Monthly Archives: November 2014

Loss and Hope

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And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
(Revelation 21:3-4 NRSV)

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
(John 14:2 NRSV)

The Festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November), certainly come at a fitting time of the year, and they are much more profound than the nonsense which Halloween has become. (Halloween – “All Hallows Eve” – draws its name from the fact that it is the eve of All Saints Day).

But these two festivals engage with us at the levels of our faith and our sense of mortality. The days are shorter and the nights are drawing in and memories of the passing year, and of passing time, come to the fore. And so this time of year is naturally a time of remembrance.

On All Saints Day we give thanks for those men and women, famous and unknown, who have, little by little, changed the world by living their Christian values, by putting Christ at the centre of their world, in their everyday, ordinary lives.

On All Souls Day we give thanks for our loved ones, those who have nurtured us and cared for us, befriended us, protected us and taught us – and we do so especially for those whose loss we have recently borne.

A few days hence, of course, in the UK we remember with pride and thanksgiving those who have paid the greatest price in the wars and conflicts of our land; whose gift and sacrifice has kept us safe; something we so often take for granted.

It is a time for Remembering.

There are many things which we share as part of our common humanity and, sadly, suffering and death is one of them.

And yet, each death, each loss, is such a personal thing. The person we mourn is a husband, a wife, a mum or a dad, a grandmother or grandfather, a child, a relative, a partner, a friend, a lover. The grief is raw and personal, and we think that no-one can understand what we are going through.

And that is true; because no matter how psychologists attempt to label our feelings, grief is a very individual phenomenon. It’s different for each of us, even though there may be some common threads.

The feelings associated with the loss of a loved one cut to the core of who we are as human beings. It can cause us to ask some very fundamental questions about the meaning of life.

Sadly, for example, at such times some people give up on God, because their grief brings out a very understandable sense of anger. They blame God for their loss. How could a “Good God” allow this to happen to me, to him, to her? If this is the place you are in, have a look in your Bible at Psalm 22. See how it begins; see how it ends.

Then, if you have time, take a look at Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 23, verses 33-48.

For other people, however, those fundamental questions of existence and the meaning of life set them off on a journey which draws them closer to our Lord. The pain is just as deep, but somehow it seems a little more bearable because of their hope and trust in the words of our Lord.

That’s what hope is; not a form of wishful thinking, (as in “I hope things turn out for the best.”), but rather a trust in the promises of God.

And we catch just a glimpse of those promises in the two excerpts at the top of this page.

The passage from the Book of the Revelation was written at a time of great tribulation; and yet the writer is able to describe a vision where God has put an end to pain and suffering – death even, and will wipe our very tears away. That passage, and other similar ones, have given great comfort and consolation to millions of people through the centuries, and continue to do so around our world today.

In the passage from John’s Gospel we hear Jesus reminding his bewildered friends of their eternal hope. He speaks of a house with many rooms which he prepares for us, and even offers to be our guide.

He couldn’t be clearer: there is a place in God’s eternal Kingdom for all. It is a powerful metaphor of the truth that death is not the end, but simply a way-point on the journey. And, Jesus went on to demonstrate that truth through his own suffering and death – and his glorious resurrection.

What many of us want to know, when we lose a loved one, is “is that the end? Is there more? Is there really a heaven? If so, is the person I love there and in safe hands?”

The words of Jesus spoken just before his own terrible suffering, offer us that reassurance, that true hope.

No one else may be able to understand what we are going through in our grief – but God does; and, if we allow him to, he will enter the painful silence and emptiness of our hearts, and bring us healing and hope – hope for our loved ones and for ourselves. Hope that God will eventually wipe away our tears, in that house with many rooms; hope, not to give up and retreat into ourselves, but to continue our lives until that promise is fulfilled for each of us.

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Proclaim and Explain

Bible Sunday

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
(Colossians 3:16 NRSV)

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
(Matthew 24:35 NRSV)

We live in the age of information. It is hard for anyone, perhaps under the age of 40 or even 50, to realise just what a revolution has taken place in the way we communicate.

