animals and a little smiling baby Jesus who ‘no crying he makes.’ The Christmas story is scandalous. It is both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. And for these reasons it is incredibly good news for all of creation. Like the rest of the Gospel, it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

This Christmas sees much tragedy in the world. That’s why we need to remember the birth of the world’s Saviour more than ever. As John Mellencamp sang in the ’90’s, “Now more than ever, the world needs love; not just a slogan, but the world needs love.”

The Christmas story, with its almost ‘too-good-to-be-believable’ hope, is just what the doctor ordered in a world in which our children are slaughtered in broad daylight, and in which selfishness so often rules the human heart. The Son of God was born into just such a world in the 1st century. The hope he brought then is just what the world needs now. Christmas is more relevant than ever in 2012. Come Lord Jesus. We need you.

And to the people of Newtown, and all others for whom this Christmas will not be as merry as you had hoped, may the truth of the Christmas story, the hope coming out of the horror, soothe your aching souls. Meditate on them as you take in also the words of Greg Lake again, this time sung by Bono (see below for the whole song):

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

Overcoming disappointment

A couple of months back, Zondervan’s blog had an excerpt from a book by Christine Caine called Undaunted: Daring to do what God Calls You to DoThe excerpt contained steps to overcoming disappointment. They were profound, as they focussed on finding God in the midst of our disappointment rather than trying to feel better. The most profound statement for me talked about the power of worship and praise, and mentioned how filling it is to “remember his mercies more than my hurt.”

You can read the rest of the excerpt here.

Reflections on 9/11 – Pain as a Gift

cross over world trade center in rubbleThis is the third and final of my reflections on 9/11. The first one is available here and the second is here.

Christian faith is about hope, that goodness really does prevail. As Martin Luther King said, the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. I have to ask myself, do I really want life? Or do I want a counterfeit that promises the world but leaves me more empty than before?

It has been said by many people that God is more interested in our character than our comfort. In Wrecked, Jeff Goins writes:

“People who allow their hearts to be broken for the brokenness in the world have something that most of us don’t. Compassion. Selflessness. Freedom. They “get it” in ways that most of us would find envious. There is a distinct clarity of purpose and calling in their lives that is astounding. In the face of suffering, they somehow have learned to shed their narcissism in exchange for a more meaningful life. It is incredibly brave and inspiring.”

He continues by talking about the necessity of pain if we are to really live:

“We cannot become who we are without going through pain. And who can do such a thing without trusting the struggle is worth it? Or that the results will be good? We must endeavour to be wrecked with a deep, reckless faith that confounds the world and maybe even puzzles us at times. It will be worth it.”

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Healed through our brokenness

healed through brokennessI recently received a simply beautiful text message from a friend of mine who I have been journeying with. He told me how he sensed that God was working through me, despite dark times in both of our lives this year. I find it simply staggering that God works through even me, in my brokenness. I don’t mean that in a negative sense, like I am worthless and why would God even bother. I mean it in a sense that God is so good, the depth of his goodness is so deep, deeper than we can ever imagine, that he chooses – chooses – to work through people as stuffed up and broken as I am.
It has been said that God can only come into our hearts when they are open and cracked. We are cracked vessels, and it is through the cracks that God shines. It has also been said that the night is darkest just before the dawn. A new day is coming, a day when all brokenness will be healed, when all our twisted desires will be redeemed. If our hearts are closed, if there are no cracks in our hearts for God to seep through, how can he ever come in?

God’s Gift to a Broken World

We live in a world of immense suffering, and whether we call ourselves Christian or not, we are often faced with the universal question of why such suffering occurs in a world which was made by a good and loving God.

At Easter we remember that when Jesus was dying on the cross, he also asked why, and said “into your hands I place my spirit.” It was an act of trust that God is good despite what we see around us.

