12 September 2014

The Realities of Suffering, Hope and Love

headhandsOn Wednesday, it was World Suicide Prevention Day. For the last 11 years, 10th September has been a day for awareness-raising about suicide and about prevention programmes and techniques. So, at the prayer meeting on Wednesday, I brought some meditations from the Bible on psychological suffering, including suicidal thoughts, and also some meditations on how we experience the comfort of Christ in the midst of psychological suffering, whether from loneliness, addiction, anxiety, or depression and other mental illnesses.

Globally, around 800,000 people commit suicide each year, according to the WHO. That’s more than are murdered and killed in wars combined. In Scotland, there is some good news – suicides have decreased by around 20% over the last decade – but in 2013 almost 800 people took their own lives. There are few communities not touched by the tragedy of suicide. Young and middle-aged men are the highest risk groups. Those suffering from depression are more likely to consider suicide. And those living in poorer communities are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. In one part of Easterhouse in Glasgow, 1 in 7 adults are taking prescribed medication for depression, psychosis or anxiety. The despair that drags people towards contemplation of suicide is produced by different factors in different cultures around the world. At the heart of so many of the problems in our own communities is a spiritual emptiness that comes from the denial that we have deep spiritual needs. The bankrupt wisdom of our consumer culture presents to the poorest a false dream that’s always out of reach. And the truth remains that in any culture or community, whether poor or wealthy, urban or rural, life in this broken world is difficult.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed by the Christian church, speaks powerfully to these realities, and to the deep spiritual need of all people. Yet, Christians who believe the Gospel and follow Jesus in faith cannot escape the trials of living in this broken world. Our hope is in the redemption of all things, the putting right of all things, but for now we live at the friction plane between God’s coming Kingdom and the failing kingdoms of this world. The Gospel of a redeemed world and a redeemed people is a Gospel both of the now and the not yet. Despite our transformative experience of God in Jesus Christ, Christians are not immune to suffering in the world. We are not immune to loneliness, addiction, anxiety, depression, mental (or physical) illness. The Bible witnesses to the psychological sufferings, and even the suicidal thoughts, of the psalm-writers and the prophets (e.g. Psalm 13, Psalm 42, 1 Kings 19:4, Jonah 4:8, Job 6:9). The Church has not always spoken helpfully into this area. Sometimes lovely Christian people suffering from clinical depression commit suicide. It is simply not true that God will not forgive them. That doesn’t mean that suicide isn’t wrong. It is wrong. It is wrong to take our own lives. It dishonours God, and his gift of life. It cuts short our sanctification. It denies the reality of Jesus’ hope. It provides no ultimate answer. God’s heart is for life, not for death. But depression can render a person immobile, unable to call out, unable to think, or to see any way forward.

The Church speaks an answer to suffering and despair, whether amongst God’s people or those outside of the Church. The Gospel is a message of good news of hope and love. Psalm 42 speaks of hope in God in the face of suffering. In Psalm 13, the psalmist defiantly hopes in the covenant love of God. The Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of reconciliation to the life-giving, life-loving God; of redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and of the living presence of Jesus Christ in our lives, bringing direction, strength and comfort in the midst of suffering. In chapter 14 of John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who communicates Jesus’ presence to us in our physical bodies. Jesus himself comes to us. When we pray, and meditate on him, we are aware of him. And he is aware of us. In depression, in anxiety, Jesus our Great High Priest knows, he feels, he understands, because he has lived in this same broken world – he is touched by our weakness (Hebrews 4:15).

Yet, this is not the only way in which we encounter the presence of Christ. The Gospel of Hope and Love is not merely a spoken message, but a message which produces a Community of Hope and Love. That is what the Church is – it is the embodiment of the Gospel. And so we encounter the presence of Christ in the Church, which is the body of Christ. We are the reaching hands of Christ, the listening ear of Christ, the overflowing compassion of Christ; we speak the comforting words of Christ. Our salvation is given to us not just for God’s glory, or our benefit, but for others. It is given so that we might love as God loves (1 Peter 1:22). The Hope and Love of Christ are to be realised, in the face of suffering, as we meet Christ in one another. This aspect is so important for those immobilised by suffering. When I cannot reach upwards, cannot look upwards, cannot call out to God from the blackness, how does Christ come to me? Through you. You are Christ to me.

