The Problem of Suffering

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One of the questions which has perplexed philosophers down the years is about suffering; not how on earth do we cope with it, but why is it there in the first place? I’m no great philosopher or theologian (as you will by now have noticed if you’ve been following my blogs) but I want to try to shed some light on this difficult question in my next two posts under the #godingrimtimes hashtag. Today I simply want to note two things: next time I’ll attempt my take on why people suffer. I doubt that it’ll be the last word, but it might just help those who are as concerned about why this is hurting as about how much it is hurting.

The first thing to say is that the problem of pain and evil is only a problem if you believe three things about God: you have to believe he exists, that he is powerful and that he is good. Take any or all of those out of the equation and your problem disappears instantly. If God is not real we live in a random universe where things … just happen. There’s no-one to blame if life hurts you. If God isn’t all-powerful then however much he might want to stop people suffering he just might not be up to the job. And if he isn’t a good God then he might inflict suffering just for fun, because he enjoys watching his people squirm. All of these possibilities make perfect sense, and completely solve the ‘mystery’ of suffering. But it is the stubborn Christian belief in a real, powerful and loving God which creates the problem.

Secondly (and we do need to get a bit philosophical here) pain and suffering is always a consequence of free will. If God wants his people to love and worship him, and like all of us wants to be loved because we love him and not because we have no choice or because he has our arms up behind our backs, there must be the logical possibility that we’ll choose to go the opposite way and reject him. He could theoretically have made us to live in a world where we have no choice but to do everything right, in which case suffering might not be a feature of life, but that would rob us of our free will and therefore of the possibility of a genuinely free loving relationship with him.

All of which takes us no closer at all to understanding a world where nasty thing happen and people get hurt. Neither, if I’m honest, does it do very much to help those who are going through the mill at the moment. We still need to grieve, to shout and cry ‘Why me?’ We may even conclude that in fact the God we thought we knew turns out not to be real and/or powerful and/or loving. But it might just help a bit to understand that in a sense it’s nothing personal: pain is, and has to be, a part of our experience, at least in this life.

But where does suffering actually come from? I’ll have a go at tackling that next time.

Leach, John Leach

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OK, so I’m not always absolutely 100% on the cultural cutting edge, but I do catch up eventually. On a recent holiday we took, as is our wont, a laptop and some DVDs, and finally I got round to watching Skyfall, the latest Bond offering. I was expecting an evening of light entertainment with a few explosions and the like, and indeed I was not disappointed, but in addition it turned out to be a profound meditation on church, and indeed liturgy, which had us discussing as we lay around the pool for days afterwards.

What we had watched was in fact a ‘Fresh Expression’ of Bond. For those less familiar with the term, the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement (often known as ‘FX’) is a quest within the church to reinvent ourselves for the current culture, or rather cultures, by keeping, as it were the ‘contents’ the same, but the ‘wrapping’ more up-to-date. The art is somehow to keep church recognisably Anglican (or Methodist or whatever) but to rethink new ways of expressing the eternal and changeless truths of the gospel, so that they will connect more readily with the target generation. FX has famously manifested itself through Messy Church, Skater Church, Goth Church – you name it.

There is no doubt that Daniel Craig is Bond (some would say the best ever – discuss!) but in Skyfall he is subtly different. I can’t tell you whether the directors deliberately set out to reinvent him for a 21st century audience, but I suspect that is exactly what they did, and I think they have done a really great job of it.

But what of the liturgy? There is loads which we could learn from this endeavour in our attempts to plan and lead worship. First of all, the general shape is the same – a short sub-plot to begin with, with the ending of a previous adventure, followed by the main course with the usual rhythm of highs and lows, tension and resolution, fights and explosions, leading to a climactic ending. Nowadays liturgists will tell you that worship is much more about shape than text: less about set forms of words than about the framework and structure of an act of worship.

