Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video live from day 7 of self-isolation!
I suspect as we come out of restrictions in a couple of weeks this will become increasingly common for many of us, as COVID cases inevitably rise with greater mixing. We are likely to come into contact with the infection more frequently and the dreaded app will find us out. At what point will we all end up in self-isolation by default?
I don’t want to use this video as a reflection on health policy, even though this means I am missing the ordinations which is one of the highlights of the diocesan year. Its one of the main things Bishops are for, so you will understand my disappointment. I’m delighted the Bishop David Thomson has very kindly agreed to stand in.
At some point in every Christian journey, you need to learn to deal with disappointments. They are likely to be many. Some will be minor, others much more difficult to cope with; broken relationships, job losses – or not getting the job you’d hoped for, frustrated ambition, simply life not turning out the way you’d hoped. Those tragic words of the disciples on the Emmaus road as Jesus toys with them before the big reveal – ‘we had hoped’ is a phrase we have used often.
Fortunately, the scriptures are full of stories of such disappointments. The prophet Ezekiel prepared for years to minister as a priest in the Temple. Just before he could take up his life’s work, the temple is destroyed and he is carted into exile, his whole sense of purpose and identity taken away. He has to learn to make sense of it. Or Ruth, happy and comfortable with her ex-pat husband in the sun in Moab. Her husband dies and her life falls apart. She has to return to a foreign country destitute and dependent on the charity of others. It wasn’t how she envisaged her retirement turning out. One could name many others: Jacob looking forward to his new bride, only to be tricked by his uncle into marrying her sister; Joseph doing so well in his career when a false accusation leaves him languishing in prison for two years; Jesus, preparing his disciples for three years, only to see them run away at the moment of trial.
We have the advantage of knowing how these stories end up. Despite there often being a happy ending, the pain, raw anger and confusion they experience is real. What unites them is that faith does not deliver them from life’s difficulties. If anything, it makes it harder. Their resolute sticking to moral principle often excludes the easy escape route. Jesus said in John 16: 33, ‘in this world you will have trouble’. Those who preach the prosperity gospel heresy that faith delivers you from the pains of lesser mortals should listen to that rather carefully.
The Christian psychotherapist Larry Crabb wrote a book entitled Shattered Dreams. The subtitle is important – God’s unexpected pathway to joy. His thesis is there is nothing like thwarted desire to expose our inner world to the light. He argues that our alienation from God, our sin if you like, is often expressed as a spirit of entitlement, in which we demand God make the world work to our advantage and benefit. Frustration and failure bring us up short and help us see we aren’t the masters of our own destiny. God is not at our beck and call, useful if he arranges things the way we’d like them to; we are at his. The world doesn’t revolve around us, it revolves around Him. Jesus anticipated that we wouldn’t always respond to life’s frustrations positively. There is something of a salutary warning about the parable of the sower. The seed that falls on the rock stands for us when testing drives us away from God, not towards him.
In contrast, the Psalmist in the Message translation of Psalm 84:6 says, "blessed are those who when they pass through the desert use it for a well." This is not to say God metes out these frustrations and pains as a form of spiritual gymnastics. Neither does it let those of us who in this moment are enjoying the good life deliver comforting platitudes to those who are suffering that God meant it for a reason, rather than empathising with the reality of pain and disappointment. But it does recognise that every situation is redeemable. Every experience by God’s goodness can help to form the likeness of Christ in us. As these things are integrated into the warp and weft of our journey towards God, they lead us to a greater dependence on Him. They can help us to "put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature" as Paul writes to the Colossian church. It's in that dying to self that we come more and more alive to God, who is the source of all life. Our lesser, entirely legitimate desires can be overwhelmed by our desire for God. The fulfilment of that desire is where true joy is to be found. Ultimately, we believe that this world is not all there is. This journey is taking us to the place where we will realise our chief end to know God and enjoy him forever.