Berkeley Remembered

The loss of life is both shocking and horrific. One moment celebrating the joy of life the next grieving in the pain of death. For those of us watching and listening at a distance, we can only imagine the heartache for family and friends as they try to come to terms with what has happened to their dearest and closest. Exams over, The summer to enjoy, The freedom of life, Happy memories to create – an accident that would cut short six young lives was the last thing on anyones mind.  Death is cruel, it robs us of those we love the most and steals away our joy. As we remember we can only pray that in the midst of such brokenness and pain they will know and experience the comfort of others and the love and kindness of God.

We never plan for these events, we don’t live life thinking, Will it happen to me? Twenty four hours later we heard of yet more tragedy as nine people were shot dead in a South Carolina church. As the attending chief officer said: “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.” Whether it’s a violent action or a tragic accident the sudden loss of life is never easy to explain.

It’s happened before

Sadly the recent events to hit our news are not new. They have happened before. The Gospel of Luke (Luke 13 verses1-5) records for us two events of similar proportions. Some people came to Jesus and told him about ‘the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices’. We don’t have all the details but it seems a group of people had gone to worship and pray. For no explicable reason (perhaps a reminder to the masses of who was in power), Pilate violently slaughtered them, cutting short their life. Those who came to Jesus with this news seemed to be looking for an explanation – ‘why do you think this has happened?’

If that event is not troubling enough Jesus reminds them of another terrible event: ‘those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them..’. Again we don’t know what happened, other than a tower on the city wall fell, killed and crushed it’s victims.

Like the nine people who went to pray in a church in South Carolina, like the six young people who were enjoying life on a balcony – suddenly and tragicly their lives came to an end.

Death comes to all

Jesus does not give us answers to all the questions we may have. He does not respond in the way we always want – but he does say something to us all about our life.

Jesus responds to one tragic event by telling the people of another. It’s a reminder that life does not go on forever – all life comes to an end. We all die. The reaction of many fellow students in Berkeley was: ‘It could have been me!’ And that’s the reality it could happen to anyone of us. We are fragile beings who do not control the number of days we have. Faced with the sudden and shocking loss of life we are confronted with our own mortality.

The reason for all death is sin

When Jesus responded to the tragic events he said something we would not expect: ‘Do you think that these were worse ‘sinner’s than all the others because they suffered in this way?…Do you think they were more ‘guilty’ than all the others?’

You see many have this ‘Karma’ view of life: Live a moral life and you will live long, Live an immoral life and you will die young. That is not true. Jesus dismisses outright this kind of thinking. How we die is not evidence of how good or bad we are. We make no judgement about those in the church or on the balcony. It’s not how or where we die but the fact we all die. The point Jesus is making is this: All death is evidence that we have all sinned. I may live a long and healthy life till I’m ninety, I may be struck down with cancer and die within a year…but however I die the reason is my sin. Death is part of our experience because we have rejected God’s loving rule over our lives, we have chosen to live apart from him and that always ends in death.

There is something worse than death

Like those who came to Jesus we are concerned about the here and now. But in his loving care Jesus directs us to think about what comes after death. While the people were all wondering: Why they died? What was the cause? How did they live? Jesus tells us to think about about our own life. In response to the murder in the temple and the falling tower Jesus says: ‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish’. To ‘perish’ is not just to die but to face the terrible reality of an eternal separation from God. In this life we enjoy so many good things; friendship, love, humour and creativity – all of these are good gifts from God. But to ignore God, to shut him out means an eternity without these things. It is a living death. So Jesus gently takes our focus away from the tragedy and pleads with us to be prepared for what happens after death: repent, turn away from self and turn to God. 

There is something more wonderful than life

All death is sad and in particular there is nothing so heartbreaking than the sudden loss of life to those who are so young. In fact we all long for life to continue, we all dream that life could go on for ever where there are no more accidents and no more killings. But that is not just a dream that is also a reality. There is a life beyond this life. It is life as it is meant to be: A life were there is no more suffering, no more pain, no more tragedy, no more violence and crime, no more funerals and no more death. That is what Jesus has promised to all who repent.

How is this possible? Well as Jesus spoke about the murder in the temple and the tower that fell – he also became a victim of sudden death. Within a few months Jesus was also cut down in the prime of his life aged thirty three. He was slaughtered at the hands of a angry mob, crucified and nailed to a cross. But Jesus death was no accident, this was planned by God from before the creation of the world. Jesus died not because he was a ‘worse sinner’ or ‘more guilty’ – He was innocent! Jesus died because he took my sin and your sin on himself. Instead of God’s justice falling on us it fell on Jesus and crushed him. Jesus suffered the eternal death that you and I deserve so that we might be forgiven. Three days later Jesus rose again from the dead securing our eternal life with him. To know and experience this forgivenss and life, to guarantee this future we must turn from our selfish life and trust in his perfect life.      

