Good Friday – it’s ok to ask why we suffer

Surely God is good . . . to those who are pure in heart.

But is it true?

Is there anyone who can explain why bad things happen to good people?

Today is Good Friday.  “Stay with the suffering at the Cross” says our vicar.  “Easter will come, but today we must focus on the pain.”

And so we get into the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and see it from all angles.

We feel the guilt, fear, abandonment, confusion, anger and deep, deep pain. We hear one muttering “Why me?” and another declaring “This is not my fault.”

“Now look into your own life” says our leader. “See what grieves or embitters your spirit. Write it down and nail it to the Cross. Leave it there.”

“Jesus’ suffering brings our healing”

Surely God is good . . . to those who are pure in heart.

But bad things do happen again and again to good people.

Why?

We read Psalm 73

Surely God is good . . . . to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me . . I envied the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

. . Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure

and have washed my hands in innocence.

All day long I have been afflicted

and every morning brings new punishments.

Is there an answer to why bad things happen to good people?

Even the Vicar says he does not know.

But today is GOOD Friday.

And it is GOOD because Jesus’ suffering shows that God is present WITH US in our suffering.

 . . you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel.

Life to the Full – what does it mean?

copy-cropped-puzzled1.jpgThis is a tough question.

It sounds the sort of question that should be easy to answer, but the more you think about it the harder it gets.

I have asked many people what they think Life to the Full might mean, and I get the same increasing vagueness as they recognise how difficult it is to answer.  You see it depends on what we value in life. And the more we think about what we value, what we really truly value, the more challenging the question becomes.

It helps to imagine what our lives would be like if we had this Life to the Full. Or to ask ourselves if we know anyone who we consider has it.

The only answer I can find that feels right to me is to look at Jesus’ life. As the author of life, and the one who said he had come so that we might have life and have it to the full, the answer must be clear from his life. And what I discover in doing that is very challenging. Jesus worked hard for a living, then gave it all up to follow what he believed. He had no home of his own. He was criticised,misrepresented, harassed, rejected, betrayed and finally murdered. And yet the lives of those he met where transformed. He challenged their values and behaviour and modelled a different way of life.

What he lived and taught continues to challenge our lives today.

The apostle Peter, who travelled with Jesus for the three years of his public ministry, talks about life that is filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. And he also talks of getting rid of all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of any kind. Any definition of Life to the Full has to acknowledge the negative aspects of our personalities for it to feel authentic.

Jesus used different words and metaphors to describe a new kind of life to those he met. He talked about being born again (a new spiritual beginning) so that we can see the Kingdom of God.  We can eavesdrop into his prayers where he says that he came to show us that this new kind of life was about knowing God.

And so it seems that Life to the Full is about knowing God and being honest with him, knowing and being honest with ourselves and having the courage to put the two together.

This brings us back to Brother Lawrence who made a life changing decision 500 years ago to choose to act as if what he read in his bible was true. The amazing outcome of his experiment was that the life he learned to live became powerful evidence of the new kind of life that Jesus spoke about.

How would you describe what it means to Have Life to the Full?

What did Jesus look like?

The answer has to be that we do not know.

And yet we all have an image in our minds of what we THINK he looks like. After all we have seen his picture everywhere since we first began to recognise faces. Jesus is the most recognised person in history despite the fact that we have no description of his appearance beyond a few general comments in the bible.

jesusDoes it matter what we think he looks like? Of course it does. How we represent things in our mind has a powerful effect on how we respond to them.  Perhaps the long hair and blue eyes of so many portraits of Jesus was a way of encouraging white Europeans to accept the christian message. If you can identify with him you are more likely to engage with him.

In a recent radio broadcast Rev Giles Fraser told the story of his experience at theological college, when all the trainee priests had to take a personality test called Myers Briggs. Before they received their categorisation they were asked to try to decide what personality type they thought Jesus was. He commented

the remarkable thing was that there was a high degree of convergence between one’s own type and the type that we assigned to him. Extroverts thought Jesus was an extrovert and introverts thought Jesus was an introvert and so on. It was a fascinating exercise because it revealed how readily we can construct a mental figure of people like Jesus in our own image. And the shocking conclusion of this is how easy it is, when we Christians worship Jesus, for us to worship ourselves or a projection of ourselves.

In 2002 Popular Mechanics published a feature article called  The Real Face of Jesus in which they reported how “advances in science helped reveal the most famous face in history”. Richard Naeve, a medical artist, used his skill and his experience in forensic anthropology to construct a model that represented the typical face of a first century Jew. This, they thought, would shed light on the appearance of Jesus.

