Friday, July 22, 2011

Suffering

This is my response to a comment I got by email after my recent post on prayer.  My friend said:
You say you pray for daily bread for people. I have struggled to understand how God - who loves us more than the sparrows and who promised to provide for all our needs, can let so many many people die of starvation every single day.
Here was my response (unpolished and mostly off-the-cuff with my trademark never-ending sentences) in case anyone else has been wondering similar things.

Those are big questions, and ones that I have thought about a lot since getting sick. Not just in relation to myself, but also as I have realised that someone in my condition in at least 1/3 of the world would die of it because resources are so tight where they live.

My first answer is that God didn't want it to be this way. He made us a perfect world that was 'just right', and his plan was for us to always live in that world that was perfect. However, we/Adam and Eve stuffed it up and now there is all manner of suffering. In the book of Romans, Paul talks about all creation 'groaning', and [my friend's close relative]'s sickness and mine, as well as all those people dying of starvation etc., are all part of creation groaning.

My second answer is that God has bigger priorities than ending suffering in the here and now. Martin and I read a chapter or so of the Bible together every morning and in the last couple of years we've mostly been reading from the Old Testament. In our reading we've been really struck by how different God's perspective on mortal life is from ours. It seems to be terribly hugely important to God that people are in a good relationship to Him, but not hugely important whether they stay alive or not. I guess that makes sense in the context of eternity.

So in the New Testament it says that Jesus' death was the first step towards fixing what was broken in the world, but it won't be 100% right until Jesus comes back to live here permanently and everything is made new again. That hasn't happened yet, and I think the Bible says it won't until everyone on earth has had the chance to hear the gospel (e.g. Matthew 24, Mark 13), although I'm not 100% sure that's what those texts mean. Assuming that is the meaning it then seems that, even though he's completely capable of healing all that suffering, God has decided to limit himself and not do so in the light of the greater good of giving people the opportunity of living with him in eternity. I don't 100% see why fixing what's gone wrong in the world would get in the way of that, but it appears that it does.

And my third and final answer is that God has given us the job of dealing with suffering on earth. We (the Church) are the 'firstfruits' of that new world. As I understand it, one of the things the church exists for is to show people what things will be like in the New Heaven/New Earth so that they are attracted to it and want to be a part of it. We are also Christ's body on Earth, so we have to carry on Jesus' work. In Luke 4, Jesus described his work like this:
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (NIV)
Because we are his body, that's our calling, too. Perhaps one reason why there is so much suffering, so many people dying of starvation, so many people with chronic and terminal illnesses etc. is because the Church isn't doing it's job.

When I pray for 'daily bread' for people, I'm asking that they will have the resources they need to get through the day. That doesn't always happen, but I still ask! Not infrequently, God then asks me to be the means of answering that prayer: I get a strong sense that God wants me to phone someone up, offer that they can stay at our place, take them muffins or whatever. I also ask God to make them aware of him going through the day with them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Singleness

Two of my closest friends are single Christian women in their mid-30s.  Both would dearly love to marry, but their prospects aren't great: there are simply more women than men in the Church.  And even if my own friends are able to marry there will still be a problem: a great many other Christian women will still be living alone.

How do we as a church deal with this reality?

In the wider world, singleness is less of a problem (at least in part because singleness in the secular world is not equated with celibacy).  But in the church there is a clear understanding that you will progress from being a youth to a young adult to a young married to a young parent to being a parent of Christian youth.  (Curiously, the path seems to stop there!)

Update: an older friend pointed out to me in an email that, once your children hit their teenage years, your success or failure moves from being judged on your own performance in this process to being judged on that of your children.

If you deviate from this progression at any point then you have failed.  My friends live with a significant burden of failure alongside the sorrow of their actual singleness.  I, too, live with failure as I have produced no children.

I suspect that this veneration of marriage and family in Evangelical circles has come about in response to two factors:
  1. Family breakdown in our wider society
  2. The high status of celibacy in the Anglo-Catholic traditions (the idealisation of monks, nuns and priests)
We are concerned about family breakdown and we reject the idealisation of the cloistered life so we make lifelong married bliss our ideal.

We have partially succeeded.  In the New Zealand the divorce rate amongst Christians is a small fraction of that in the secular population.  But in the process we have been selling an ideal that a significant minority of our community will never be able to live out.  As well as the pain of living without a partner they have to deal with the pain of personal failure and the resultant questioning of their own worth.

We need to stop doing this to our women!!

Update: the same older friend pointed out that this doesn't just affect women.  It's more likely to happen to them due to the dearth of men in the church, but, just because a man has many women to choose from doesn't mean he'll find himself a partner amongst them.  If he doesn't, he is then subject to the same disapproval as an unmarried woman.

