Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Somalia’s suffering

July 23, 2011

This continues to be a time of considerable sorrow, and shocking news from the other side of the world. Somalia – torn by more than two decades of civil war – is now revealed to be in the midst of a food crisis beyond our imagining. – people are fleeing the country, desperate to find comfort – many are dying on the way. To make matters worse, one of the warring parties  refuses to let aid agencies into the southern sections of the country, their excuse is that the crisis has been exaggerated as an excuse to bring spies and misinformation among the Somali people. It is a war for power, and these people are dying because of greed and ignorance among their leaders – they are pawns in a struggle between competing religious and political ideas. For this, God came in Jesus Christ. It is this kind of constant conflict that fosters doubt, and leads many to declare their indifference about the promises of Scripture and the Gospel that is ours to share. “If God so loved the world”, they say, “how can things like this be allowed to happen?” and I confess that it is difficult for me to see the images and hear stories about the plight of hundreds of thousands of Somali’s, and then pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans and make sense of it. “Nothing can stand between humanity and the love of God, he says – Nothing. Yet the love of God seems strangely absent as I listen to a woman who has lost three children to starvation, or watch as people who have crossed desert wastes and national boundaries line up for a dish of rice and broth . I cannot comprehend the need – I have never been that hungry, nor have I felt threatened by my government, my neighbour, or by one who disagrees with my religious ideas – and I struggle to know what the love of God looks like under these circumstances. Perhaps it looks like the white American woman, wearing a bright shawl and head-covering scarf – who stands in the midst of the crowd in Mogadishu and calls for the world to help these people. Or it looks like the mothers (and occasionally grandfathers) who allow their children to eat first. Whatever it may look like, the gospel promises us that when the bottom drops out of an orderly society, God’s love will not – cannot abandon us. We comfort ourselves with Paul’s words – assure one another that “… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…” but that is not going far enough. Romans 8 28 – the only piece of this particular puzzle that many of us bother with – fools us into thinking we can relax, because we are content, we must be those called – we feel, by default, that this sentence describes us… But the good news is not about good times. The gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily concerned with the deliverance of those who suffer – Jesus preached a coming kingdom without boundaries – religious, political, or economic. And Paul writes convincingly about the end of human ideas about power, control and “possession”. “Who is against us?” Paul asks, knowing that it doesn’t matter. For God is for us – so convinced of human worth, that God came in human form God abandoned power as we know it – and gave us the power of faith – hope and life in return. Paul, who will be hunted and ridiculed, and stranded and starved, and eventually tried, convicted and killed for his faith, remains convinced that none of that matters – All that matters – is that God’s love in Christ met him on the road one day, and changed his perspective. The good news isn’t about good times – it is about changed minds, and fresh perspective. So perhaps today the love of God looks like an organization that, despite the difficulties, has convinced the Canadian government to match relief donations in order to have an impact on a seemingly unstoppable situation. Maybe God’s love is revealed in the opening of borders, and the setting aside of our fear of the ‘other’ Perhaps God’s love will find its way to our loaded pantries, show up in our own foodbanks increasing our awareness of how we produce food in this country, and how we might help others recover the means to feed themselves. It’s hard, but not yet impossible. For the gospel finds us in our desperation, and offers hope in many forms – if only we would hear it. May we all rejoice with Paul – as tragedy unfolds – as solutions present themselves – and wherever the opportunity arises – and claim for ourselves this stunning truth: “… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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The end of the world as we know it

November 14, 2009

Hannah knows hardship.

The barren wife of a prominent man, she is shamed by her failure to bear Elkanah a son.

She is well treated, but it doesn’t matter – she cannot do what her society says she must do.

Her life is a disaster – provoked by her rival (Elkanah’s ‘other’ wife),

Hannah has lost her appetite, she is unable to worship, she is in a constant state of grief.

And just when she thought that life could get no worse,

the keeper of the Temple of the Lord accuses her of public drunkenness.

It must have felt like the end of the world for her.

Hannah’s story is the opening chapter in a brighter period of the history of Israel

but it opens in darkness. No joy. No glory. No whispered words of God.

Grief, shame, and provocation are the beginnings of Hannah’s birth-pangs –

birth-pangs that will produce, against all odds, and in God’s own time

a son who will become a powerful prophet – Samuel.

It is easy for us to equate hardship will defeat – disaster with God’s judgement

for Hannah, an inability to conceive equals the end of the world.

And following Hannah’s example, we are more willing to admit defeat

than we are to accept that our difficulties often signal the birth of some new opportunity.

That is a habit we share with many of our spiritual ancestors.

We are drawn to stories that point to our failures as signs of God’s immanence

we seem eager for an easy way out of our present difficulties

and long for “that promised day of God” that will see all things set right.

Because of this, we will never be without our end-time prophets.

The turn of the century provided the fearful voices plenty of opportunities to predict disaster.

The Cuban missile crisis – the rise of powerful military governments in the oil-rich middle east,

the attack on the world trade centre – the economic disaster – the swine flu

If you listen carefully, you can hear people asking- about all of these things (and more)

“is this it? The end of the world as we know it?”

many turn to religion for answers to those kinds of questions,

but no matter what the question, the answers are elusive.

and it was no different for Jesus closest friends.

we can hardly blame them for asking Jesus for some help in reading the signs…

they have been engaged in the same sort of debates as they journey – with Jesus – towards their own doomsday in Jerusalem

who wouldn’t want a head start on the end of time?

Who doesn’t want to be “absolutely prepared” when God brings down the final curtain?

But there is a problem – beyond the fact that only God knows the details.

Did you hear it?

In the midst of Jesus’ stark description of the way things are (and must be…):

“This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs” Jesus says.