In our society we are bombarded with the message every day of our lives that life is found in having more. Gordon Gekko’s ‘greed is good’ mantra from the heady days of the late 1980s is the philosophy we are encouraged to live by today. Yet study after study shows that ‘money can’t buy me love’, as The Beatles sang fifty years ago. The American psychologist Martin Seligman has conducted research showing that the rate of depression in Western nations has increased tenfold since the Second World War ie. we now have ten times the amount of people who are depressed than we had seventy years ago. On top of that, Brene Brown points out that we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated people in history. All this is during a period in which we have never been wealthier. Something is not adding up; it looks suspiciously like we have been sold a lemon.

And if that is not enough, our affluent way of life is leading to a greater gap between rich and poor, as well as to the dreaded spectre of a changing climate. Jayakumar Christian, National Director of World Vision India, says that while everybody talks about the booming Indian middle-class, with economic growth rates of 7-8%, no one talks about the growing gap between rich and poor in that vast land, and the fact that there are 836 million poor people in India. And you just need to talk to just about every climate scientist as well as every aid and development worker in places like Africa to learn about the effects that climate change is already having on their farming practises. No wonder the author and pastor Brian McLaren calls our way of life the ‘suicide machine.’

It’s all depressingly bleak, and enough to drive you to despair. But despite all this, we don’t have to be stuck in that mindset. The comfort we can find at Easter is that Jesus identifies with our pain and with our questions. But it’s more than that. If that is all he did, we wouldn’t have any hope. Thankfully we are told that in Jesus, God came to earth not only to die for our wrongs, but to reconcile all things to himself. But again, if that is all there is, there still wouldn’t be any hope. The New Testament is open about this. The apostle Paul says that if Christ was not raised from death we are to be pitied more than anyone. Christian faith lives or dies on the physical resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. If Jesus was not raised, then Christian faith is pointless, as death would not have been defeated and life is meaningless. But our joy and hope come from faith in Jesus, that as well as dying on Good Friday, he was raised on Sunday. As Nick Cave sings, death is not the end. And, as only he can, American preacher Tony Campolo adds, “it’s Friday but Sunday’s a-comin!”

Hope is alive. There is no line on the horizon; heaven and earth are slowly overlapping. There is no reason to despair and there is nothing to fear. The Christian message says that it is because of the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning that we have hope that death will not triumph in the end. Life, justice, peace, hope and love will triumph. Nothing is surer. And it is all because God came and dwelt among us and defeated the scourge of death.

Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are shown how to live, we are offered forgiveness for our many wrongs, and all things are reconciled to God. All things. Our hearts, so we can be at peace with God; our society, so we can live at peace with each other; and the rest of the whole created order, so we can live at peace with it. To the question of why God doesn’t seem to be doing anything about the suffering and pain in the world, we can assuredly say that God already has. Through the life of one man, we see a glimpse of the wonderful kingdom come; through the death of that one man on a dark Friday afternoon, we are offered forgiveness for our wrongs; and through the resurrection of that one unique man on the most wonderful Sunday morning in history, all things are made new.

What we remember at Easter is what drives us; it is what drives our continual struggle for a better world, for peace on earth, for shalom. One day there will be no more tears; one day there will be no more pain, no more ‘stupid poverty’ as Bono calls it, no more war and no more injustice. One day everything will fit; it will all make sense. And it will all be because of Jesus. And we get to live this resurrection life here and now, working with God to renew the world, living out the compassion of Jesus, and standing in the tradition of the prophets to work for a world in which one day everything will be made complete. That is the hope of Easter. May you have a blessed one.

The God of Suffering Love

Many of us have probably seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. When it was released in 2004 it caused quite a stir amongst different groups of people, not least for its gruesome and bloody portrayal of the torture that Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of his earthly life.

The word ‘passion’ has its origins in the Greek verb ‘pasch?’, to suffer. So when we talk about the Passion of Jesus, we are referring to the suffering he endured, particularly during the last week of his life. In a matter of days, from the time that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving wild acclaim from the crowds laying palm branches in front of him and hailing him as the coming King, to the utter humiliation of being crucified at the hands of the Romans, Jesus’ life was turned completely on its head.

