Monday, 8 December 2014

Why does God allow suffering?

“Our instincts are right,” said the preacher, “sickness is a horrible thing.” When faced with this ‘horrible thing’ or any suffering, there are two equal and opposite errors that we may fall into. The first is to minimize it; the second to glorify it. The minimizers tell us that things are not as bad as they seem, or even that suffering is an illusion. Positive thinking, they say, will make suffering feel less, or banish it altogether, in the case of Christian Science.
The second case is more difficult, because there is much in scripture that recognizes the potential of suffering for growth: the school of life forms us; hard experiences toughen us, and according to St Paul, ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’ (Romans 8.28). However, Paul nowhere says that all [bad] things are good, and it is only a Job’s comforter who can tell someone in pain that suffering is a blessing in itself.
The hard truth that faces us as Christians is that we believe in a good and powerful God, yet live with suffering caused by ‘natural’ events as well as by human sin. We also see that the consequences of such events and actions are unevenly (and, it is often said, unfairly) distributed, with the weak and marginalized experiencing much more than their ‘fair share.’ Some conclude in the end that God is truly good, but powerless to deal with evil; others that he is powerful, but not truly good.
This may sound like a counsel of despair or an insoluble paradox. After all, Christian philosophers and theologians have debated for millennia without coming to a common mind. Yet there is much that can be said, and our preamble so far is part of it: as Christians, we need to engage in an honest and hard conversation about suffering. Those who ask us the question ‘Why?’ will quickly sniff out our clichés, defensive responses or excuses. We don’t begin to address the question with a set of clever words but with a Christian stance, in which we offer our questioners our vulnerable, risky, self-emptying life.
The other thing that we offer our questioners is complete respect. Job’s comforters undermined him not so much by inadequate theology as by a total lack of respect for his integrity. Job knew how he felt much better than they knew. So the starting point for our response is not to say, ‘I know how you feel’ because we may not know. Nor have we the right to tell people that they are mistaken about the depth of their suffering. We need to listen, to hear and to care with the compassion of Jesus himself.
This brings us to the threefold heart of our response: it is at once theological, pastoral and spiritual. Each part of this response is grounded in biblical principles, and each is crucial in the face of the cries of those who suffer.
A theological response
Scripture teaches that God is sovereign in all things. There is nothing over which God has no control. The created universe is sustained only by his continuing interest, will and power. We, pinnacle though we are of that creation, made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, remain creaturely, things of earth, life-breathed only because God wills it.
The clue lies in the ‘image and likeness’. This is not our rationality, our speech, or some other supposed superior faculty, but the fact that we have been invited to share with God in his character, his purposes, and in the very community of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this invitation lies God’s risky choice to allow us a share in the divine project, and not to act without us. In this lies God’s love, our freedom, God’s risk and our fall from grace.
Is it worth it? God thought so, and thinks so: he has promised never again to destroy the world through flood. He has sent his only Son, to live and die for us, and raised him from death as the first-fruits of our resurrection. Peter reminds us that through God’s promises we ‘may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4).
It is not so much that God ‘allows’ suffering. God risks suffering for the sake of an intimate relationship with us as his people, a relationship almost of equals, in which we are deeply involved in God’s saving work as ‘the body of Christ.’ To this end, we are given freedom of choice and the grace of redemption when we fall.
A pastoral response
There are a few who need such theology in the midst of their distress. I suspect that it is mostly we – the ones who are questioned – who need to have biblical theology engraved on our minds and souls. Whether we repeat it to those who struggle must be a matter of deep discernment; and sometimes we must keep our counsel, knowing that God has a broad back and is perfectly capable of defending himself.
Pastorally, we sometimes sense that our questioner asks ‘Why?’ out of a sense of isolation and deep loneliness. Evil cuts us off from those whom we have loved, and suffering loses us friends. Many tell of bereavement becoming a living hell not so much in the loss of someone loved, but in the loss of community, when supposed friends cross the road to the other side, not knowing what to say.
The truth is that they need to say nothing; they are simply needed alongside, in silence, in shared incomprehension, in a journey accompanied, in deep friendship. This is at the heart of the Christian gospel because it is at the heart of what Jesus did. This is the God of whom we ask our question ‘Why?’ The pastoral answer from God is that ‘I was there with you.’ Moltmann calls Jesus the crucified God: this is the ultimate ‘there with you’ from God. The promise is that this will never change: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
A spiritual response
One person that I talked to before writing this said that he could answer in three words or in many thousands! The three words were, ‘I’m not God.’ More people resolve the issue of suffering through encounter with God than by being offered philosophical answers, even of the most sophisticated kind. Our spiritual response needs to be an invitation: ‘Pray with me, and meet the one who is God.’
It is a risky business inviting those who suffer to pray, but it is often all we have and all we need. We ourselves are in a living relationship with a God who, we believe, cares far more deeply than we, but we have no proof to offer in this case. So we offer an invitation instead. The invitation may lead to violent or bitter words, to recrimination or anguish. But it is here, in the truth of expressed pain, that new life may emerge as the Holy Spirit begins to work.
I once worked with a curate in an abusive relationship with his incumbent, and encouraged him to write an imaginary letter to the man expressing his feelings. When the letter came to me, it began: ‘Dear D, s***, s***, s***. Out of that painful writing began his healing. How much better if we could help others unburden themselves to a compassionate God rather than to a caring counsellor?
In the fire of conversion, or reconversion, the ‘why’ of suffering is not always answered, but is woven into the fabric of this new life. Chaos and pointlessness begin to be replaced by meaning and direction: God’s meaning, and God’s direction. Even where there are no words to be spoken, only silence to be endured, waiting beside the suffering one until God comes gives courage. We who know how to wait contribute persistence; those who struggle bring their pain. Together, by God’s grace, persistence in pain may lead into a place of light.
And so I come very quickly to the end of myself, left with the reality of suffering, in often silent contemplation of Christ on the cross, in a time of dereliction. This is the deepest darkness of all, evil blanketing the world and cutting out the sun. It is here that I really want to take all those who suffer, to know a God who has been there, and remains there with those in pain, yet who at this moment gave hope back to the world. There can be new life, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing. There is life after death. We discover these truths for ourselves not in challenging God, but in embracing him forever. 