Sadly, I am old enough to remember the time when, if my mum wanted to phone her brother in Toronto, she would have to book the call in advance, and it had to be kept short because it would cost an arm and a leg to speak for a few almost unintelligible moments over a transatlantic phone line.

I also remember the introduction in the UK of Subscriber Trunk Dialling, the great innovation of the 1960s which enabled you to call another town, London even, without having to ask an operator to connect you.

Nowadays my daughter in the US might as well be in the next room. We can communicate at the speed of light and my mid-afternoon text can wake her from her morning slumbers.

The technology is fabulous, and I come from the generation which can remember when these things were just gadgets in James Bond films, Dr Who and Thunderbirds. Now, it’s all everyday reality – and I must admit that I think it’s great. I really do. We have never been so connected. Communication around the world is just so easy. And we take all of this for granted. It’s utterly normal.

And I think this is important because communication has always fascinated me.

Now, you have to understand that, although I have spent nearly half of my professional career in and around the communication industry, there is nevertheless an irony in my fascination with communication.

The irony is that I am, like many others, a deep introvert by personality. I have learned that truth by many years of experience and exploration. Being an introvert, I can only cope for so long in large groups of people. Lots of people, all chatting, sharing their views and airing their opinions gets me agitated, and I value significantly those times when I can just be on my own.

But I can’t let go of the simple truth that communication is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to the human race. Its not just about technology. Simple words, and the way that we use them, are fundamental to our ability to be human. Words matter. And not only do words matter, but the way we use them matters too.

And for Christians, the words of the Bible matter, too. Greatly.

But, as with all our conversations, we need to be aware that how we use words can significantly affect their impact and meaning; and we need to remember that all words are culturally defined.

Let me give you an example which some might find painful, but it does illustrate the point.

If I were to say that, “Suicide is a dreadful thing,” I would be expressing compassion for the victim and his or her family; trying to understand something of the anguish which had brought this tragic event to happen, and to seeking to care for the victim’s relatives and friends. Seems common sense to me.

However, were I to go back a hundred years, the phrase “Suicide is a dreadful thing,” might well be a statement of condemnation of the person who had taken his own life, because the religious and cultural environment of the time simply couldn’t contemplate that a God-given life could be so bad as to want to end it.

It’s just an example. Thank God we understand anxiety and depression much better today, but let us not pretend that we don’t have our taboos, which are just as significant.

So, the words and the way that we use them really matter, and that is why it is of the greatest importance to try to understand the words of the scriptures as they were meant to be heard in their time, and as they offered for us to hear now.

Simply looking through the Bible to try to find a verse which suits your feelings or opinions is a lazy and somewhat dangerous pastime.

There is an old saying which says that “a text without a context is a pretext.” It means that if you use the Bible simply to reinforce your own prejudices, as many have done over the centuries, then you are committing a great sin with the word of God.

The Bible is a wonderful source of inspiration and guidance, as well as much else; but it is also a dangerous weapon, an unstable explosive, and you must use it with care. Firing off a verse to suit your convictions is simply dishonest, and will usually be seen as such.

But, at the most fundamental level, so many people simply do not know that they are deeply loved by God, their Creator, and that Jesus came to restore us into a relationship with God. That is why our greatest call at this point in the life of the Church is to proclaim and explain the gospel – the good news of God in Jesus Christ – to all who will listen; and there are many who will, in our society which lacks hope and purpose. But we must do it with understanding, sensitivity, and great care for those with whom we would communicate.

The words of the Gospel matter, they really do! Nothing, I repeat, and I repeat again: nothing matters as much as our call to proclaim and explain the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to our and future generations; not the way we worship, not the way we organise our church life, not the way we relate to the institution of the church.

Nothing, is more important than our call to proclaim and explain the Gospel to the people of our time.

And the words we use will matter, as will the way that we use them.