He knew his days were numbered of course. The unfolding events of that tumultuous week came as no surprise to him. Luke 9 tells us that he resolutely set out for Jerusalem, telling his disciples that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in that centre of power. His disciples were expecting him, as the Messiah, to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, violently if need be. So for Jesus to speak about his upcoming death was something the disciples were simply unable to comprehend. No wonder Peter earlier rebuked him and said this must never happen (Mark 8:31-33).

While Jesus knew full well what he was up to, we also see, in all four Gospel accounts, that his attitude was one of service. That was in fact the very reason he was heading to his death, “to serve, not to be served, and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.” (Mark 10:45). For his disciples this required a complete change of mindset to understand what he was on about. The saying ‘everything you know is wrong’ was one they would have come to intimately relate to. And so, as they were squabbling over who would be the greatest in this new kingdom that Jesus was bringing in, Jesus turned it all around and said to them that if they want to be first, then the way to do it is to serve. And, as always, Jesus walked his talk. By leading the way himself, he had the moral authority to tell his disciples that the way of life was the way of putting yourselves out there for others. And that inherently involves suffering.

If we watch the news every day we are reminded that we live in a world of suffering. Despite great progress towards poverty alleviation over the years, there are still 22,000 children who die every day from poverty-related diseases. The Christian faith proclaims loudly and clearly that the cries of the poor are heard by God, for this is a God who has been in their shoes. He does not sympathise from afar; he empathises from within. We see Christ in the eyes of those who suffer. This is God come to earth as a human person and walking in our footsteps. This is a God who says in the Garden of Gethsemane that he is troubled to the point of death, who is so anguished that he sweats drops of blood as he contemplates the incomprehensible enormity of what he is about to go through, all for love, all to make a better world in every way. Who could imagine a God who is anguished, a God who suffers, and a God who, through all of this, serves? Is this not love at its best, continuing to give despite the cost?

Such extravagant love is of course what inspires us millions of Christians to work for the betterment of our world, to work to bring in the kingdom of God. The love of God gives us the strength to be the best we can be in our efforts to set the world right. Love shows us the way, love we see personified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Movie Review – The Descendants

In this movie set in the beautiful islands of Hawaii, George Clooney plays brilliantly the role of Matt King, the father who could probably relate a bit to the suffering of Job. His wife has just had a boating accident, is in a coma and is about to die. He then finds out that she had been having an affair. And to top it off, the guy she was having an affair with is about to make a bucketload of cash on a property sale that King is working out with his family.

The Descendants portrays the dignified response of a man and his family who are experiencing immense suffering. Despite his impending loss and and recently exposed betrayal, King conducts himself with honour, confronting the man who was sleeping with his wife and allowing him to pay a last visit to her on her death bed. King could have punched his lights out, but he didn’t. And, regarding the property deal, in the end he allows virtue to triumph over cold hard cash by scuttling the deal through his refusal to sign the relevant documents for the sale. King chooses the right way over the more tempting and exciting profitable way. He chooses to keep the property in the family, as the family’s descendants would likely have wanted, much to the chagrin of his cousins who are gobsmacked at his seemingly irrational decision.

This movie shows that character is more important, long-lasting and satisfying than quick gains and cheap shots. King’s seventeen year old daughter, Alex, is also impressive as she follows the example of her Dad in her quickly developing maturity. She lovingly looks after her younger sister, Scottie, and helps their Dad track down the infidel who has been sleeping with his wife. Alex’s immature friend, Sid, is another one who goes through a redemption of sorts as he realises the lack of tact of some of his earlier comments – particularly to Elizabeth’s parents – and pays the price for it. Being a young man about to enter early adulthood, Sid could have chosen to remain defiant and be stubborn and do things his way. But instead he learns from his mistakes and becomes a valuable support to King and the family, to the point that King himself comes to him one night to ask his advice about how to handle his multiple life challenges.