Ó 2011 Adrian Chatfield

Monday, 27 October 2014

The harrowing of hell

The harrowing of hell
The story so beloved of medieval mystery plays around Christ’s harrowing of hell has a complex and much disputed history. There are two primary interpretations of the spirits in prison: either they are the disembodied spirits of Noah’s contemporaries imprisoned in Hades, who in rabbinic tradition are excluded from resurrection, or they are the fallen angels of Genesis 6.1-6 [the majority view, and one which some rabbinic material alludes to.]
The expansion of the latter suggestion dates back to the Book of the Watchers, a 3rd or 2nd  century BC comprising the first 36 chapters of 1 Enoch 36, embellishing Genesis 6. The tradition includes a punishment through flood for such miscegenation, so it is possible to read it in this way. However, allusions to Christ preaching to those who died in the old dispensation occur in the early 2nd century Shepherd of Hermas, one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers and in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and Odes of Solomon.
Underlying both traditions is the Christological theme of the victory of Christ, and his Lordship over all that is above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth. The detail can be endlessly argued about, though Hades/Sheol is clearly the place of the dead in general rather than a place of final [and often eternal] punishment post-judgement.
In summary, the tradition, carried on widely through the Middle Ages and then falling into disrepute in 16th Protestant Europe, celebrates the power of Christ to save, the comprehensive reach of that salvation, the justice of God’s salvific acts in potentially incorporating all, and the cosmic dimensions of the battle between good and evil. Maybe it is time to recover this celebration for the Saturday of Holy Week, rather than simply going shopping for Easter eggs in a consumerist anticipation of the return of spring!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sharing my body, my soul, my store - a monumental hopeI

There is a monument in the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary [!] at Harlton in Cambridgeshire to a saint of God, Thomas Fryer. The details are easily accessed elsewhere, and there is a picture of the monument below. What particularly caught my eye was the English poem that commends Thomas' piety:

Incloisterd in these piles of stone
The reliques of this Fryer rest,
Whose better part to heaven's gone;
The poore mans bowels were his chest.
And 'mongst these three: grave, heaven, poore,
He shard his corps, his soule, his store.

Holiness is an elusive thing, but I aspire to the values expressed here.

First, I long to be well-prepared for death now, that I may fully live the rest of my life here on earth, in gladness, in gratitude, alert for the moments, opportunities and revelations of each day. I long, in other words, to 'share my corpse with the grave.' I wish to be reconciled to Sister Death [St Francis' words] and to know that death no longer has any sting for those who are in Christ.

Then, I long to be heavenward bound. I do not like the inherent dualism implied by the use of the word 'soul' here, but the Fryers were recusants, Catholics and crypto-Catholics in a Protestant Elizabethan England. The language is the language of medieval theology, but there is a deep truth embedded in it, that the 'true and complete me' that I am is designed for eternity with God. I will find no rest until I find my rest in him. So, as I explored at great length in my PhD, my life on this earth is exilic, and the OT exilic writers deserve much more attention as spiritual guides in today's church, often far too earth-bound.

