Monday, July 05, 2010

Rediscovering God in the Clamour of Daily Life

Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 vv3-4 (inserted before v11)
A shocking image on TV screens recently was the torrent of water sweeping through the town of Draguignan in Southern France, carrying cars before it like little toys and drowning 19 people as well as countless animals. I don't know whether deer really long for flowing streams, but surely they must fear the thunder of God's mighty cataracts just as much as we do. I guess the reference to deer longing for water belongs, in fact, to the context of the chase. A deer hunted down by dogs or by wild animals must long for water, especially in a hot, dry climate like Palestine. But sometimes there can be just too much of a good thing.

When we are up against it, then our souls long for God. I heard last week about someone who, in his own personal life, is being buffeted by waves and billows which threaten to submerge him. First his mother has been seriously ill with a brain tumour and, after collapsing and being unconscious for 45 minutes, is waiting to see if it has started growing again following an earlier operation to remove some of it. Then, he has found that - as if his worries about his mother's health were not enough to contend with - he too has a serious medical condition. An earlier heart infection has recurred and needs urgent treatment. And finally, he faces a disciplinary hearing at work, and is also at risk of being redeployed to a different job even if the complaint against him is not upheld. I guess he must feel as though the enemy is oppressing him on every side, a bit like a cornered mammoth being taunted by Neanderthal hunters as they poke it with sharpened sticks in the hope of inflicting a deadly wound.

Compared to the problems of the people in Draguignan, or the afflictions being heaped upon my friend, some of the things which make us feel disquieted or cast down probably seem fairly trivial. But sometimes it's the final straw - the constant pressure of one small thing piled on top of another - which breaks the camel's back.

And sometimes, when God seems far away and still waters have been replaced by frightening torrents and billows, it's easy to forget that the God of the storm is also our rock, the God of steadfast love who never abandons us to our troubles, whose light and truth are always seeking us out. When he remembers these things, the Psalmist - who seems to be a worship leader whose vocation is to encourage others to turn to God in prayer and praise - is reminded that with God there is always hope, for God is the ultimate source of joy, and help and life.

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Sometimes I visit people who wish that they might die. They feel that they have out-lived their usefulness, or that they have endured more pain and suffering than anyone should have to bear. A five year-old child in a small congregation in Sheffield is also, like my friend's mother, suffering from the effects of a brain tumour. Most of it has been removed but unfortunately a biopsy has shown that it is malignant and now he faces gruelling chemo and radiotherapy. His parents' prayer is that he will not feel like Elijah did; that he will not wish he might die but will continue to hope in the God of his life.


On the one hand Elijah says that he wants to die, but on the other hand he made himself pretty scarce when Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him. And didn't he actually deserve to be in trouble? He had, after all, just murdered - or encouraged others to murder - 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal. By comparison with this appalling slaughter, the wicked and terrible killing spree of Derrick Bird in Cumbria seems less extraordinary than we might like to believe. And what is even more shocking about Elijah is that he was himself a prophet of the God of life, and hope and joy. Clearly he saw himself as representing another aspect of God on Mount Carmel - the God of wrath, the God of the thundering cataracts who sweeps away wrong doing and superstition like cars tossed about in a flood. Hadn't Elijah's God just shown himself to be the true God of thunderstorm and lightning, unlike Baal who was supposed to be the storm god but who had failed to heed the call of his own prophets, even when they slashed themselves with knives?


Yet perhaps Elijah had read too much into the idea of God's wrath, whose power can cleanse the land like a raging flood. Not only had he shown that God could end the drought by sending rain, but he had also seized the opportunity to go on the offensive against the enemies of God and start dispensing his own rough justice. Now, at the entrance to the cave, God shows him that he is actually the God of sheer silence - the God who fills the quiet after the storm, the God who is closest to us when we feel forsaken and alone.


And then, at the end of the passage Elijah is forgiven for his terrifying impetuousness. Apparently, even instigating the deaths of 450 people does not put him beyond the pale. Instead he is given a new commission - to anoint a king over Syria who will act as God's agent, putting right some of the true injustices which have been taking place in Israel not by killing harmless prophets but by dealing with the man at the top, King Ahab, and meting out justice to him.


Galatians 3.23-29

Paul says that the promises of God do not belong to those who slavishly obey codes of rules and regulations, or who offer sacrifices in the right places and pray at the right time of day. Elijah was wrong about that. But Elijah was right when he recognised that faith is all important. It's no good hoping that, if we do this, that and the other thing, God will take care of us and protect us from harm. God cannot do that. God may not direct cataracts of water, or other kinds of waves and billows, to break over us and submerge us. But we live in a universe created by God where unpleasant things are constantly at risk of happening. And the only thing which makes it possible for us to go on believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that love will ultimately triumph over death and adversity, is faith. We have to be baptised into Christ, who shared our death and suffered as we do. He is the only guarantee and promise that God has not forgotten or forsaken us, but is with us in our troubles. Allegiance to his vision of what God is like is what really matters in this life, and it towers above the other things which divide us one from another - nationality, religion, gender or social class. For we are all one in him. In this sense, God is indeed like a cataract, sweeping away the petty differences which obsess us so much. He is not an avenging God, but he is a challenging and transforming God.


Luke 8.26-39
The country of the Gerasenes was a pagan land. The people living there were not Jewish. Although they might have come from a similar background, they had adopted Greek culture and they herded and ate pigs, which Jewish people considered unclean. Yet God was doing things for these people through Jesus' ministry, even when his intervention was disturbing and unwelcome.

The man whom Jesus met in the cemetery sounds like a victim of mental illness rather than demon possession, and it's hard to make sense of the strange story that Jesus allowed the demons to escape into the nearby pigs. But Jesus was able to turn the inner turmoil and outward chaos of this man's life to calm and help him to centre his life on God.

Notice how Jesus told the man to declare what God had done for him, whereas he chose instead to proclaim what Jesus had done. Is this because he recognised that Jesus is, indeed, divine? Or is it because he thought he know better than Jesus what he ought to say, just as he thought he knew better than Jesus where he ought to go. His vocation, however, was to go where he was needed - to the place where he had lived and worked before he became ill.

One way of interpreting these two psalms, and Elijah's wilderness experience, is as a time of mental breakdown or depression following overwhelming pressure and stress. Healing comes through rediscovering God's silence, which is able to overcome the clamour of the legion of competing demands which we face in our busy lives.

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