Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Suffering (Page 1 of 3)

Looking for love

“Looking for love in all the wrong places.” It may be a well-worn cliché, but like all clichés, it contains more than a modicum of truth.

I think we can truthfully say that at some level, each of us just wants to be loved. And yet there is something about the world, and about our particular situation within it, that conspires to keep this much-sought-after feeling of being loved just beyond our grasp.

In some cases, it’s easy to see where a deep-seated sense of unloveliness might stem from; I’m thinking in particular of all forms of child abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional. When we suffer such abuse at our most tender and formative age, it makes a profound imprint on our soul that can be very hard to erase or reshape. However, even those of us, like myself, who have experienced no major childhood abuse can be all too familiar with an abiding sense of lack that sends us searching for all manner of substances, experiences and/or relationships to fill the emptiness in our souls. Even those blessed with the happiest of circumstances somehow sustain wounds on their journey through childhood and adolescence – wounds whose pain they later seek to ease with money, success, sex, alcohol, fame, and so on.

To be alive in this world, it would seem, is to suffer trauma.

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Lest we forget

AuschwitzToday is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The event has received relatively little media attention, so I wanted to pause for a moment to consider its implications.

It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around ninety percent of them Jewish. Approximately one in six of all Jews killed in the Holocaust died there. It’s true that these numbers are small when set against total losses in the war, or even against the number of people killed at the orders of Stalin or of the Japanese authorities. But Auschwitz serves as a chilling reminder of the dehumanising, industrial nature of the Nazis’ final solution to the Judenfrage (the “Jewish question”).

Seventy years on, Auschwitz still stands as a potent symbol of humankind’s capacity for unspeakable evil. And, along with an entire catalogue of other horrors down the ages, it raises huge challenges to many of our trite, cosy and comfortable ideas about God.

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Resurrection as a map for the journey

Darkness to lightToday I’m delighted to feature a guest post written by my good friend David Jenkins. David posted it a few days ago in a Facebook group I belong to, and I liked it so much that I asked his permission to repost it here in slightly edited form.

In my deepest wound I found you, Lord, and it dazzled me.
(St. Augustine)

It seems hauntingly apparent that there can be no resurrection unless there is death. Yet this is, historically, something I have attempted to avoid, preferring instead a victorious, suffering-free version of resurrection. And indeed, this death can be avoided, if Jesus only achieves resurrection for us and does not invite us to walk in his steps. But if we consider resurrection as “a map for the journey”, our relationship to it becomes far more participatory; it becomes a great pilgrimage into the unknown.

Jesus says that true life is found in losing our life. One way I have understood this is my need to learn to embrace the reality of my powerlessness and failure. In order to find this life or resurrection he offers, it seems there must be loss. I feel myself drawn back to an ancient Christian practice, but from a different angle: that of constant confession of sin; not in a legalistic, self-flagellating, fearful, begging kind of way, but as a repeated filial confession of weakness, doubt, anxiety, and so on, and the acceptance that I can do nothing to save (heal) myself.

I also think of loss in terms of laying my life down for others and suffering loss for the sake of love. Whatever appears to be the path of descent can also be understood as the path of death. We need only do the dying, the losing, the giving in, the confessing of weakness; resurrection itself is beyond our ability to influence. So I think we take the path of descent and hope that God will be there at the bottom. Jesus assures us, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we meet God “at the bottom”, maybe that is where we also meet “the resurrection and the life”.

I guess this is where faith comes in. For me, faith is better understood as trust. Personally, it often feels like blind faith – trust when I have nothing left.

No strength of conviction or confidence.

A trust born of desperation rather than bravery.

A surrendering to the darkness.

So we learn, day to day, to seek out this downward humble path of trust and love; of prayer and confession; of vulnerability, honesty and weakness. We do this and we pray, “Whatever happens, happens. Lord, I am in your hands and my only hope is you now”. Resurrection in my day-to-day life is the finding of life in the depths of loss; faith in the abyss of doubt; God at the bottom, waiting for me in my deepest wounds.

[ Image: Hartwig HKD ]

On destiny and freedom

Rail tracksA few days ago I wrote about how, because God is love and love does not coerce, I believe that God’s hands-on involvement in running the world is much less than many of us would like to think. Today I’d like to take this thought a little further.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variety of message or teaching along the following lines: “God has a predestined plan for your life.” This is usually based on a few isolated texts of scripture, for example Psalm 139:16: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

I used to lap up this kind of teaching. But now I’ve come to see it as Christian determinism, pure and simple. Let me show you why.

