Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Where was God last Friday?

After my last two posts on the God I don't believe in and the God I do believe in, I want to pose the question, 'Where was God last Friday, when the tragic events in Norway were unfolding?' Where was he when the explosion went off in Oslo, and a gunman opened fire indiscriminately on a youth camp? I would say where is God on Boxing Day, for it is a part of his eternal Present, his everlasting Now.

  • God is with the victims, those who die and those who remain: at the moment of their deaths, in their tears and grief.
  • God is in the suffering and pain. CS Lewis said, ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’
  • God is in the response of his people – all people, not just those with a Christian faith (and let’s not forget, the gunman claims that!). There is something remarkable about the human spirit (the Spirit of God?) that caused hundreds of thousands to observe a vigil in the centre of Oslo last evening, as if to say, ‘Evil will not win.’ God does not show himself merely through Christians, but also through those of other religions and even those who do not believe in him!
  • God is in his Church, which needs gently to say, ‘There will not always be another day. You will not always to have time to respond to God’s love for you!’
  • Supremely, God is on the Cross! He is not a God who is immune from suffering, unconcerned with his world. He has chosen a way of identifying with us in our suffering, of liberating us from our sin, of giving us a hope and a future. ‘For God so loved the world …’ (Jn 3:16).
Of course, many questions remain. Some will not be able to identify with God, and will see life as random, accidental existence where joy and suffering have no meaning. I'm sticking with God who is making all things new.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The God I do believe in

After yesterday’s post on the God I don’t believe in, here is something on the God I do believe in:

  • The God who created the universe out of his love
  • The God who made us out of his love
  • The God who cares for us out of his love
  • The God who grieves for us out of his love
  • The God who has died for us upon a cross, and who does everything possible to lead us back to him out of his love
  • The God who is love!

Yet the question always arises in any event like the Norwegian atrocities, ‘How can a loving, caring God allow it?’

Eighteenth Century philosopher and sceptic, David Hume, puts it this way: ‘Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’

The Bible takes us back to a world that is perfect in every way. God creates the heavens and the earth, the vegetation, animal life and human life. ‘God saw all that he had made and it was very good’ (Gen 1:31). It describes how God set men and women to rule over the earth. Surely, they would obey God perfectly in such a perfect world? Surely, we would do the same in a world without suffering and pain? But no! Adam and Eve in a world without suffering chose against God! The best of all possible worlds ceased to be the best possible world as sin entered in – and all of humankind ever since has been affected.

God created in love, and you may say, ‘How could a loving God allow sin to happen?’ But love involves freedom. What if God forced us to love him? It is a contradiction in terms, because you cannot force someone to love you. You can attract them, woo them, care for them, appeal to them but you cannot force them! If you force them, what they give in return would not be love. God’s love gives us freedom to love him in return and freedom not to; freedom to obey him and to disobey; freedom to choose life and freedom to choose death! A consequence of God’s love is that the freedom he gave has given us includes freedom to sin, and we see the results of that all around us: in Norway, in Afghanistan, in our own lives.

I hope that I would still believe in this God if, God forbid, it were my own children who died in an act of atrocity. A question remains: where was God when 93 or more people were killed last Friday, by the actions of one man?

May be tomorrow ….

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The God I don't believe in

It seems a grim old time at the moment! The East Africa crisis, the acts of atrocity in Norway and the death of Amy Winehouse. In their own way, each highlight the question of suffering, and ask the question, 'Where is God in all of this?'

I looked back this morning to the sermon I preached after the terrible tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Here is the start of what I shared:

In ‘Catch-22’, a novel by Joseph Heller, one of the characters Yossarian, holds the following conversation with a colleague’s (Lt Scheisskopf’s) wife:

‘Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways. There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us …How much reverence can you have for a Supreme being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was going through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the ability to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain? …Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of red-and-blue neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead? …What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering …Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!’

‘Stop it! Stop it’! Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly …’Stop it!’

