Getting real with God

19 June 2013

Anne Michaels’ acclaimed novel ‘Fugitive Pieces’ is the fictitious memoir of poet Jakob Beer who had been hidden during the Nazi occupation of his native Greece. His parents and beloved sister Bella perished but he survived and emigrated to Canada. Memories of his childhood and particularly of Bella haunt him; in fact they punctuate the narrative. At one point he is informed of a conversation where someone asks another if they believe in God; the reply is ‘How do we know there’s a God? Because He keeps disappearing.’

That played on my mind for some weeks after I first read it. How do we know there’s a God? Because He keeps disappearing. How true. If God never disappeared from our mind God would be nothing more than a figment of our imagination. But the very fact that God cannot be conjured up at the drop of a hat suggests that God is not a magician’s trick, a rabbit to be pulled out of that hat at whim.

Sometimes God seems far from us; we may cry out in the middle of the night and wonder why we cannot hear the voice that is said to still every storm; we may sit in the hospital waiting room and wonder why after all these years of faithful Christian service it has come to this; we may wonder why if there is a God the world’s ills are not sorted out once and for all. But God isn’t like that; such a desired manifestation, if that is what it is, isn’t God at all.

I am reminded of two further quotes. Firstly, graffiti from the Warsaw ghetto ‘I believe in the sun even when it doesn’t shine. I believe in love even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God even when God is nowhere to be found’. And secondly ‘I sought my soul and my soul I could not see; I sought my God and God eluded me; I sought my neighbour and found all three.’

The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. The opposite of hope is not despair, it is wishful thinking. The opposite of life is not death, it is fantasy. In this age we look for success and forget that effectiveness and impact are not necessarily judged by the world as particularly successful.

Our reluctance to look at some of the challenging passages in the Hebrew scriptures means that we are not best equipped for the tasks we face and so we give way to the three-fold temptations of seeking certainty, filling our prayers with wishful thinking and living lives of fantasy. Getting real is to acknowledge the doubts, the despair and the dark. Getting real is getting back to God.

I was born into a household of grief. My Father dying before I was born ensured this to be so.
There were times when I was in grief though I knew not what for – the death of Grandma when I was four was one logical conclusion.
But with the benefit of an adult’s hindsight I realise that I was grieving for something more than the loss of a grandparent.

I was grieving for the loss of attention in a new household of four step siblings when I had been used to being the only focus of love.
I was grieving for the loss of a large house and garden in which I could hide and imagine I was all alone in the world.
I was grieving, and in my grief I could so easily have become dead myself.
Maybe in some ways I did die.
I was the son of a widow.

But along came Elijah. Along came Jesus. Not that you would have readily identified them as an ancient prophet or God’s Messiah.
No, Elijah and Jesus were manifested in certain individuals who took me in their arms and breathed new life into me.
The widow’s son was raised. To this I can testify.

In church I found people who were interested in me.
In church I found a sense of belonging, of identity, of family.
The church, through the grace and power of God raised the widow’s son to life.

For many of my years in ministry I have preached on the NT and often overlooked the Old.
This has been to my shame and to the detriment of the congregations I have served.
Recently my reflections have taken me to the point of recognising my failure to preach often enough on the OT.
Perhaps I had assumed too much. Perhaps I believed that the members took the same view as me, that the OT was the foundation of the New.
I then read a book by the Catholic scholar Raymond Brown.
In it he made what has become for an important statement.
‘The NT alone covers too short a period of time and is too filled with success to give Christians the lessons the OT gives.’ (Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year p 278)
And another writer, Marilynne Robinson questioned whether we have the right to be so dismissive of the OT. They are not our scriptures to dismiss, no more so than Muslims can dismiss the NT. (When I was a Child I Read Books)

I was always taught that we cannot understand Christ without the OT.
I would now go much further than that and say that we cannot fully understand the highs and lows of life without the OT. We cannot understand God’s role in our wrestling with the broad gamut of life’s experiences without delving into the Psalms, Job, the prophets and other books of the OT.
The OT is not only the foundation of the New; it is complementary in every way.

Today’s set OT passage (1 Kings 17.8-16) amplifies the Gospel (Luke 7.11-17).
Jesus stands in a long line of God’s special ones who do special things.

Jose Mourinho may have claimed to be the special one when he first took up the managerial role at Chelsea in 2003 but after his sacking 3 years later and his subsequent reappointment this last week I wonder whether there will be a slightly less arrogant Mourinho in the press room; well, we shall have to wait and see. Now, if he took Lincoln City from the Conference to the Premiership in consecutive seasons – now that would make him special; but somehow I think he needs Mr Abramovic’s millions to turn an already successful club into an even more successful club; nothing really special in that.

But raising the widow’s deceased son – now that is special.

Amongst other miraculous things, Elijah raised the widow’s son at Zarephath.

Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain.

I was raised in a South Staffordshire mining community; by whom?
By God’s servants.
God’s servants who may never have known the impact they were having on me.

Certainly most of those who had the greatest influence over me are no longer in this life.
And those that are left can acknowledge what the departed ones achieved not only in my life but in theirs too.

I could name many but I have recently conducted the funeral of my primary school teacher from 1970-71. Tom Pilsbury taught me much and I have quoted him on many an occasion. I can never cut along a line with a pair of scissors without recalling that it was he who taught me to never allow the blads to be fully closed on cutting otherwise a kink in the cut is formed.

So many people taught me so much.
And a number of them raised me to life when death held me tight.

But what of us?

All too often we underestimate the tremendous impact we are having upon others.

Time and again I feel that one of the church’s main obstacles is its own lack of confidence.

The Jeohovah’s Witnesses that call at 21 Bowden Drive have yet to work out that they are wasting their time. Though I think that two callers appreciated the Bible study I treated them to 12 months ago. Bless ‘em.
But they are not only wasting their time with me; they are wasting their time knocking on people’s doors.
Research shows that 99.9% of converts do not come from door to door work. Only 1 in a thousand is brought into faith by cold-calling.
The other 999 are brought into a religious community through personal contacts; social lives, families, friends, the work place.

We may be annoyed by or admire those who knock at our doors but it takes greater courage and confidence to change the life of someone we know well.
To raise someone to life who is well known to us, even loved by us, is a challenging but the most effective means of transformation.

We underestimate the impact we have on those about us.
If we knew how effective we are in communicating the Gospel through our words and actions; if we were to consider the impact others had on us and how we are passing on that legacy the church would be filled with more confident disciples.

Today’s church is the widow’s son.

It was, in our imagination if not in reality, a livelier community to which others looked for guidance, solace and entertainment; for meaning and purpose to life.
Today’s church is often perceived to be lifeless.
But it is only a perception.

If the Gospel means anything then it means even the dead are raised.
We are not dead yet.

Today, today is the day of salvation.
Not yesterday, not some far-off tomorrow.
We are not yet dead.
We are still breathing.
There is still life in the Body yet.

So take a deep breath.
Grasp the nettles of today.
Face the future with renewed confidence.
Christ is alive and so are we.