Finally, I long to share my store with the poor, perhaps the simplest, clearest and most challenging of all. I will die without any hard work on my part. I will inherit heavenly life through Christ's hard work on the cross. But for now, my work is to share all that I am, and all that I have. Today, then, I pray for the grace to be open, hospitable, aware and generous with those who by accident of life and circumstance, are today's neighbours. May the same be true for you.


Friday, 26 September 2014

The apostle is distressed, and what he does about it

Three thoughts on Paul's Athens experience
Paul in Athens is faced with two dilemmas: how to capture the attention of the chattering classes, and how to retain it in the face of many competing – and often superficially more attractive – philosophies.
Here’s how he does it.
By being distressed at idolatry. We are surrounded by idolatry all the time, much as Paul was, and it is tempting to take it for granted as part of the scene. It’s the way life is, we think. Not so Paul. His example reminds us that we need to pray for a sharper response: not paralyzing fear, but a distress which propels us into the public arena. Pray for the Holy Spirit to drive you into places of influence, exposure and risk, and pray for all of us, as pioneers and visionaries in God’s church, that we may be equally distressed on behalf of God’s Kingdom. IDOLATRY SUCKS!
By being able to talk the languages of the age. No one knows who the poet is whom Paul quotes in building connections between the inchoate spirituality of the Athenians and the Christian gospel. But clearly his hearers knew, and it was part of his strategy for holding them long enough to speak about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pray for apologists, theologians and thinkers – and pray for your study, that we may have the discernment, insights and skills needed to speak the languages of the age. CULTURE COMMUNICATES!

Paul’s refusal to compromise with the spirits of the age. He may build bridges for his audience from the known to the unknown, but he is uncompromising in his proclamation. Jesus alone is Saviour, Jesus’ resurrection is the only hope for us. Our failure to respond to the good news leads directly to judgement. And so finally we pray for all who in telling the truth face mockery, apathy, and in some cases virulent opposition, and we ask for God to place his angels and watchers in protection over them, and us. TRUTH MATTERS!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Running for gold or running for God?

I've never been particularly competitive, except against myself, and I didn't stand a chance of getting into the school football team in 1960s Brazil. My sports have always been solitary, first cycling, and now - because the Fens are too flat for interesting cycling - running.

I began running when I was 60, to stretch myself, knowing that I was not a natural runner. Or so I thought. Over the last five years, with 5 half marathons under my belt, I have discovered three things: that I am built to run, that running makes me feel really alive, and that it is the most wonderful way of going on retreat.

The thing is, God's always there anyway. We don't go on retreat to find a place where God is more present than somewhere else. That would be silly. We go to a place where we can be more attentive, more receptive, more in touch with ourselves and the lives that we lead. And so the running works well for me.

  • It gives me the silence I crave in a word-weary world, and I am resolved never to run with headphones in my ears.
  • It enables me to listen more carefully to the world around, whether it's the buzz of traffic or the yaffling of green woodpeckers [lots of them in Coton], or even the complete silence that is still available in the English countryside if you look hard enough [read Robert McFarlane to find out where].
  • It allows the clutter in my head to unravel, and so I go through the strands one by one, pray for them, log them for further attention and move on. Now I carry a little notebook because I can't trust my memory.
  • I've also discovered that I can give [offer?] my running to God as a living sacrifice, not to earn any favours, but because when I run, that's who I am, and I do it for God, mostly with rejoicing. 
  • And finally and most importantly, I make myself available for God to speak to me if he wants to. Often he doesn't, and I just enjoy his good pleasure and company. But when he does, I stand a better chance of being all ears.
If you haven't stopped reading yet on the grounds that you can't run, you might like to think of ways in which my running might serve as a metaphor for your some part of your life that is just waiting to burst into prayer and praise. To this end, a mundane or everyday necessity or a freely-chosen activity will serve equally well. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Do we carry spare flasks of oil?

One of our students preached a thought-provoking three minute sermon in Ridley Hall this morning, and I'm grateful that she's allowed us to publish it.

Matthew 25:1-13
She says, some years ago my friend’s father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. One morning she came downstairs and found her dad, on all fours behind one of the arm chairs. Jane said “ Dad are you all right, what are you doing down there?” He was going around the house checking all the fuses in the plugs! 2 days later he died.

This story has stayed with me - this gracious man not just getting ready for his own death, but preparing others for a time when he would no longer be with them!