But there are texts too: when Daniel introduces himself as ‘Bond: James Bond’ all feels right with the world and we know we are home ground. But more subtly there are allusions to texts which are never actually used. One beautiful moment occurs when we see a cocktail waitress shaking, but not stirring, his martini. ‘Perfect’ he says with a smile as she hands it to him, and indeed it is, as an example of liturgical allusion. We all know the ‘text’ and no-one actually needs to say the words.

We have already noted the tendency to think of liturgy simply as a route-march through the words in a book, a march which strides roughshod over creativity and openness to the Spirit. But maybe 007 can encourage us to think differently. There are more subtle ways of being liturgical, of drawing on the rich traditions of our past but making them accessible for people now. Shape, text, allusion and nuance are powerful tools in the hands of worship leaders, and can help immensely as you plan for next Sunday’s blockbuster.

Children and Communion

Kids eh? Don’t you love ‘em? I have some lovely tales about the involvement of children in worship, like the time early in my Anglican career (having just joined the True Faith from the Baptist church in which I grew up). I was attending our local Anglo-Catholic Shrine, and was still feeling a bit overawed by the splendour and reverence of the liturgy, and not quite sure of how I should behave. The highlight of the Mass was definitely the moment when the consecrated host was raised before the people, with clouds of incense and the sounding of a gong. On one occasion there was a young baby present, and to give it credit it had so far been exceptionally well-behaved. That is until that most sacred moment when, on hearing the sound of the gong, it had decided to join in. A loud cry of ‘Boinnggg!’ echoed round the silent church, and you could literally see people wanting to laugh but not knowing whether at this moment of all moments it was appropriate.

 

But more recently even that experience was trumped, co-incidentally at the exact same moment in the liturgy (although sans smoke or bells). The President took bread and the chalice in his hands, and lifted them up before God’s people. A cry came from his young granddaughter, who was visiting that day and who had obviously been very carefully trained in her developing table skills : ‘Careful Granddad! Two hands on the cup!’

Fortunately this took place in the kind of church where laughing was OK.

 

New! Starts today!

Steve’s Random Icebreakers

Fed up with the usual, boring predictable questions to get your group talking? Where were you ten years ago? Who’s your favourite Bible character? Downton or By Any Means? Blah blah blah yawn…

You need Steve’s Random Icebreakers – a new concept in discussion starters. Each week I’ll give you one from my son’s collection for you to try out as you wind your Bible Study or Youth Group up for an evening of deep and meaningful interaction. And of course similar possibilities from you are always welcome.

 

This week, in the spirit of those magazines which mysteriously appear and disappear without trace a few weeks later, I present you with two offerings to give you the idea. Then you can build up your collection by adding to it each week, or even creating your own Random Icebreakers.

So here goes:

 

‘What is the biggest thing you have ever pushed?’

and

‘What do you think really is the point of the Chuckle Brothers?’

 

See you next week!

 

Finding myself with a bit of time on my hands I’m happy to receive enquiries about speaking engagements, preaching, church weekends, conferences or whatever. Please get in touch via Twitter @revjohnleach

Are you an earthbound Christian?

 

In order to cash in positively on Halloween my son helped to run a ‘Death Café’ working with an atheist who nevertheless agreed with him that death is the one big taboo subject in our day, and that it really would do people good to have the opportunity to think and talk about it. Apparently Death Cafés  are growing in numbers, and I would have loved to have been there.

There are a few times in the Bible where people tell God that they’ve had enough and would rather just die, an idea which I suspect was not widely represented in the Café. Poor old Moses in Num 11:14; Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4; Job several times, and Jonah in 4:3, for example. That isn’t a prayer I’ve ever prayed, but I have on a couple of occasions been in situations which made me feel that I could understand totally anyone wanting to pray it. I didn’t ask God to take me, but I came pretty close. Sometimes life is so full of trouble that death and heaven seem preferable. Or do they?

