I sometimes get asked how I answer the ‘why me?’ question. As my my tremors increase and my movements become slower, it seems a particularly and painfully relevant question. Why me, when I have given my life to serving Christ? Why me, when there’s so much more to do?
The truth is, I have never really asked the question, at least not with a sense of anguish or outrage. Lurking behind “why me?” is an assumption that the world is orderly, that God has everything under control, and that whatever happens is an outworking of God’s good and perfect will. Only in such a universe, where everything, even suffering and evil, has a divine purpose, does “why me?” make sense.
That’s not the universe I perceive. To ask “why me?” is to fail to appreciate the true evil of evil – it’s mind numbing purposelessness. It has no reason, no goal, no order. It is random, chaotic, disordered. And it has invaded our universe and our lives, scarring and undermining the order that is there.
I don’t therefore see any divine purpose behind my Parkinsons. Rather it is symptomatic of the random and chaotic realities of life. So rather than “why me?” I ask “why not me?” I am as good a candidate as any for the mutant gene/s or whatever it is that causes Parkinsons.
For me the real question is “who will I be?” Touched by the chaotic nature of suffering, will I give in to despair, fall prey to the illusion that reality is all randomness and chaos, or will I celebrate the order that sits alongside the disorder? For every tremor that shakes my body, there is a brilliant sunrise, a neural pathway that allows me to think, a friend who ties the fishing knot when I can’t, the love of Sandy, Ashley, Jessica and Lachlan, opportunities to make a difference. These and more are signals to me that my world is neither all chaos nor all ordered. It is both. And the beauty of it is that unlike the chaos of evil, the order allows me to live purposefully.
I grew up with a gospel built on the pillars of love, sin, fear and certainty. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that God loved me so much he sent Jesus to die for my sins; fearful of going to hell and anxious that my friends avoid that fate; assured that people were morally decrepit and deserving of hell and; absolutely certain about what I believed. This was a potent mix that left me with a deep-seated sense of mission. What could be more important than saving people from the torments of hell? Whenever and wherever I could I would seek to share “the gospel” – from my friends at school to strangers on the bus. I once even took to unrolling toilet rolls in public toilets and rolling them back up again with gospel tracts inserted between the sheets.
Since then my faith has changed, matured… or so I like to think. The bedrock of certainty collapsed when I realised it was not intellectually credible to pretend the tenets of my faith had the logical certitude of mathematics or the high probabilities of science. Yes, my faith was intellectually credible, but not the only intellectually credible way of understanding the world.
I also lost the hellfire and brimstone. Both my reading of Scripture and my sense of justice led me to question, and then come to reject, the notion that a just and loving God would consign people to an eternity of pitiless suffering or that human beings, simultaneously flawed but magnificently wonderful, deserved it. I also discovered that “substitutionary atonement” is a somewhat recent development in Christian thinking and not, to my mind, the most convincing interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ.
With the pillars of certainty, fear, moral depravity and substitutionary atonement knocked out what did I have to say to the world anymore? Embarassed by the hellfire, brimstone and arrogant certainty of my past I lost confidence that I had anything meaningful to share and/or the right to share it.
Simultaneously the gospel of my childhood ceased answering the questions of my age. Asking people “if you were to die tonight where would you spend eternity?”, as one evangelism program of my youth urged, just doesn’t make sense in a culture where people are thoroughly agnostic, if not skeptical, about life after death. Likewise, a gospel of guilt in which a Saviour pays the penalty for our sins may have had great resonance to the guilt-laden-duty-focused generation of my grandparents, but to the self-actualising generation of today it speaks to a question few are asking.
Since then I have come to believe that my faith has a lot to say, that Jesus really is good news. Above all I think the gospel presents my generation with a powerful vision of what they and the world can be. In the living of Jesus I see a life lived well; one that is committed to love, grace, justice; to extending itself beyond the pursuit of money, prestige, position or power; beyond a narrow preoccupation with oneself and one’s immediate circle; to being an agent of liberation and grace to humankind and the planet. In his death I see the awful potentiality of self-interest, greed, and fear to destroy that which is good. In his resurrection I see God’s declaration that evil will not win the day, that the vision, values and way of Jesus can and will triumph, and that as I throw my lot in with this vision I discover life. And in this story I discover we are not orphans in a cold, godless universe, but children, sometimes very wayward children, of a good, wise and loving God, who longs for us and our planet to be all we were created to be.
It’s a bold and audacious story, one that I can see will not be convincing to all – in a world marked by much suffering, where God can seem spectacularly absent, and where Christians can behave abominably I can understand atheism, agnosticism and doubt. But it’s the story that rings true for me and in an age of ecological and humanitarian crisis, one that I think we need.