We know that Jesus lived in the hot Mediterranean climate of Galilee, working hard with his hands. He would be  muscular and physically fit. He would be around 5’1″ tall and would probably look older than his age because of the effects of the climate and his manual labour. Life expectancy at that time was  50 years for men. His complexion would be dark. His hair short, dark and wiry, and he would have a short beard.

Here he is . . . a physical rendering of the likely appearance of Jesus.

SON OF GOD

This looks like John the Baptist to me! I can see a passionate desert evangelist. But somehow I don’t recognise the personality of Jesus in the eyes.

The apostle John was close to Jesus throughout the three years of his public ministry. He wrote his gospel within the lifetime of many eye witnesses to record what he knew about Jesus. His purpose was “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”. In the first chapter he described Jesus by saying

In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind . . . full of grace and truth

I think if we looked into Jesus’ eyes we would see an intensity that both attracted and challenged us. Life, light, grace and truth would shine in his eyes.

I think we would feel challenged to change.

LENT – making it meaningful

 giving up for lent

Twitter was buzzing recently as 140 thousand people shared information about what they plan to give up for Lent. While Twitter users are not necessarily representative of the general population, the results make interesting reading. Using social media, eating chocolate and drinking alcohol are high on the list. Ranked 11th is giving up Lent itself. Looks like we know our soft spots well –  the places where we give in to self-indulgence and carry a bit of guilt.

For years I put myself alongside those who gave up giving things up. I have dabbled in giving up chocolate, or coffee, but I usually struggled to stay committed. You see my heart has not been in it.  Lent carries us directly to Good Friday where we remember the suffering and death of Jesus. In contrast to this, my small attempts at self-denial felt trivial and led me to nothing that was remotely life changing. I couldn’t see a meaningful link between chocolate and crucifixion. The church I attended paid little attention to Lent. Easter for us at that time was about Holy Week – but it all seemed to happen too quickly.  The momentum of life charged on and I was left once again feeling cheated.  This was a big moment and I missed most of it.

Lent draws us in. We share an unspoken belief that self-denial is a good thing to do and 40 days feels like an amount of time that can be endured. Some of us use Lent to kick-start change in our lives. Others use it as a way of proving to ourselves and to others that our self-indulgent habits are reversible. We reckon we are in control of what we choose to do. And we believe that the tension between self-control and self-indulgence can be mastered. After all, we cheered through the Olympics as countless athletes panted through their victory speech, elated at their success and struggling to believe the unbelievable.

And yet there is a spiritual dimension to Lent that we also acknowledge. All of the major religions recognise a period of fasting for the development of the soul. This is about taking time to reflect on who we are becoming. It can be serious stuff. The ancient ascetics gave their lives to the pursuit of this spiritual maturity, practicing harsh penances and purging themselves of all comfort. Our meagre 40 days of giving up a few pleasures would be wholly inadequate in their eyes.

The story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is sobering. It shows us that the battle against self-indulgence is part of being human. We constantly face temptation about who we are, what we own and what we do. Our choices have consequences.

So how can we engage with the tension between self-indulgence and self-control and use Lent in a meaningful way to gain some spiritual muscle?

Here are two resources that link together ancient spiritual practices with modern technology and amazing people. Together they have been transformational for me.

First I have read and re-read The Liturgical Year – the spiralling adventure of the spiritual life. This is a book written by a Benedictine nun that explores the liturgy – the major seasons of the church. In the liturgy, with its annual repetitions, we meet Jesus in history and we learn to recognise him with us today. Far from being a round of Christmas and Easter celebrations, walking in an annual cycle through the life of Jesus becomes ” an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fulness, the heart to alert and the soul to focus . . . It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life”.

Seeing the rhythm of the years from the perspective of Jesus’ life keeps me focussed on God’s bigger picture. It reminds me of the significance of time. It helps me to understand who I am and to explore the purpose of my life.

24-7 PrayerAnd the second change for me has been to engage with a rhythm of prayer, specifically to pray the Lord’s prayer at midday every day. I discovered the richness of this through 24-7 Prayer, an organisation that exists to encourage Christians in bringing prayer into all aspects of life. This online community has been an enormous encouragement to me. Many christians run away from set prayers that could become a religious ritual. But the Lord’s Prayer is deeply significant. It challenges who I am, what I believe and how I behave. And best of all, it reminds me at the very beginning, that I am a child of God.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was once asked, “If you could reduce all of Christianity down to the back of a single envelope what would you write?” To which he replied: “Well that’s simple, I would write out the words of The Lord’s Prayer”.

The 24-7 community gave us a challenge to set an alarm on our phones and pray the Lord’s prayer with them at midday every day. Have a look at the website here and consider whether this might work for you. The challenge is for life, not just for Lent.

How do you make Lent meaningful?