s029e02 Lockleys 5/5/02 Easter 6
"if suffering should be God's will É" 1 Peter 3.17
The reality is, I suppose, that at one stage of life or another, everyone suffers. No one manages to breeze through this life without a care in the world, blessed with purpose, prosperity and suitably compliant people surrounding him or her. There are, of course those who ought to be happy with their lot and yet still find things to complain about. I guess I am no different here than anyone else, when it comes to this.
In Australia we have just so much for which to be thankful, in comparison to so many other people. As I have said before, people pay exorbitant amounts of money to unscrupulous persons to travel the high seas in boats which no one in their right mind would even consider seaworthy, in the far from certain hope that they will be accepted in Australia as refugees. These people must have a good deal of motivation to undertake such a journey. We should be daily thanking God we have not lived in conditions, which no sane person would put up with, and from which anyone in their right mind would do anything to escape and try to save their children from enduring.
Suffering is part of the human condition in part simply because we love. One cannot live in an intimate relationship with another person and leave that relationship unaffected. It may be that the relationship ends because of death or divorce, it does not matter. We grieve the loss of the other, for to not do so would mean that we are less than human or that our love was less than genuine.
We grieve the loss of a child much more keenly than an elderly person, and perhaps we grieve in different ways. So "naturally" a mother will grieve the loss of a stillborn child even when she has only been able to hold that baby in her arms for an all too brief period, yet "rejoice" when the suffering of a parent she has known all her life, ends. We must be meant to be in relationships for it is in relationships we find ourselves fulfilled as individuals, and such fulfilment is surely of God.
And if suffering is but the other side of the coin to love, then the reality is that if God loves much more completely than we do, then the suffering God undergoes is infinitely greater than any suffering that we endure. But there is another difference to the love that God has and our own, for God loves selflessly. God does not love in the expectation of being loved back. I am reminded of the rich young ruler who runs up to Jesus and says: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life..." His whole concern is about himself and no one else and he is prepared to use any flattery to get his way. An unscrupulous teacher may well have seized such a golden opportunity and advised the rich young man into giving his money to further his cause. Jesus bids him give his money to those who needed it - the poor. The message is clear - think about others. God is more concerned that we love others than concerned we prove the extent of our love for God.
And as I thought about grief and suffering, I thought of a rather more obscure passage in the Bible when the Lord speaks to Samuel. We often put absolutes in God's hands and think that God's choices are eternal, yet perhaps they are not so. So it was with God's choice of the first King of Israel - Saul. Despite God's better judgement, God allows the people of Israel to have a king and God chooses Saul. Saul is duly anointed and later prophesies and actually doesn't do a bad job at being king. B. W. Anderson ("The Living World of the Old Testament" p132) ponders: "from a different point of view, perhaps Saul would emerge as a heroic figure who like Hamlet, was the victim of baffling, uncontrollable circumstances..." God, far from being bound by the choice of Saul, seems to regard the choice quite lightly, for David is chosen to replace Saul, quite quickly, somewhat to the chagrin of Samuel. "The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." (1 Samuel 16:1). Of course it is David who is eventually anointed in Saul's place, and in all likelihood, it is the supporters of David who chronicle this change and put down the achievements of his predecessor.
It is on the basis that God's election is not irrevocable that I actually believe that God can lead a person to marry and later to marry someone else after the original couple have divorced. The first person may have been given their chance - who is to really know the mind of the Lord?
Again, the words of the psalm, beloved of clergy: "The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." (Psalms 110:4) has been taken by some to mean that they should never retire from full time stipended ministry. God is able to call others too.
Indeed the difficulty is that so often the indelible mark of the Lord can be used as a pretext to treat others less than respectfully. So the "Promised Land" can be at the expense of others.
"How long will you grieve?" God asks Samuel. I suspect that God is not here forbidding grief, that natural outpouring of emotion at the loss of a loved one, but saying that grief can end, and it is up to us to make a choice when it is time to end. The loved one will not be forgotten, but the emotion can cease to be all consuming.
None of us are so important in the eyes of God that the natural desires and aspirations of others are put on hold for our benefit.
There is an urgency about God's task, and perhaps the urgency is because it is just so very easy for us to get distracted. If one person is reticent to see the actions of God in another, then God can and will raise up someone with eyes to see. If the Church is reticent in seeing good in people other than their own members, God will raise up others who will. We are only given the task of seeing; recognising, proclaiming and rejoicing - these are more than enough.
Some time ago, I was attending a clergy conference with the members of the Archbishop of Canterbury's "Springboard" group, and a very helpful conference it was. One of the small group titles was: "Finding the will of God". I attended this one, and was moved to say that as I've gone through the Church the will of God was simply to conform. As I have intimated before, I am now beginning to realise how much the pressure to conform hindered me exploring my own faith.
And this perception came back to me as I thought about the text: "if suffering should be God's will". We could conclude that God doesn't care how much we suffer as long as we conform. This, I think, is an horrible aberration.
Ancient people, as well as ourselves, often feel at the mercy of forces beyond ourselves. In the past it might have been the weather, but now it may just as well be the forces of multinational corporations. It may well be a way of coping to ascribe to God these influences which mean that people can cope with the consequences.
But the trouble with ascribing everything to the will of God is that it can feed the reality that we are our own worst enemies. We can be lead to expect that God will want us to suffer because, in our own eyes, this is all we deserve. Yet Jesus was sent to die and to rise again, for you and for me. This is how much we are loved, this is how much we ordinary people are precious in the eyes of God. In Jesus, God seeks not our continued suffering, but that we and all people recognise the extent we are loved. Jesus was and is sent to lift us and all people up, not to shame us into more fervent conformity.
Jesus speaks to his disciples about love, and it seems as I read those words in John 14 a continuum, or perhaps a circle. We love Jesus, we do as Jesus asks, we are given an Advocate, and as this occurs, Jesus comes to us. Jesus repeats the cycle, "you will know ... I am .. in you ... they who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me ... and I will love them and reveal myself to them ..." and so the cycle goes on. Revelation, loving others, further revelation ... As we expand our horizons as to where we can see the risen Jesus, it "snowballs".
So one antidote to suffering and grief may be to choose to enter this cycle. I have yet to say, here at Lockleys, that the Christian way of "repentance" is to join in the celebration. The celebration is open to anyone, though, of course sadly, this very openness will mean some will absent themselves rather than mix with others, like the elder son of the prodigal Father.
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