In 1971 the Sydney Anglicans produced a report that revolutionised my understanding of the gospel. Now out of print, Move in for Action, a report of the Commission on Evangelism, contained a chapter by Paul Barnett that examined the preaching of the gospel by Paul and Peter as recorded in the book of Acts. He showed that not once do Paul or Peter focus their “evangelistic” preaching on the death of Christ to pay the penalty for our sins. Rather they focus on the resurrection of Jesus and its implications for us.
To adherents of Judaism in Antioch Paul identified God as the One who had entered into covenant relationship with Israel, and Jesus as the long awaited Messiah figure to whom people ought to turn. To Gentiles in Athens Paul began with God as a transcendent yet immanent Creator whom people rejected in favour of false gods. By raising Jesus from the dead God made him Lord of all, and all humankind should turn to him.
Until I read that report I had always assumed the death of Christ to pay the penalty for our sins was the gospel. This report blew me out of the water. I read and re-read the chapter, read and re-read the relevant texts in the Bible. There was no mistaking it. Barnett was right.
The implications were profound. The gospel I had always preached was one dimensional. Human beings were guilty of sin and the death of Christ was God’s solution to that guilt. Sharing the good news focussed on helping people understand the big switch that had taken place, Christ experiencing the death they deserved that they might be forgiven and have eternal life.
A gospel that focuses on a risen Christ is multidimensional and multilayered. It is a declaration that under the leadership of the risen Christ God is renewing and healing the entire created order, making everything right, and an invitation to be part of that. So yes, it is a call to find forgiveness of sin, but it is so much more. It shifts the focus from what we’re not to what we and the world can be and are called to be.
The job of the church is to unpack this news in a way that speaks to the issues of its age. For example, in an age where we are unsustainably using the environment’s services, the gospel includes the news that the risen Christ is the One through whom all things were created, the Lord who loves all his creation and calls us to do the same; the one whose resurrection is the pattern for what will happen to the creation, that it will be made new; and the one who will hold us to account for how we treat the creation.
This is but one example of a gospel focused on the risen Christ. The permutations are endless, but ultimately all variations on the glorious news that Christ is risen from the dead to craft a new humanity and a new creation and that we can be part of that. This is good news indeed.
When my daughters were young, one of our favourite Christmas activities was driving around the streets looking at the Christmas lights. For our kids the burning of those Christmas lights was the first sign that Christmas Day is approaching. Our favourite spot was a pocket of houses down the road where every house has made a special effort to create a Christmas lights spectacular.
As we turned into the housing estate one year the kids were really excited, with that excitement that’s unique to 4 and 5 year olds. They’ve remembered the lights from last Christmas and they’re just itching to see Santa and Frosty and Rudolph. But most of all they want to see “baby Jesus”.
First we come to the Frosty the Snowman house. And Frosty is very impressive – a bulbous white snowman with that “I’ve just swallowed uranium” glow softly emanating from his white body and his green nose. Frosty’s good, but we know it’s not gonna be a patch on the baby Jesus house.
We continue driving and come to the Christmas star house. This housing estate is set down low in a valley, so the TV aerials on the roofs extend 10 metres or so into the sky. The people at the Christmas star house have managed to scale their TV aerial and put a vibrant, bright star right up the top. There it sits, an impressive beacon summoning all to come and see. But we know it’s not gonna be a patch on the baby Jesus house.
We head to the end of the cul-de-sac and start heading back down the street, down toward the baby Jesus house. The house sits on a corner, so its decorated on both the sides that face the street. We come to the Santa side. Glowing in the dark is a three-dimensional sleigh and a three-dimensional reindeer lit up by hundreds of fairy lights. It’s the most tasteful display we’ve seen, but we know it’s not gonna be a patch on baby Jesus.
We turn the corner, the sense of anticipation grows, the kids strain forward to see the baby Jesus display. We look up into the garden to where Mary, Joseph and a beautifully lit manger scene appear every year…but baby Jesus isn’t there! Mary’s not there. Joseph’s not there. The manger’s not there. They’ve been replaced by a plywood cutout of Christmas carollers that look like they’ve stepped off the pages of a Dickens novel.
And then we hear the kids puzzled question: “where’s baby Jesus?”
I don’t know why baby Jesus wasn’t there that year. Maybe the person who owns the house wanted a change, maybe the display got broken, maybe they decided not to have any religious themes. I don’t know why but baby Jesus was replaced.
I thought it was a wonderful metaphor for the way consumerism has come to dominate Christmas, and not only Christmas but our lives.
As we head into a new year I want to make sure the Jesus story, with its call to an alternate way of living, is the defining narrative of my life. I don’t want my now teenage daughters to say “Where’s baby Jesus?” but to see the Jesus story in me.
During my first year of pastoral ministry I experienced a crisis of faith. I had entered theological college four years previously with the confidence of both youth – I was only twenty years old – and fundamentalism. I knew what I believed and knew it with utter certainty to be true. Theological college put paid to that. I discovered students, theologians and philosophers who saw things very differently to me, and that chipped away at the absolute certainty on which I had constructed my faith.