But what can we do?  Should we promote serial monogamy?  Or polygamy?  Should we excommunicate these women?  Should we focus all of our evangelistic efforts on men?

None of those feel particularly Christian to me!


What does the Bible say?

I think we need to challenge the idea that marriage is the only or even best way to truly live the Christian life.  God did say that it was not good for man to live alone, and He did create humanity in His image as male and female.  But He also allowed into the Bible some pretty negatives statements about marriage and family.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul said:
to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 1 Corinthians 7:8, NIV
 Jesus himself went even further:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple" Luke 14:26, NIV.
Lastly, Jesus taught that in Heaven, where everything will be perfect, no one will be married.  So how necessary to happiness or Godly living can it be?


What does that all mean?

I think that Jesus and Paul were both well aware that family ties bring with them a desire to protect those they bind us to.  The well-being of our family members can easily become more dear to us than following God.  God's not big on having rivals!

In the missionary circles in which Martin was raised the presence of children created much heartache.  The parents longed to protect their children and have them nearby, but in order for the parents to do the work God called them to they often had to live apart from their children.  People also had to be willing not infrequently to allow their spouses to go into danger they would never have faced back home.  People sometimes refuse to serve God as missionaries because of factors like these.  Some people even think that it is actually wrong for people to subject their family members to such dangers and deprivations.

Marriage and family bring joy, but how often do we teach that they also bring a terrible temptation to idolatory?


So what can/should the church do?

I think that my friends' singleness is just one example of how things are not as God would have them be.  The whole world is broken and I long to be part of a Christian community that acknowledges that.  A community where some have the joy of marriage, some have the joy of a satisfying job, some have the joy of children, some have the joy of 'golden years' in old age, some have the joy of abundant material goods, but all have sorrows.  Where we submit to one another in love, bear one another's burdens, and serve God together.  Yet where we also long together for the day when God will live amongst His people and there will be no sorrow or pain any more because everything has been made new (Revelation 21:1-4).

I also want to be part of a community that acknowledges the realities of marriage and parenthood and helps us to live Christianly within them.  People long for marriage in part so they will not be alone in old age, yet nearly half of all married people will die after their spouse.  People long for children who can carry on their legacy, yet Christians should be storing up treasure in heaven, not concerning themselves with their earthly legacy.  Most importantly we should teach that marriage and family are mixed blessings as our desire to protect both our spouse and our children can easily draw us away from God.

Finally I want to live part of a community where no one is alone. You don't have to be alone because you're single.  A single woman need not only know the hugs of female friends and never that of a man.  People without children of their own need not have no role in the raising of children.  Jesus saw his own true family as being not his biological family, but the family of God.  Presumably what was true for him is also true for us, his followers: we certainly speak of ourselves as the family of God.  I want to be part of a people that lives that out, for all our sakes!


In conclusion I must acknowledge my limited 'right' to speak on this topic.  I am married and very happy to be so.  I am deeply grateful to God for bringing Martin and I together and for the joy that there is in sharing my life with him.  I am sorry that my two close friends do not have this joy, and pray frequently that God will join them together with husbands.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Heavy Heart to a Sense of Hope

I really enjoyed this post last week from Alison Sampson in Australia.  She's reflecting on Jesus saying that God's burden is easy and his yoke is light (Matthew 11:25-30), and also on being part of a church.  She concludes with the realisation that the work to which God has called her, whilst distinctly unglamourous, is transforming her into God's image.  It's beautiful, and the whole blog is well worth a look, too.  She posts about once a week.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Grey warbler


Many times every day at the moment I hear the song of the grey warbler.  Click on the link to hear a recording by National Radio or download the mp3.  This non-descript bird has the most amazing song, and I smile every time I hear it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Prayer

At our church we have a slot in the service most weeks called 'Journeying with God'.  Anyone who wants can come forward and share something with the congregation at this time.  As I can't actually go to church, occasionally I record a little video to be played at this time.  Here is my latest one:

 
 (I couldn't actually make the video work this time, but I also couldn't figure out how to put up audio on this blog, so this is an audio recording accompanied by a static picture of me sitting where I was when I made the recording.)

In it I share that I've never really prayed much for other people but recently I've realised that I need to, even though doing so doesn't really make sense to me.  As I've prayed I haven't seen it making a difference for the people I pray for but I have seen it make a real difference in me!  It's made me more involved in my community and more open to God prompting me to do things for the people I pray for, and it's reshaped my view of many of the situations I'm praying for in line with the Bible.