Those working in the fields of mental health and suicide prevention say that listening and talking are a huge part, the largest part, of helping people who are suffering. Giving time, love and sympathy to those struggling is what produces hope. So here is the challenge to the Church in the face of the suffering of the world. Are we doing this? Jesus spoke of the last being first. In our churches there are many people who, because of their suffering, feel as if they’re at the bottom of the pile. Will we prioritise them, as Christ does? Do we only talk the easy conversations; conversations with the doing-well professionals, or the cheery characters? Or are we reaching out with the love of Christ to the despondent, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling? Are we bearing one another’s burdens? This is how we fulfil the Law of Christ.

1 September 2014

Understanding Old Testament Stories

desertYesterday morning at Kilmallie Free Church we were thinking about Moses’s encounter with Yahweh, the LORD, at the burning bush. I spoke a little about how we are to understand the stories of the Old Testament – and promised that more about this would appear here on World Without End…

In our churches, in our Bible studies, we often read Old Testament stories and then immediately try to relate them to the New Testament somehow, usually to Jesus Christ. Or, we immediately apply them to our lives today somehow. Or, we do both. The impulses that drive this aren’t wrong. The Jesus Storybook Bible is right: every story whispers His name. And, God’s word always has relevance to our daily lives. But, we need to make the right moves in the right order when we’re trying to understand God’s word.

First, we need to listen to the story we’re reading. How would this story sound to those that first read it? To God’s people before the coming of Messiah? We often make huge assumptions about the stories of the Old Testament. Although they might whisper the name of the Messiah, they are not straightforward allegories about Jesus. Not everything in the Old Testament, or in the New Testament for that matter, is about Jesus. The grand story of the Bible is a story of a God who is a Trinity – Father and Holy Spirit, as well as Son – and it’s about his created world, and humanity, and his chosen people. So it’s not all about Jesus. God speaks in the Old Testament about many things: about his creation, about sin, about justice, about forgiveness, about hope. Most of all, he speaks his intentions for this world, and for humanity, and about the redemption of those intentions from the jaws of disaster. If we make everything immediately about Jesus, we don’t hear God’s word. We become deaf to it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in terms of listening to the ‘next to last word’ if we are to understand the ‘last word’. He wrote ‘I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly.’

Second, and connected to this, we need to understand the place of the Old Testament story we’re reading within the grand story. This is to affirm the value of history. When we make any Old Testament story an allegory of some New Testament story, we deny the value of history. Ironically, we’re then acting like ancient pagans who tended to think of the world either as a ever-repeated cycle of stories, or of ‘lower’ earthly stories that mirrored ‘higher’ heavenly realities. As Christians, we ought to affirm history. God’s creative and redemptive action is in time. Always. And forever. A lot of our talk of eternity forgets this. We are created to exist in time, whether in this age, or the next. We affirm history – and the grand story of God’s purposes.

So, to take an example, the exodus of God’s people from Egypt, and their journey to the promised land is not primarily a picture of our redemption from sin and our pilgrimage to heaven. It’s a story of how God delivered his covenant people from oppression in order to establish his kingdom on earth. It’s part of the grand story of how from one man, Abraham, God’s promises for the redemption of all things are being made real. Without the exodus to the promised land, there would be no City of God, no King David, no promises of a Messiah, no Bethlehem, no Sermon on the Mount, no Calvary, no Empty Tomb, no Great Commission, no Church. By faith, we have become children of Abraham, and so this story is the story of our ancestors. It’s become part of our heritage, our history.

Once we approach the stories like this, we’re in a better position to see how they relate to the New Testament, and to Jesus himself. And to understand how they speak to us today. God’s promises of redemption for human beings and the world are being fulfilled step-by-step, in the grand story. That’s why themes keep re-appearing. And with Jesus Christ we see the guarantee of these promises, and the final movement towards their full realisation. And this is the trajectory along which we hear the whispers of His name, and understand our own place in the story.

Like the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, far from being allegories that require some lifting to a higher, spiritual plane (that whole idea is wrong), the stories of the Old Testament remind us of a God of humility who works the Extraordinary in the Everyday. They affirm the goodness of life in this world, in the nitty-gritty, the ordinariness. Whether it’s the compromised murderer Moses meeting God in a bramble bush amongst the dirt, dung and rocks of the desert, or left-handed Ehud stabbing Eglon with a homemade bowie knife in the toilet, God’s extraordinary purposes unfold through the nitty-gritty lives of ordinary extraordinary people who follow him in faith.