‘I thought you didn’t believe in God,’ he asked bewilderedly.

‘I don’t,’ she sobbed …’But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.’

What about the God you don’t believe in and the God you do?

The God I don’t believe in:

Ø A God who has created the universe then lost control. A God who is powerless to do anything for his created beings, never mind to do anything about the unbelievable forces of the Tsunami that ravaged territories around the Indian Ocean. A God who loves but cannot help.

Ø A God who does not love his created beings! A God who created human beings and then callously condemned many to die by a giant tsunami! A God who could help us but has chosen not to.

Ø A God who is non-existent – the way of the atheist. With this God, no one created the universe, but everything is random. There is no God who created me, no God to love me, no God to call me towards a better life, no God to give me hope for the future whether in this life or the next, and no future life to look forward to! With this non-existent God, evolutionary processes of natural selection will ‘improve’ the human race, at the cost of those who, through no fault of their own, happen to have been born and raised in areas subject to natural disaster. I just don’t buy it!'

That's more than enough words for now! Tomorrow, I may post part 2 of the sermon - the God I do believe in.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sing for Heroes Concert - More Reflections

I’ve just been looking through the songs that the Sing for Heroes men sang at last Saturday’s concert. I’ve realised that I can’t sing a single one of them!

I’ll rephrase that. I can’t sing a single one of them properly on my own! Although each of them is a complete song, they are divided into four parts: Tenor 1 and 2, Baritone and Bass (my own part). For most of the songs, I don’t know all of the words. I know all of the bass parts, but since the lot of the bass singer is often to sing ‘Ah – Ah – Ah’ in the background, I haven’t needed to learn all of the words. The bass parts sung on their own sound OK, but they are not that good.

There is good reason for that. The songs are arranged to be sung in parts, and no part has the entire melody through any of the songs. We need each other (although Lesley Garrett did say at our rehearsal, and I quote: ‘Lovely basses!’). We can manage without one another, and make a passable attempt, but the song is only complete as others join in.

Again, there is a parallel with the church. We can do things on our own in the church, we can try and survive without other Christians, but it is only as others join in that our acts of worship in service can be experienced in their full tune. I’m reminded of the Message paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 12v27, which is applied to use of gifts in the church: ‘You are Christ’s body – that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.’

We need the other parts – and others need us!

For those who are interested, you can find a report on the concert here.

For those even more interested, these are the songs that were performed by the combined Male Voice and Sing for Heroes Choir:

· When the saints go marching in

· Bring him home

· Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

· Old Time Religion

· All about you

· Twenty-four hours from Tulsa

· Portrait of my love

· Anvil Chorus

· You’ll never walk along (with Lesley Garrett)

Monday, 18 July 2011

Singing with Lesley Garrett

Did I mention that I sang with Lesley Garrett last Saturday evening? Oh, I did …

Here’s how it happened.

Last February, I responded to an advert for 40 men to supplement the Peterborough Male Voice Choir in a ‘Sing for Heroes’ concert on 16th July. I am at least a passable bass/baritone, so I decided to give it a go. For five months, we rehearsed every Thursday evening (not quite every Thursday for this pastor, with meetings interrupting), with a couple of smaller performances en route to the main event. In June, the pressure increased with rehearsals on Mondays and Thursdays (even more of a challenge, but at least I could usually make one of them). We also had a promotional performance in the city centre, giving out leaflets, although by this stage most of the 1200 tickets were sold. By this stage, the countdown to the big day was well and truly on.

The day arrived. We did our stuff. Lesley did her stuff, very polished and professional, as you would expect. We concluded by backing Lesley in ‘You’ll never walk alone’, a performance which was spine-tingling (even though it has been stolen by Liverpool FC as an anthem!) and was rewarded with a standing ovation. It was a great night!

I reflected a little on the ‘Sing for Heroes’ choir in my sermon yesterday. What if we had gone on practising and perfecting our songs? There were certainly some that we could have done better. What if we had gone on meeting week by week, enjoying one another’s company and the singing that goes with it? What if we had done all that, but never actually reached what we were preparing for i.e. a concert?

