Click here to watch Phil's video with some helpful pointers and questions to help us really reflect on the teaching from last Sunday, in preparation for next week.
"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?