The logic is very straightforward: if God is so deterministic that he literally plans every day of our lives down to the last detail, then we are forced to conclude one of two things:

1. Either God also plans every terrible accident, disaster, disease and cause of suffering that befalls humanity…

2. … or God must have some reason for protecting certain people from disaster while allowing others to suffer.

Either way, the outcome is not pretty: either God is a monster who intentionally and deliberately causes suffering, or he is biased and has favourites.

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Hope to hold onto

CryingWe live in a world filled with pain.

Yesterday evening, as I sat browsing through my Facebook feed and pondering the events of the day, I was suddenly and without warning overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness, to the point of tears. I’d been thinking about the escalating military action in Israel, about the plight of cross-border refugees, and about a private disagreement that I had seen spill over onto Facebook in public fashion. Here are some words I shared on Facebook to try to capture what I was feeling:

There are times when my heart hurts. For the forgotten, starving child; for the rejected immigrant who seems to be little more than a political pawn; for the mothers, fathers and kids trying to peacefully get on with their lives who suddenly become collateral damage in an age-old territorial dispute; for the never-ending cycle of one-upmanship and rivalry that puts being right above being together. And, most of all, for my own selfishness, judgmentalism and lack of love.

This deep feeling of sadness really took me by surprise. I guess we’re so used to living in this world of pain and injustice that we become very practised at ignoring and burying all the sorrow and suffering that surrounds us and putting on a brave face so we can continue to live as good little citizens and consumers. Not to mention good little Christians. I mean, “the joy of the Lord”, right?

Once in a while, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in a place where events, thoughts and feelings coalesce in such a way that some of this buried pain breaks through the surface of our practiced indifference and we find ourselves deeply moved. This, I think, is what I felt yesterday evening.

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The road to resurrection

Close-up crucifix

In the Pentecostal tradition in which I’ve been formed, it’s often occurred to me that we’re very keen on resurrection but not so hot on death.

Thus, when it comes to holy week, it’s all about Easter Sunday. Many Pentecostal churches have no Good Friday service, and for those that do, it’s often quite a perfunctory affair. I remember one year sitting in a Good Friday service and hearing a message that was really all about Easter Sunday, with barely a pause to think about the actual events of Good Friday and what they mean. It’s as though Good Friday and everything it represents is really no more than a somewhat inconvenient milestone on the way to the glory of resurrection.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe with all my heart that the resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. As the Apostle Paul put it, if Christ was not raised, we are of all men most to be pitied. And I agree that the crucifixion is no place to live (think about it); it’s only a place on the way to resurrection. If the Christian faith is not finally about victory, it’s nothing more than a sham and a pipe dream.

But here’s the thing: without Good Friday, there would have been no Easter Sunday. Without the agony, loss and defeat of the cross, there would have been no resurrection.

As Christians, we’re called to be resurrection people: people who partake in and share the life of the risen Christ. We like this idea; we’re drawn to it like a moth to a flame. But as to the idea that something in us has to die before we can be raised to new life… not so much.

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Judge's hammerAmerican hyper-Calvinist pastor John Piper has come in for criticism in recent years for making pronouncements about the reasons behind various natural phenomena. In 2009, he famously interpreted a tornado as God’s judgement on the church for not speaking out against homosexuality. (For the sake of balance, here’s a pretty comprehensive rebuttal offered by pastor-theologian Greg Boyd).

That was five years ago. Why am I talking about this old story now?

As UK readers will know, large portions of the country – particularly in the south west – have recently been hit by severe storms and flooding, causing widespread misery as thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes.

David Silvester, a UK Independence Party (UKIP) local councillor from Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, decided this was the perfect opportunity write to his local newspaper to explain how he had warned the prime minister that disaster would befall the nation if the government insisted on pressing ahead with same sex marriage legislation. (You can read the full story on the BBC News site.) In Silvester’s mind, there is a clear causal link between the decision to recognise same sex marriage and the arrival of devastating storms and floods.

This is not really an issue I want to dwell on at length, but I will say this: if this is how followers of Jesus respond to tragedy, it’s no wonder the general public often sees Christians as a laughing stock and has a completely distorted view of God.

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