Birth pangs…something is being created, not destroyed.

Sorry for all you thriller movie buffs,

but end-of-time scenarios that involve devastation and destruction –

these are human inventions.

God is in the creation business.

I am unusually privileged, in my vocation.

I am invited into the most vulnerable and chaotic times in the lives of God’s people.

I am asked to hold hands while the very foundations of the world seem to come apart.

I have mourned for unborn children, and broken relationships.

I have seen future hopes dashed, and watched addictions destroy families.

I have noticed that no one is immune from tragedy –

the faithful and the faithless alike are subject to terrible tragedy –

but I have also noticed that, once the dust clears,

there is always something new waiting to be discovered.

Our birth-pangs are bitter and tumultuous – soul-shaking and faith challenging

when they will end, God only knows,

but something new is always the result.

The good news that is ours to share –

news that was revealed to Jesus early followers in a very vivid fashion –

is no less than this: even death is not death.

What once was defeat – truly the end of the world for humankind – is not the end.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

God’s people come to many brutal conclusions as they journey from birth to death.

There are times of plenty and times of want.

There are days of favour and days of destitution.

And at every turn, God’s people ask the same questions:

Is this it? Will God ever smile on us again?

Are we standing on the verge of momentous change? The end of time?

There is no consensus among us – each of us understands the evidence differently

generation after generation comes convinced that the end is at hand

groundless fears are raised –

And our answer must continue to be the answer Jesus offered –

these things, and more, will happen – they are birth pangs –

and from the wreckage will emerge some new thing.

because, you see – God is in the creation business.

Thinking on widows…

November 7, 2009

This morning we encounter two very different women in scripture.

Ruth’s story and the story of the widow’s mite are wonderful old favourites for most of us.

We have heard them read – perhaps we have studied them in depth.

They come to us in familiar form,

and we think we know what these stories are going to be about…

we have convinced ourselves (or been convinced by others)

that at the heart of these stories is a faithful devotion to the unseen mercy of God.

But how do these stories show us God’s mercy?

Is Jesus really saying that we should impoverish ourselves for the sake of our souls?

Is it true, every time , that the landless, powerless stranger

will land safely in the arms of someone who will care for her,

if only she trusts enough – has faith enough?

If God’s mercy is the theme here, it is well hidden.

Ruth and Naomi are full of plans and schemes as there story is told –

they are leaving nothing to chance in all of this –

not waiting on God, but putting herself firmly in Boaz’ way,

so that he must take notice – must act.

His reputation will be ruined if he does nothing –

God’s mercy there may be, but it is not the wide open arms of mercy we would like to see.

God is at work in (and in spite of) the planning and manipulation

of these faulty, but faithful people of God,

and through them comes a king that will take God’s people in yet another direction.

But there is the matter of this widow in the temple –

a place where mercy has become rather scarce.

This text has been transformed for me this week, from a hollow lesson in stewardship

(give all you can and God will take care of things)

to a scathing accusation against the lack of mercy

to which the people of God are often inclined.

Jesus leaves the widow’s fate hanging – “she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

the implication is clear – this two-penny offering may well have been her dying act.

The officials don’t notice her.

The important people go on praying and parading around in their glory.

Think back to last week – the encounter with the scribe;

it’s part of the same scene in Mark’s telling.

The first commandment?

More important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices…Love God, love neighbour.

Where is the love in this woman’s poverty?

You must imagine, says one commentator,

that Jesus shakes with rage when he describes this woman’s offering –

not angry at her, but at the system that has turned its back on her.

We still stand convicted of Jesus’ anger.

We delight in our churches – the buildings, the institution – we fight for the preservation of our traditions, our congregations, our worship practices and all that.

We are selfless in our giving to keep things going,

and there are many good things going on as a result –

but just imagine how much more mercy and love could we demonstrate

if we could take our oil budget

and use it to supplement the income of those whose jobs have ended –

if we took our maintenance and housing money,

and used it to house those who are living in the street –

if we released ourselves from the burden of paying ordained clergy,

and used the savings to purchase medicine, food and clothing

for the outcast and downtrodden of our own time.

it seems like foolishness because ultimately I’m talking about my own welfare.

But the money we devote to ‘sustaining church’ –

to having worship and being a presence in the community – to keeping buildings and paying ministers, administrators, musicians and missionaries –

could be used to give glory to God in so many different and imaginative ways…

God’s people could be free to enter into the lives of the suffering majority

to offer up our devotion in more practical ways – meaningful ways –

and that, I think, is the point in Jesus anger.

He is reminding us, in every age, how easily the focus of our devotion is altered.

The rich in their flowing robes had long ago stopped honouring God – stopped noticing their sisters and brothers in pain and need –

stopped giving God glory.

The fixation on the time and place – the method and manner of worship and work

is no more honouring God than those loud, long prayers of the perfectly pious.

Our worship is important, but the focus of our worship is more important.

Some structure is important, but to what does that structure point us?

Our activity must draw us closer to one another in love, and closer to God in love

whether we meet in a cathedral, or a cabin.

When we are looking to the welfare of our neighbours,

when the stranger in our midst feels at ease,

when our worship and our work brings to mind the Risen Christ and the glory of God

then we will have accomplished something great.

Not once in scripture does Jesus ask us to build an institution devoted to keeping the rules

He asks us to baptise and teach – to make disciples –

to live in the light of that love of God that he so often demonstrated in his life’s work.

His focus was God – God’s kingdom, God’s glory –

and we are invited to follow his example.

Not giving our our riches, for our glory –

but sharing in the gifts of God,

that all may offer praise and give God glory.

Amen