I have been reading Proverbs recently and, as many would know, there is plenty of great advice in that marvelous book about living a life of wisdom. I remember when I read the early chapters of Proverbs as a young man myself, that I had the profound realisation that that is the type of person I want to be. The main characters in this raw and emotional movie provide a real-to-life example of living out much of the sage advice of Proverbs to young men, and indeed to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Dignity, relationship and virtue are the enduring qualities of life. They are what will ultimately win out. They are what will triumph over short-term gain, revenge, and quick riches in the end, if not in this present life. The Descendants is testament to the riches of the wisdom of Proverbs over the riches of this life, which will pass away and prove worthless in the end. Recommended.

Suffering and knowing God

I have mentioned previously that one thing I have noticed over the years of my Christian walk is that the people who really know God, who really know the heart of God, are people who have known what it is to deeply suffer. It is deeply wounded people who know the suffering of the God of the universe.

People who have an intimate experience of suffering are the wounded healers, as Henri Nouwen expressed it. It is these people who I respect deeply and who I listen to when they speak. I want what they have.

For these people, the pat ‘Christian’ answers aren’t enough. They have experienced the deep injustice that life sometimes deals out, and they have experienced it often. These are people who weep easily, not for themselves, but for the state of the world. Theirs is a godly sorrow. They might even come across as somewhat manic at times, and some people might even think that they are mentally unwell. But to the contrary, they are more than likely more in touch with reality than the rest of us.

People who know God intimately and who know deep suffering are like Job and the Psalmists. They sing the blues and they can cry out ‘why?’. But they have also come through the fire with their faith intact, and at the same time their faith is never the same as it was. It has made that longest of journeys from the head to the heart. It is no longer mere intellectual assent to the truths of the Gospel. It is a knowing, a knowing that ‘though I lay my bed in Hades, thou art with me.’

This morning at church I heard a sermon from someone like this. This is a person who knows God and who suffers deeply. For these people, being misunderstood and not feeling heard is a regular fact of life. Life is a lonely path for them. Often taunted, told to lighten up and not be so challenging all the time, these people are a prophetic voice speaking into our malaise. To the indifferent and the apathetic and the asleep, they continue to speak the cry of the prophet. They often feel like a voice in the wilderness. To hear them is often uncomfortable, but at the same time they touch something deep within us. Isn’t that just like what Jesus was like? They often talk about justice, they often challenge the lifestyles of comfortable Christians. For godly people like this, suffering is something they endure regularly.

These people are generally the first to not want to bring attention to themselves. They just go on and do God’s will. But they are sometimes tempted to go the easy way. Like Jesus in the garden, often it feels like too much and they cry out to God asking if they have to really go through all this. But deep down they know something we don’t. They know that this is the way to life, and in the end it will all be worth it. But that is also not their primary motivation. Their primary motivation is to do the will of God. As a pastor of mine said once, loving is sadness, and they are committed to loving, whatever the cost.

The New Testament Christians knew what it was to live like this. In the Book of Acts we are told that they considered themselves privileged to suffer for the Way. They got it. How different that is to the comfortable Christians of the Western church today, who have succumbed to the dominant ideology of the consumer culture.

It seems that if we are really serious about being followers of this Way, then we must be willing to suffer. There is no other way to be a genuine Christian. An honest appraisal of life and love does not leave us any choice. And if that makes us question whether we really are Christian, that is no bad thing. Jesus knew this. Those who thought his teaching too difficult took up their freedom to walk away, and when he asked his closest friends if they too wanted to leave because they thought it was all too hard, Peter spoke those immortal words, “to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life”.

With Jesus, the way of life is the way of death. The way up is down, and, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, when Christ calls someone to follow, He bids them come and die. There is only one way to know God, and that is to be willing to go the way of the crucified One. In the culture of Jesus’ day, when he said that anyone who wants to follow him must take up their cross, everyone who heard knew full well that this call was nothing less than a willingness to die. May I have that courage today.

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