Saturday, 17 October 2009

Where were you?

Goatfell - October 2009

Job 38 v 1-7; 34-41

A few weeks ago, I was invited to be chaplain at a church probationer’s conference.

It was an invitation I was very happy to accept and, indeed, was flattered at being asked.

As well as providing some support for the probationers, my remit was also to provide worship throughout the weekend.

This was slightly daunting as the theme of the conference was : worship.

The probationers spent each session listening to theories on worship, sessions on remembrance and preaching and music , on communion and on lots of other aspects on worship.

I imagined them arriving fresh from a session, full of theories, to engage, rather critically with the worship experiences that I had prepared.

Of course that wasn’t the way it was.

They were far too gracious for that.

However, as I drove through to Tulliallan, where the conference was being held, my anxiety seemed disproportionate to the task in hand.

Halfway through the first evening, listening to some of the questions being raised by the probationers in the preaching seminar, it dawned on me what that anxiety was all about:

Some 15 years ago, when I was a probationer, looking forward to the challenges of ordained ministry, I knew a whole lot more than I do now!

Somehow, back then, things seemed much clearer, much simpler, maybe even -more black and white.

The experience of ministry had not yet muddied the waters and shaken the certainties that I held at a safe distance.

It was only as I journeyed with people through the profound and the mundane, through some of the highs and lows of life (theirs and mine) that I learned, sometimes painfully, sometimes humorously, that things were rarely straightforward, that there were few certainties and that I really didn’t have answers to most of the questions being asked nor platitudes to offer for the roller coaster journeys on which folk were travelling.

This morning we read some of the most beautiful poetry in the Scriptures – the last few chapters of the book of Job contain wonderful imagery of creation extolled by the creator.

But the whole book of Job deals with that age old problem of suffering:

Why do bad things happen to good people? in the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner.

In the book of Job, there are no answers to the questions that suffering raises – but there is an acceptance of the reality that exists for many people.

We have so many trite sayings that we trot out in the face of suffering:

“God never gives us more than we can handle” is one of those.

However experience tells us that that is simply not true, having seen folk utterly destroyed by their suffering.

“Suffering makes us stronger” is an equally false assertion.

Opinion sways between the assumption that folk going through a hard time must have done something to deserve it to the premise that life is totally random and that we are carved out and moulded by our suffering.

When my father dropped dead at the age of 55, midway through my formal training for ministry, numerous colleagues comforted me with the statement that I would now be a much better minister having experienced, firsthand, the trauma of sudden bereavement.

Then – and now – I rejected this wisdom.

And I would have happily settled for being a poorer pastor and still have my father around.

Wisdom like that is wisdom that we can well do without.

It is the kind of wisdom that abounds throughout the book of Job as his friends try to comfort Job in his catalogue of losses and personal physical suffering.

It’s the kind of wisdom that we still hear perpetrated in the church.


Because we cannot handle the fact that we might not have an answer.

Or that, in the face of suffering, our omnipotent God, breathes a deafening silence.

Rabbi Kushner’s book: Why do bad things happen to good people? Has become a classic on the topic of suffering.

But a fairly new book that has been featuring recently on many of the bestseller lists is a book called The Shack, by William Paul Young.

I usually avoid books that become trendy.

And The Shack has become trendy.

Every Christian book club and study group and online forum seems to be punting The Shack.

But, eventually I caved in.

And found it a most profound and moving take on the problem of suffering.

It’s not the most classic writing.

And it has some uncomfortably sentimental bits in it.

But it deals helpfully with the presence of God in a world where there is so much suffering.

It acknowledges the reality of a world in which pain and sorrow and death are constant realities.

But it also acknowledges the reality of the presence of God in that world – God in all the power and weakness of love.

On one level it seems really simplistic but on another it plumbs the depths of truth.

At one point an interesting parallel is drawn between expectancy and responsibilities in relationships.

While expectancy allows for life and uniqueness in a relationship, it is only a small shift that turns that unpredictability of expectancy into expectations that introduces the legalism of responsibility.

In other words, the excitement and the freshness in a relationship is suffocated by the drudgery of having to measure up and deliver the goods.

It seems to me that what many of us have done to God is we’ve placed a whole load of responsibility on God for the suffering we see in our world today and for the knocks that we experience in life.

We place on God the expectation that we will be rescued from our depths.

God, however, operates on a whole other dimension.

A dimension to which we do not relate comfortably.

We like things to be concrete and defined.

We want to be able to predict how God will act and are disappointed when our expectations are not met.

But God’s relationship with creation is based on love that cannot be pinned down or enslaved.

Love that doesn’t conform to our parameters.

Love that just is.

God, seemingly impotent in the face of human suffering, holds out what only God can – the reality of love.

Neither of these books: Why do bad things happen to good people or The Shack answer the questions raised by suffering.

Nor does the book of Job.

But all help us to raise the questions and come to terms with the realities of life.

Suffering exists.

Alongside the amazing love of God.

Suffering is neither deserved or undeserved.

It does not of itself make us stronger or better people.

But it does make us real.

And the knowledge of the love of God present in our suffering lends hope to our reality.

As a hospital chaplain, I used to spend a lot of time talking about and explaining my work to folk, many of whom couldn’t see how a minister could possibly be involved whole time in a hospital.

One of the stories I used to use to try to illustrate the task of chaplaincy, comes from The Velveteen Rabbit a story about a stuffed toy who, through nursery magic has a conversation with The skin horse, an older, wiser inhabitant of the nursery:

I called the story - Making things real:

“What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day… "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you.” "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." "I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. "The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

In any suffering it is important to hold on to something real.

And the reality is-that God and God’s love is present even in the midst of suffering.

That is why when Job questions God, God does not answer Job conventionally.

Instead, God dramatically reminds Job of the bigger picture.

Of the reality of life.

At this point in his life, in the midst of all his suffering, Job knew that he was in pain.

He knew that he had spent his life trying to honor God.

But once God spoke to Job, he knew a whole new world.

The suffering didn’t immediately vanish.

But God spoke.

And then, Job knew that God is God.

God is sovereign, ultimate, all-powerful, all-knowing, and holy, holy, holy.

Job’s many questions of God remain unanswered.

But what Job discovers is: that the Almighty God is intimately aware of and involved in his life.

And THAT makes all the difference.

Job can now cope with his situation.

Because he knows God is in control.

Yes, there can be suffering aplenty.

But in all of that suffering still there is the reality of God.

God who created all that exists.

While Job might want to question why he has suffered so much, God brings him back to the reality that the question is not why? But who?

Who is present wherever there is suffering?

Who created the world in all its beauty and cares profoundly when any part of that creation suffers.

Who is always present, holding out love, holding out hope, making things real.

The God who does not magically make suffering disappear but who, in the face of suffering, is intimately involved, holding out love.

It’s OK, even in church, maybe especially in church to admit that, sometimes, life sucks.

But to realize , even then that still God is in control.

God who sees a much bigger picture than we will ever see.

It’s to that bigger picture that God beckons us.

Not so that we will have any more answers.

Not so that we can grasp some certainty.

But so that we can acknowledge that God is God, the God of suffering, the God of love, ever present, involved in reality.

Thanks be to that unpredictable God who loves us as we are, who places no demands on us, who offers us a relationship based, not on expectations but on the freedom to be as we were created, fearfully and wonderfully made.

Thanks be to God, who, in all our suffering, holds out love that makes us real.



Cheesehead said...

Amen. Thank you so much for this.

crabbit besom said...

Thanks Liz. I needed to read this:)