There is something  more wonderful than this life, it is life in God’s eternal Kingdom where death is defeated and destroyed once and for all.

May God continue to comfort those who are grieving.

 

Stephen Fry and Suffering

I like Stephen Fry. I find him funny, clever and real. Together my wife and I have enjoyed the eternal series QI, and we have appreciated his honesty as he has spoken about his own struggles with Bipolar disorder. That said, I do not agree with everything he says.

Last Sunday evening Gay Byrne interviewed Stephen on RTE’s ‘The Meaning of Life’. The final question put to Stephen, who claims to be an Atheist, was this:

‘Suppose it’s all true, you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will you say to Him, Her or It?’

In his usual clear and articulate way Fry answered: “Bone cancer in children – what about that? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right! It’s utterly, utterly evil! Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”

Shocking!

Fry’s response has caused no end of discussion and comment, some apparently were shocked and horrified. While I do not level the same charge at God as Fry does, I have often felt like this, if not expressed it. I have asked it when our own daughter was born profoundly deaf. My wife has asked it when her sister, who was born normal, had a number of unexplained seizures that left her permanently brain damaged and with the mind of an infant. It’s the normal reaction when we face suffering – we look for someone or something to blame. In fact what is so shocking about Fry’s response is that he has put into words what we ourselves think but dare not express in words – whatever our belief.

The Reality of Suffering

The reality is live long enough and we will experience suffering. We face it physically through disease and cancer; We face it naturally through earthquakes and floods; We face it through our own choices (poor health care) and we face it through the actions of others like war, rape, stealing and words of anger. We simply can’t avoid suffering and all of us along with Stephen Fry have faced it and deal with it personally.

Now while Stephen Fry is an atheist (Does not believe in the existence of God) it seems a contradiction to charge God with being ‘Capricious, Mean Minded and Stupid’, when he does not believe in him. But that aside lets assume he does, for many people do and wonder why God did create the world like this and why God has not done anything to stop it.

Who is the cause?

So who is the cause of all this suffering? Fry seems to think that the blame lies squarely at the feet of God – after all he made the world! Well before we blame God I think we need to look at our own lives first. In the full interview Fry retold the amusing story of stealing a mans wallet and credit card and assuming his identity and spending his money at liberty. Of course Fry had a great time – but what suffering did it cause the person involved? What were the knock on effects? Yes Fry was sorry – but it explains that we are responsible for vast amounts of suffering in this world. Wars, greed, crime, lies and acts of injustice are all done by one human being to another. Of course I’m no different to Stephen Fry, I might not have stolen a credit card – but I misuse the resources I have, spending money on more food and gadgets while the majority of the world continues to suffer through a lack of food and clean water.

But that’s not the full answer. As a Christian I believe that God created a good and beautiful world and it was given for mankind to enjoy. But through our choices and actions we have rebelled against God and sought to live life apart from him. The result has been disorder and death. The good world is now twisted and broken. We are the spanner in the works. We have caused the cogs in the wheel to grind and crunch and the result is the suffering and pain we see all around us. Yes God has allowed suffering to enter the world but the cause firmly rests with us. One of the authors Fry respects and quoted in his interview was GK Chesterton. Chesterton once answered the question: What is wrong with the world?’ with the simple response; ‘I am!’ If we are to blame anyone we must first look to ourselves.

How is it fixed?

One of the charges against God is that God should clean up the mess he has caused. If God made the world like this then he should fix it. Well history proves that mankind can’t fix the problem. The ongoing conflicts around the world, the worsening humanitarian needs, the natural disasters on the daily news remind us that with all our advancement in technology and understanding we have done very little to alleviate suffering. So we either look to man or we can look to God – even if we do blame him.

If we are to ask God to end all the suffering the obvious conclusion is that he would have to deal with us because we are the cause! If we want a God who is fair and just then we must allow this God to take action and take us all off planet earth and start again. While God is within his rights to do that – it is not the way he has acted. God himself came into this suffering and broken world to redeem this world. He came through the person of Jesus Christ. The proof? His resurrection from the dead! All suffering ends in death and it’s the one reality of life we can do nothing about. The God/Man Jesus Christ defeated death as a sign of a full redemption he will one day bring about.

The Suffering God

Fry levels the charge that God is ‘evil and unjust.’ However the opposite is true. God is a suffering God. He faced injustice, he faced the mental and emotional horrors of being executed at the hands of people like us. He knows what it is to suffer and he is not immune from our suffering. In fact he has done something about it on our behalf. The fact is God loves this broken and disordered world and he loves us.

So what can we do about the suffering? Well we can either push God further away or we can run to God and lean on him. It does not answer all our questions, it does not make the suffering any less painful but it does give us real and lasting hope.

I pray Stephen Fry has the same conversion experience as his mentor Oscar Wilde, who turned back to God on his death bed, only a bit sooner!.