Monday, May 27, 2013

I am empty. I have nothing. I am here.


Ordinarily who wants to watch the middle part of a trilogy? You need to have seen part 1 but you know that when it ends you'll probably not have a lot of resolution. Most of the time we live in the middle part. Things don't resolve. A little action and progress happens, the story advances... but questions remain without answers, and we continue to live as "hope-based creatures" do, longing for "all the sad things to come untrue."
I'm in the middle.
The middle is bewildering but you can drop an anchor and find something/where/one to cling on to.


This post is derived from my sermon "Bitter Sweet #2 - God in the pain?" on Ruth 1:6-22 - Frontiers Church Exeter. Download mp3: God in the pain (31mins). Follow the Bitter Sweet series at Frontiers Church including sermon mp3s and daily Bible meditations via our church blog.

There's pain in life. There are some people who somehow escape the horrors of life in this broken world and get to debate philosophically "the problem of pain". The rest of us have to get through another hard day. As Francis Spufford quips imagining that you can "enjoy yourself" (as the Atheist bus campaign suggests) is patronisingly naive.

Whether illness in ourselves or those dear to us, relational breakdown, the pressure of life, the great disasters that make the news. Suffering is in our faces. Somehow we have to work out how to go on. Some have pain in their past that needs to be worked out - it doesn't go away but how do you live on with it? For some pain is in the future - how can we begin to prepare for what's to come? For others pain is today. and blogposts and sermons aren't necessarily what's needed at that point... but in time it may help, and even one thing to hold on to can be helpful.

In the opening scenes of the book of Ruth, Naomi loses everything. She leaves home in a time of pressure, famine in her agricultural situation. She's an economic migrant to a nearby country and during a decade living in an alien culture her husband and her boys die. Her pain is chronic grief and loss. It might ease at times but each day they aren't there.

She lives in the middle.

My pain, has been in the illness of my second son which has left me numb, weeping and bewildered at times. Facing horrible possibilities, slumped in an armchair with nightmare suspected diagnoses, draining nights in hospital and the uncertainty that comes with epilepsy - a chronic and unpredictable condition that can leave my little boy on the floor at any moment, and leave his parents utterly helpless. Everyone offers answers but at first I could only really live with what I'd already come to believe (I am so thankful for those who prepared me for future suffering), and then in time I can begin to reflect... where should I go?

This hasn't gone away.

Or Marcus Brigstocke, who lost his best friend. He turned to the Atheist Bible (The God Delusion) and found no answers and continues to search (see his Tour-Book: God Collar). Bewildered, hoping, unsure. Whether in God or elsewhere we seek answers that help us in some ways but are always partial.

James still isn't here.

Glenn Hoddle tried to tie it all up neatly with reincarnation and karma saying the disabled sinned in a former life. He lost his job as England manager for it which tells you how helpful that is.

Growing up in a school where the biggest religious grouping were Hindu I quite liked the idea of reincarnation. It sounded good to this optimistic high achieving healthy arrogant teenager. It's great when you're winning but really not so much when you're losing. Survival of the fittest on repeat.

We try to answer the problem, and each answer throws up more questions.

What of Naomi's story?
What perspective does this 3000 year old story of a woman bruised and broken by life offer - an old story, an enduring story...

HE IS NOT HEARTLESS - GOD SHOWS UP (Ruth 1v6-7a)

Then, she hears that THE LORD HAS VISITED her homeland. She grew up in a culture shaped by relationship with the LORD, the Triune God who just couldn't keep himself away from his people.

The LORD visits in the person of Jesus and it's a new day, a new start.
The LORD visits the village of Nain and finds another widow who has lost her son, and its resurrection.

Naomi doesn't live in the new day. Though don't you long for it come?

Today, she has lost everything - how will she respond?
Will she think the LORD is Toothless and carry on where she is ambivalently since he can't help her?
Or will she think God is Terrible and give her heart to atheism or other gods?
No, she packs her bags and heads for home.

Does pain stop you coming to the LORD - not at Bethlehem but to Jesus? Come with Naomi.
Does credibility of the claim that the LORD visits earth stop you? Come with Naomi.
Make the journey she makes, and find God in the pain.

HE IS NOT HELPLESS - GOD IS SOVEREIGN (Ruth 1v19-21)

The people see her coming - is that Naomi? Hey, tell us your story...

She says: The LORD has been against me. His hand has been bitter to me. I was full but now I'm empty...

Gasp! Can you say that? Would you say that? She does?
  • She’s bitter and empty but says its not because God isn’t sovereign, but because he is… 
  • We think if God cares and is in control we’ll not suffer, Naomi says the opposite is true. It's hard to hear today but listen in... The LORD's hand is in my story she says.
  • If not sovereign, she’d still hurt but have a LORD who was irrelevant. No purpose, no hope… If Naomi thought that she'd have stayed in Moab. One helpless person talking to another helpless person can be good for sympathy and empathy but it won't get us anywhere... the helpless need someone who can help.
  • If sovereign, she hurts and she can – as she does – bring it to the LORD knowing his love for her. That sustains me a hard season. He may intervene. He may heal. He will bring resurrection. In the middle there are unresolved tensions and many questions. In the middle there is mystery' much that the LORD  hasn't revealed. But, abandoning god as not there or powerless doesn't answer everything either... 
Naomi's testimony to the people is an example of the best prayer anyone can pray.

It's along the lines of Ole Hallesby's comment that "our best prayer is our helplessness".

She says:
"I am empty. I have nothing. I am here."
That's my working definition of faith.

Outloud, to God, with his people, telling it how it is.

When I come to God in the middle of it I'm trusting him with it.

When I wont, or I say I'll come after it's sorted, then I'm saying I can handle it, I'm god for the situation.

Take it to him in the middle.

Not that that resolves everything in the pain.

Can this Sovereign God who Shows Up be trusted?

Hear the voice of Martin Luther, a Christian from Germany, 500 years ago.
This isn't a new question in the 21st Century.
We've been thinking about this for centuries.

Luther says - "from our vantage point we might well assume that God isn't there or is evil..."  - Quite a first half of a sentence from a Christian leader! He continues: "but from the vantage point of the cross of Jesus it looks different."

The camera pans from Naomi's brutal honesty to the surrounding fields. Fields that were barren from famine but now... Naomi arrived home at the time of the Barley Harvest (v22)...  in the Spring.

In the background, music. The songs of the Spring festival, Passover. The people preparing, gathering in homes to eat lamb, saying "The Lamb died instead of us".

Remembering as they did so that they were once as broken in spirit and empty as Naomi... but the LORD visited, and rescued them. Their meal points forward to the cross where Jesus died instead of us.

The Heart of God and the Help of God meet at the cross of Christ.
The Sovereign One comes to Suffer with and for us.

What can empty, nothing, here, middle people do?

We cling to the cross and take that as our vantage point, and things look different through the eyes of the God who gets bruised, crushed, crucified for us and with us. Come and look with me, through bleary eyes. Come to Jesus.

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