Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Victory of Death

We all die. Death always wins.

Everyone who’s ever lived has died and everyone who lives now will one day be dead. Some will die young others old, some will die ‘naturally’, others of disease, or of an accident or as a result of an act of violence. Death is always all around us, never more than a few feet away.

It has always been so.

As long as people have lived in the world and observed it, it has been so. In every history book ever written death has had a starring role and it upstages even the most notable of men. From Caesar to Napoleon, Alexander the Great to Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, C.S. Lewis, the Apostle Paul, Cicero and Plato; all dead. Saint and sinner, prince and peasant, we all die.

King David once wrote about ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ when death seems to be close at hand. But it is true for us all; we are all always living under death’s shadow. We ignore it, we run from it, we create medicine to keep it away but it always catches up with us eventually, eventually and suddenly.

We are never prepared for it. Never do we think ‘now you can take her.’ Never do we find ourselves saying ‘I have lived enough, death you are welcome to do your worst.’ We never appreciate death because we know that death cannot be undone, its effects are irreversible and its judgements cannot be appealed against. It is the great leveller that strips us of our pride, our achievements and our shortcomings. Death is no respecter of persons and the moral make up of a man is of no concern to death. The good and the bad die alike.

It has always been and will always be so and yet it seems that death always comes as a surprise to us. Death is all around us and yet still we are caught off guard by it. Death always feels like a cheat as though it doesn’t play by the rules. We feel as though we are entitled to live longer, to live forever.

Recently I’ve been thinking a bit about the people who wrote the Bible. Every book was written by real people who managed to hold to faith in a loving God despite the pain that they had to suffer, despite death’s constant victory. How did they do it? For the Bible writers’ death, suffering and sickness were always all around. Paradise didn’t pen scripture, people did. It wasn’t written by people living a utopian existence; real people who lived in the real world and who experienced real sickness and real hurt, wrote the words we have in our Bibles. Men who knew what it was to lose a week old infant and who suffered rejection at the hands of those closest to them. People who suffered disease and disillusionment alike and who knew how it felt to cry through the night in search of answers and who had felt their world fall apart before them. The Bible writers were soldiers who’d looked their enemies in the eye on the battlefield and who’d watched the grave lay claim to victim after victim. It was written by fathers who’d lost children and by children who’d been abandoned by their fathers; individuals who’d watched mothers die of starvation whilst their children were left to live without anyone to care for them.

The world the Bible was written into didn’t have an NHS, indoor plumbing and central heating. There was no police force patrolling the streets and no guarantee that any of your friends would live beyond their teenage years. In fact their was no such thing as ‘teenage years’ no period of time in between childhood and adulthood, no time to prepare yourself for the world. The world was brutal and abrupt.

The ‘stars’ of scripture all knew what it felt like to be rejected by the world, hated by those closest to them and seemingly abandoned by the God they’d put their hope in. They knew what real hunger felt like, and vulnerability and homelessness and poverty. Theirs was not a world of comfort and warmth and wardrobes full of clothes and fridges packed with food. They wrestled with the same questions we do and they too looked at the world and tried to call its creator to account. They saw the victory of death and the rampant destruction in the world and they asked ‘is anyone in control of this?’

When we stare into the dark and our faith in a loving God seems nothing more than a fairy tale we need to know that we are in good company. The questions we ask and the issues we wrestle with have been asked and wrestled with by every person and every generation that’s ever lived.

Over the next few blogs I’m going to look at three people presented to us by scripture who each give a different answer to the pain of the world. The Bible isn’t full of formulas and it doesn’t pretend that the world is a fair place. Instead it documents the real lives of people who seek to follow God and remain faithful to the revelation of his nature even in spite of what appears to be evidence to the contrary.

The Bible presents a God who doesn’t stand apart from the pain of the world he cannot be accused of not knowing what life is like. Instead the Bible makes perhaps the most outrageous claim that’s ever been made by any religion or philosophy in the history of the world. God, we’re told, became a man. He became one of us. God dressed himself in humanity, with mortality, frailty and weakness. God climbed down, rolled up his sleeves and tackled the problem of pain head on. God went through death and came out the other side.

Seeing this doesn’t remove my pain but it does silence my accusations. Seeing Jesus die a shameful, bloody, gory death in order to identify with me and to see life through my eyes I realise that God cares. I have, we have, a God who understands and who offers to be with us as we walk through this world. This is so outrageous it might just be true.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Biographical God

The biographical God

I have often wondered about the existence of God. I have heard compelling arguments on both sides of the fence (and from those sitting uncomfortably on the fence). I agree with people who say that the existence of so much evil and suffering in the world makes it hard to believe in a loving God, it does. Life appears to be random and chaotic. I agree as well that trying to explain something so unexplainable as the workings of a transcendent creator appears an impossible thing to do, and often I think we’re foolish for even trying. If there is a supreme being out there who created everything we see around us then how can we ever expect to understand it/him? We shouldn’t waste our time trying, I’m told. After all how can fish describe what life is like outside of the fish tank? Isn’t that what it’s like when we try to explain God?