I suppose it’s about getting older, but I find myself more and more amazed at the way so many Christians seem to be earthbound in their thinking. Having lived around three quarters of my life now I find the prospect of heaven an increasingly inviting one: on a bad day I can’t wait to get there. But to be honest I don’t find many other people who share these sentiments. There seems to be a burning desire, even among Christians, to hang on to this life as though there were no alternative. It might be awful, but at least I’m alive. Yet the Bible constantly holds out to us the hope of eternal life, and the promise of something better. So much better, in fact, that St Paul can say that he considers ‘that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ (Rom 8:18) Clearly for him heaven was a shining vibrant daily reality, and at times you can hear his frustration that he isn’t already there: ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24) I hear this kind of talk very rarely in today’s church.

This makes me ask how much of a reality is heaven, really, to Christians today. How certain of it are we? Does there still lurk a nagging suspicion that we might just not be quite good enough to make it? And does this anxiety make us want to hang on to this life, however awful, because at least we know it’s real. Or is there a fear of oblivion, nothingness, in spite of the Bible’s reassurances to the contrary?

Might I suggest deeper meditation on the Bible’s constant affirmations of new life, won for his people by Christ and in no way dependent on our hard work, and its frequent reminders that this world is not our home? And to those of us who are teachers in the church, I ask how often the celebration of heaven is a theme upon which we dwell.

Is Liturgy Biblical?

We’re thinking about liturgy and whether it has any enduring value in a church which has, at least in part, rejected it in favour of singing songs. One of the big questions which I’m asked from time to time is whether liturgy is ‘biblical’. Lurking behind this question is the suggestion that if it isn’t, if it is merely a human invention, then we shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Firstly I point out that data projectors aren’t biblical, but we don’t seem to feel that they are a problem. But underneath this is a much deeper and far more complex truth. In order to understand it we’ll have to take a trip back to childhood, and then beyond that to the 15th century.

So here are some pieces of liturgy – see if you can complete the responses:

‘What big teeth you’ve got, Grandma …’

‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and …’

‘Who’s been sleeping in my …’

‘Cheer up, Cinderella, you shall …’

You get the idea. The fact is that even in our post-book culture we imbibe little bits of ‘liturgy’ with our mothers’ milk, and they stay with us, woven into the fabric of our memories. Different editions of children’s books may tell the stories slightly differently, but those little ‘punch lines’ are eternal and unchangeable, and it is those which we remember. If that is how we work, how much more would that have been the case for pre-book cultures.

The fact that when we think ‘liturgy’ we think ‘book’ is due to an event in history which shaped our world more than just about anything else. Somewhere around 1450 (the exact date is disputed) Gutenberg invented the printing press, and this simple piece of technology changed the world, about as radically as information technology has changed it in my lifetime. Before that the technology available for producing books was called ‘monks’, which meant that books were expensive and rare. Producing books took years, not least because the monks would insist on doing little coloured doodles in the margins instead of just getting on with the job. You used books to store stuff you already knew in safe keeping. But now things were different – you could produce hundreds of copies very cheaply and quickly. The role of books changed: they were now where you found out stuff you didn’t already know.

The church was quick to use this technology: Archbishop Thomas Cranmer set every parish a copy of the new Prayer Book with the instruction that from Pentecost 1549 only these liturgies were to be used in English parishes, thus establishing the Reformation and Protestantism in the land. But how different this approach from that of the Early Church. With its Jewish liturgical heritage early Christianity would have functioned much more like the nursery rhymes above, with short, pithy and highly memorable words which everyone would have known by heart.

So to the question ‘Why is there no liturgy in the Bible?’ the answer is that it is full of the stuff! We have fixed acclamations, often in a foreign language: Amen, Alleluia, Maranatha, Abba. There are doxologies and blessings: 1 Tim 1:17, Rom 11:33-36, hymns: Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16, and creeds: Rom 10:9, 1 Cor 8:6, 15:3-5. There are also physical gestures and postures: 1 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 16:20, Ax 21:5, and there are festivals: 1 Cor 16:8. These are just a selection of the ways in which liturgical worship would have been part of the Early Church. Basically if you look in the New Testament for bit set out as poetry rather than prose, the chances are you’ve got a liturgical text which would have been well known in the church. Early Church worship was liturgical worship.