Church can be like that. We meet every Sunday, and in between. We pray and make plans for the future. What if we never reached the main event that Jesus gives us; that is ‘to go into all the world and make disciples…’?

I don’t think my church is like that, and I hope yours (if you have one) isn’t either. Yet we might all ask: what is the goal of what we do?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Handprints in the Sand

During the past week, I’ve been reminded of a response I made last year at Leading Edge.

(For those who are not in the know, Leading Edge is a Baptist Holiday week with a spiritual edge. Sadly, it has just been announced that it will not be happening this August, due to low numbers booking.)

At one of our meetings, we arrived to find a sort of shallow sand-pit down the centre of the hall. I forget who was speaking, but reference was made to the account in John 8, where some Pharisees and teachers of the law brought before Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. What should happen to her, they wanted to know? To begin with, Jesus said nothing. He just wrote on the ground.

At the end of the meeting, we were asked what we would like to write in the sand: a response, if you like, to the questions and demands of ministry that confront us. This is a photograph of my response: an imprint of my hands, one of them dragged down through the sand, getting all the dirt under my fingernails. It was to express a willingness to get my hands dirty in serving God.

In the past few weeks, God has certainly taken me up on that promise! I can’t go into the details but suffice to say that I have had to deal with a number of people in desperate need. I’m not complaining about that; it’s been a privilege to serve, but I have done very little of the routine pastoral work that I ought to have done and would expected to have done.

I am reminded, as I have been so many times, of the words of Juliet Kilpin at a Baptist Ministers’ conference several years ago. She talked of the times when we experience all sorts of interruptions to the ministry we are meant to be doing. Then she said, ‘The interruptions are the ministry.’

And they are! The interruptions are the ministry – although I am hoping for a few less of them this week!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

To boldly go ...

At a recent service in our church, our preacher played us the mission statement that was quoted at the start of every episode of the TV series ‘Star Trek.’ He then asked whether we should include something similar at the start of each service or sermon.

It got me thinking! Should we do that? And if we did, what would it include? Here, with apologies to Star Trek, is the result of my musings:

‘The world, our final frontier. We are called to journey as God’s people, the church. Our continuing mission, until Christ returns: to step outside our comfort zone, to seek all who do not know Jesus Christ and share his love, to go boldly wherever God calls us.’

OK, that is a little bit flippant, although it does give me a chance to correct that split infinitive! Anyway, Jesus has already given us a very good mission statement at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20).

I wonder if we need this reminder every week? It’s easy to become complacent as followers of Jesus, and forget that we are only that because someone else made a disciple of us. It’s easy to say that our gift is not evangelism (i.e. sharing the good news of Jesus), and assume that the job of reaching the world is someone else’s.

Everyone has gifts that can be used in reaching people with the love of Christ. On 19th June, some of us joined with Chris Duffett (President-elect of the Baptist Union of Great Britain) for ‘Saints on the Streets’. It was Father’s Day, and Chris had arranged a special free treat for fathers – a rodeo ride! Believe it or not, over 60 people took advantage of the free ride and the risk to their dignity, including this father! Everyone had a job to do. A couple of people made up goodie bags for dads. A few more people gave them out and told people who we were and why we doing it. One person sat at a table, helping children make a card for their dads. Someone else shouted out the challenge: Free Rodeo for Father’s Day. People were amazed that this was a free gift from the church, and it opened the door to say a little to some about the love of our Heavenly Father. Not everyone there would have called himself or herself an evangelist, but everyone took part in sharing the good news and going boldly into our city.

Isn’t it good to be part of the church in which Jesus does not expect one person to have all of the gifts need to reach the world? He does, though, expect us to play our part in reaching the world for him.

I’m sure we do need to be reminded – often – that Jesus does not call us to stay in our pews, but to go boldly into the world and share his love!