But then I don’t believe that scientific and philosophical answers to questions with such practical implications will ever fully satisfy us. We’re after more than fridge magnets and bumper stickers. We’re after fulfilment, experience, happiness and love.

I don’t live my life as a Christian because of the mathematical probability of their being a creator God. I don’t try to follow Jesus’ life and example out of a conviction that his teaching on life was better than any other teaching ever delivered before or since; and I’m not willing to deny myself worldly gain for the sake of a simpler life because of the case for Jesus’ resurrection. All of these things are important contributing factors to why I continue on in faith but they’re not the real reason I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I trust him and I love him and I live for him, because I know him. I’ve met him, I’ve experienced him, and I’ve seen him at work in my life and in the lives of those around me. His love and his presence fulfil me more than anyone and anything else in the world. I’m a Christian because of pleasure as much as I am because I think it’s true.

I don’t think that many of us live our lives the way we do because of carefully thought through convictions and a commitment to intellectual honesty. Rather I think that the majority of people live the way they do because of what they’ve experienced. They’ve learnt that coffee gives you energy because they drank it and that life is painful because they lost someone they cared for. We all live the way we do because of what we think ‘works’ best. What we see, hear and feel is what drives us more than anything else. ‘Does this work?’ is the question we’re asking more than ‘is this true?’ Of course I’m not promoting experience over truth, but I don’t think ‘truth’ is most people’s starting place, experience is; and neither do I think the two are mutually exclusive. Truth isn’t purely academic or intellectual, it’s existential as well.

Our attitude towards relationships, possessions and the future are all born out of what we think ‘works’ best based on what we’ve seen and experienced. We trust our feelings far more than facts. If someone tells me that God is there and that he loves me, I’m unchanged until I’ve experienced for myself something of his life changing presence, or until I’m given reason to believe that he does in fact love me. In fact not only am I unchanged and unconvinced I’m also prone to disagree depending on what I’ve experienced in my life.

I think that it is for this reason that God has chosen to reveal himself through biography more than anything else.

God could have inspired the Bible writers to write anything he wanted them to. He could have had them write carefully thought out and water-tight cases for his existence. He could have answered every question that people had and he could have given a comprehensive defence as to why he permits death to reign across the Earth. He could have done all sorts of things, but he didn’t. What he did was to have people write a record of how individuals responded to him when they lived in relationship with him. Abraham heard from him and trusted him enough to leave his father’s country, all of his security and protection for the future, and head off in search of the place that God had promised him he’d possess one day. Jacob wrestled with him all night and resurfaced as a changed man, free from the guilt and shame of his past. Joseph understood God’s sovereign purposes and declared to his treacherous brothers ‘what you intended for evil, God allowed for good.’ Moses spoke to him face to face and Samuel heard him whisper his name. David, the king of a great nation, knew what rejection, bereavement and family breakdown really felt like and yet still he declared to all the world that ‘the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want’. Solomon learnt that God never quits on people even when they quit on him, Elijah didn’t understand him but learnt to trust him nonetheless even when his life was under threat, Daniel knew that God was with him even in the midst of a lions’ den and Peter was forever changed by the forgiveness and mercy of his saviour God.

Real people met with the real God. They didn’t meet a theory, they weren’t won over by reason and logic, they met a person. They met the relational creator God and that’s how it was that they could say ‘our God reigns and is king over the whole Earth.’ They trusted him because they met him and they saw how powerful he is. They loved him because they knew that they were loved and chosen by him and they devoted themselves to him because of they’d seen how worthy he is. This is the defence of scripture, this is how God chose to reveal himself to us, through the lives and testimonies of others.

When I’m sitting at church and listening to people I know giving voice to all that God has rescued them from and comforted them through I’m more convinced as to the existence of God than I am at any other time in my life, and people have been giving voice to his goodness and faithfulness for two millennia. The hard questions of life are still there, God doesn’t give me a watertight and entirely comprehensive answer that satisfies all of my deepest aches and longings. What he does do time and again is introduce me to people, real people, who are walking with him in relationship and who are knowing his comfort and strength even through severe trials and difficulties.

God has chosen to reveal himself through the lives and experiences of others and not through the experimenting and discovering of intellectuals. The theories, the reasoning and the mathematics may be helpful, and indeed for those professing belief they are an important justification of our belief to a watching world, but they do not provide the satisfaction our souls are after. At best they give us confidence to knock on the door of the almighty, hopeful that someone will answer, but they will not lead us into the kind of friendship with God that our hearts crave. God is a relational God and has chosen to reveal himself through relationship and testimony.

This satisfies me because I know that it is this that I’m really after. I want something, someone, who will make a difference to my life everyday, every minute of everyday. What I’m after, and I believe what we’re all after is a relationship with a personal God who meets us where we are, isn’t angry with us, doesn’t guilt us or cause us to retreat into ourselves but who invites us out, out of our shells and insecurities, out into life, happy, contented, joyful and resilient life.

This is exactly what Jesus promised to give to his followers: life as you’ve always wanted it.