Just after New year my next door neighbour Mike died suddenly overnight. He was 64 and although he suffered with emphysema, It was still a shock. Mike was alone and it struck me not only how unprepared I was for his death, but left me wondering ‘how prepared was he’? As Matthew tells us “ Keep awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Earlier in Matthew's gospel Jesus calls us to be salt and light in the world. As I thought about my relationship with Mike, I wondered how well had I reflected that light, what kind of picture had I presented of the Kingdom of Heaven? Had my lamp been spiritually full of oil, lighting up the path so that he could see the way? In theological College we spend a lot of time focusing on our own journey: it’s easy to be forgetful and leave behind what really matters.

We can find ourselves turning our backs, heading off in the opposite direction and when we return, have missed the opportunity. Are we the foolish bridesmaids, whose lamps are going out. Do we present a dim view of the Kingdom, or do our words and actions ‘shut the door’ to others, long before our lamps go out ?

Or are we the wise bridesmaids? Do we carry “spare flasks of oil”, the spiritual resources to trim our lamps? The willingness, to love, serve and nurture. The openness to share Christ’s amazing Grace, preparing all people so that they are ready to meet him and go with him to share in the wedding feast ! 

Darkness, light and the Servant Messiah

The first Christians, in the light of the Easter events, shared their stories with one another. And as they did so, they looked back into their scriptures to try and make sense of this new narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As they looked into what we now call the Old Testament, key texts emerged for them, and they began to develop themes and chains of texts.
For these early disciples, the whole of Isaiah was rich pickings. One of the dominant texts, inevitably, was that of darkness, light, and the Servant Messiah, and it’s this that is the theme of this blog.

DARKNESS: Throughout the book, darkness and the associated theme of blindness speak of
  • sin and injustice, corporate, individual, committed against the people of God, committed by the people of God. Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! [Isaiah 5.20]
  • rebellion: And he said, ‘Go and say to this people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’ [Isaiah 6.9-10]
  • judgment, separation, exile and chaos. Those who consult the dead rather than the living - They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upwards, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness. [Isaiah 8.21f] Similarly in 13.10 on the Day of the Lord, the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. Everything is out of joint - The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, says Hamlet, That ever I was born to set it right!
By the time we get to Isaiah 59.9-15, we are rapidly approaching the answer to the challenge and conundrum of darkness. In 59 we are shown the sheer human impossibility [picked up by Shakespeare in the tragedy of Hamlet] of setting it right by ourselves. The best we can do, even after the restoration from exile is that
  • we grope like the blind along a wall
  • like doves we moan mournfully
  • we wait for justice but there is none, for salvation, but it is far from us…

LIGHT: And so we turn, with the prophet, to the coming light. Having established that the human way forward is a dead end, chs. 60-62 take us to the sovereign solution of a redeeming God, expanding on the phrase his own arm brought him victory of 59.16:
God will save his people; he will give light to them: the light of his glory, the glory that Moses asked to see in Exodus 33, the glory of which the seraphs sang in Isaiah’s own vision, the light of his presence, of his self-disclosure. Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. 60.20
But even more extraordinary than the glorious presence of a sovereign God is the fact that this glory spills over. He will share his glory with them. Isaiah is able to say that Zion will be radiant – in the reflected glory [60.5] and, wonderfully in v.7, God says I will glorify my glorious house!

THE SOURCE OF LIGHT: Light's only source is the Servant-Messiah: And this is what holds it all together for the first Christians: the one who self-identified as Servant is the Light-bringer, as Anointed one – Messiah – through whom the darkness will be dispelled, the glory of God made present, and this glory reflected in and through us: All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. [2 Corinthians 3]

Three of the gospel writers  give us hints as to how the church will respond to the abiding presence of his Epiphany. For Matthew it is overwhelming joy, and abandoned, or self-abandoning worship and homage. For Luke it shown by the shepherds’ glorifying and praising of God, Mary’s treasuring of these words in her heart, and Simeon’s I have seen it all now but also his prophetic insight into the battle royal between the light and darkness that is still to come.
John in his gospel gives us the response of a measured, thoughtful philosophizing song that from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. And for us?
Well for us, whether in the season of Epiphany or at any other time, it must surely be:
Unrestrained celebration – dance it like Miriam…
Submissive prostration – honour and adore him like the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house…
Unfettered proclamation – shout it like blind Bartimaeus, or the man born blind in John 9…
And in the times when the darkness threatens to crowd in again, we are daily called to rehearse the great Epiphany truth that the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not…