It all came to a head the year after I finished college. It seemed there was nothing I could be certain about. Not the bible, not the story of Jesus, not the resurrection of Jesus, not the existence of an afterlife. Yes there were strong arguments in favour of these, but there were also reasonable arguments to the contrary. Instead of absolute logical certainty I found myself dealing with probabilities. I had always thought that the arguments for faith were irrefutable, that it was rebellion and not reason that led to unbelief. But I discovered that those who believed differently often had very cogent arguments, that the ‘evidence’ could be read in dramatically opposite ways. For someone whose faith had been built on the bedrock of certainty this was a very uncomfortable place to be. It took its toll. I soon found myself wondering if I really believed in God anymore. Doubt filled my mind.
I used to take long, late night walks. These afforded an opportunity to think through the doubts running through my mind. It was on one of these walks that I had an encounter with God the like of which I have never had before or after. I didn’t hear voices or see angels. I was simply filled with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. That was the beginning of the reconstructing of my faith.
This reconstruction required me to let go of the idea that I could have absolute logical certainty about my beliefs, that it could be proven like a mathematical formula or scientific theory. What I could have were reasonable convictions. I could show that it was reasonable to believe that God exists, that Jesus lived, died and rose again, that the Bible gives us a trustworthy story about God and Jesus. But I could not show that it was unreasonable to believe the opposite. In the realm of belief about God there were not logical absolutes, but a continuum of probabilities.
Why then did I believe? Most likely because I was raised in a Christian household, had experiences that I interpreted as reinforcing the faith in which I was reared, found my faith to be coherent and reasonable, and in my faith found a clear sense of purpose and values to live by. Experience, reason, and utility combined to create a foundation for my belief.
My philosophy lecturer at College once made the point that this is how knowledge of people works. How does my wife know I am faithful to her? She doesn’t follow my every move nor have a detective follow me. Her sense that I am faithful is built on trust, which in turn is built on experience (she has found me to be trustworthy) and reason (she has no evidence to suggest I am unfaithful, but plenty of good reasons to think I am faithful). She chooses to trust me, and her experience and reason reinforce her trust.
So it is with my faith in God. I heard the message and chose to believe it, and my trust is reinforced by my experience (I have had moments in my life where I have had a strong sense of God’s presence and work), reason (for example, I find the fact the universe exists points to its being created) and utility (life lived in accord with God’s word just seems to make sense to me).
Once I learned to be comfortable with this my faith was quickly rebuilt, but without the arrogance and pride that marked my earlier believing. I abandoned a faith built on certainty and discovered instead that a deliciously rewarding, life-transforming faith can be built on conviction.
How about you? Have you ever felt like you’re losing your faith? What brought/didn’t bring you back?
Growing up in the church I often heard people declaring that God had spoken to them. And they didn’t mean God had spoken to them in the general sense that comes from studying and understanding a bible passage. They meant God had spoken to them about something quite specific. Nor as far as I’m aware did any claim to have heard an audible voice. Rather they spoke of a still, small voice speaking to them.
I have never heard God speak to me like that. I have had moments in which I have been very aware of the presence of God; I have felt strong convictions on what God wants for my life and world; God has miraculously healed me of a life-threatening illness. But I have never had the sensation of hearing God’s ‘still, small voice’. I have tried to hear it, but to no avail.
For many years I wondered if the problem was me or them. Was there something deficient about my spirituality? Certainly there is no end of books teaching me how to become attuned to God’s voice. I tried and tried but nothing eventuated. Maybe the problem was with the intuitive. Were they just deluding themselves? Maybe what they were experiencing was little more than breakfast rumbling in their tummy?
Then one day it dawned on me that maybe there are multiple ways God speaks to us. To people like me, who have to think everything through, who love ideas, maybe God’s way of speaking is primarily through the analysis of the bible. Maybe to people who are less ideas oriented but more intuition oriented God speaks in a much more intuitive way, through the sensation of a still small voice?
For me this was an aha moment. I began to imagine a continuum to depict the modes by which we hear God’s voice. At one end of the continuum sit analytical thinkers. At the other end sit the intuitives. And everyone sits somewhere on the continuum, some right out at one pole, some at the other, and some somewhere inbetween.
This means I no longer need worry that I don’t hear a still, small voice. I hear God loud and clear in the story and teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures and I hear God’s particular word to me when I apply what I have discovered to the way I live. Nor need I try to show the intuitives that they are wrong. If God speaks to them by way of emotional and thought impressions that is good.
This also reminds me of the importance of listening to God as a community of believers. We need each other. The intuitives need the analysts to help put a biblical frame around their hearing and to provide the rigour to our search to know and follow Jesus. And the analytical believers need the intuitives to help us collectively hear what God has to say to the specifics of our lives. Together we can help each other hear God’s word to us.