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Bishop Richard's Weekly video Message - Transcript 22/10/2020

Bishop Richard

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s video.

Although, most areas of the Diocese are only in the medium risk tier, there is still a growing weariness about the COVID restrictions. I saw our 7week old grandson last Friday in London, for what could be the last time for quite a while. So many aspects of normal life, particularly around our ability to associate with others, are currently denied us.

In the creation story in Genesis, God says, “it is not good for human beings to be alone.” Relationships are at the heart of a flourishing humanity. We know this from our own experience, and the explosion of calls to The Samaritans and other agencies shows how much of a toll this crisis is having on our mental health. We are also picking up this sense of frustration in the contacts we are getting from parishes. All churches have their relational tensions, but when everyone is feeling under stress, little niggles can escalate into more serious disagreements. Folk who would normally be restrained and accommodating find their frustrations and hurts emerging unbidden in ways that make conflicts worse.

I wouldn’t presume to speak into the suffering brought about by COVID in a general sense. The workings of God’s providence in the world are above my pay grade. I’ve never been convinced that a philosophical explanation for suffering would be helpful, at least for those going through it. Some folk would like church leaders to speak into the public space and say that this is a punishment from God to a disobedient nation. Again, I wouldn’t presume to know God’s mind on this.

I am convinced that God judges sin, but also fairly clear that he does so in the cross of Jesus, rather than smiting from afar for specific acts. The second commandment about not worshipping images, with the consequence of sins being visited to the third and fourth generation is not a sign of God being petulant and vindictive. It merely describes the sad reality of being social animals. The children of alcoholics often become alcoholics themselves. We are both sinned against and sinning.

I’m more interested in how we work with the Lord in these current circumstances rather than seek explanations. Psalm 84: 6 says, “blessed are those who pass through the valley of Baka and make it a place of springs.” Or to paraphrase, blessed are those who when they pass through the desert, use it for a well.” For followers of Jesus every adverse circumstance is an opportunity for growth in holiness. If the root of sin in our lives is personal autonomy and pride then there is nothing like frustration and loss of control to expose it. Sin exposed and owned can be sin forgiven and character redeemed.

The book of Job is perhaps the best worked example of this. It is a difficult book to understand. At first sight Job’s sufferings appear to be a sort of illustration in a philosophical argument between God and the Satan character. His sufferings are unspeakable, made worse by a wife who suggests he’d be better off dead and so-called comforters who try to convince him that his sufferings must be his own fault. At the end he receives no explanation for it, merely a revelation of the glory of God which ultimately reassures him that God has done something through it in his life. That revelation is accompanied by some hard questioning about what he has learned through the process. Some of that questioning can even sound patronising. Essentially, Job, how old are you? Were you around when the world came into being? Have you the slightest idea of the working of divine providence?

The book can be read on a multitude of levels. But at the level of spiritual formation through suffering and adversity it is profound. Job’s grief and anger finds its culmination in a metaphorical fist shaking at God in chapter 23, vs. 4-5, “I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.” Give me my day in court and I’ll justify myself.

The psychotherapist and spiritual writer Larry Crabb talks about our fallenness manifesting itself in a spirit of entitlement: an unshakeable conviction that the world should be organised to maximise our satisfaction. In that worldview God is useful, only in as much as he can further that end. I have certainly found that true for myself.

I was reflecting on this in my workshop a few years ago. I do like a bit of woodwork, but I’m not very good at it. I am usually very patient with people but not with inanimate objects. I suddenly realised that my irritation and anger with something not going the way I had hoped, was an expression of frustration that God had not re-arranged the laws of physics to accommodate my own incompetence.

Part of our Christian hope lies in the conviction that God’s love manifests itself in our lives through adversity as much as through joy and success. Paul advises us to give thanks in all circumstances, not necessarily for all circumstances. The exposure of a demanding spirit is the way in which such things are owned, forgiven and redeemed. We grow through adversity to a deeper trust and hope because of, rather than in spite of things not going the way we’d like them to.

So, in the midst of all the losses of this time, we can still find hope and new life. We can still experience God’s love for us. We can be comforted that Jesus suffers with us. We can experience the reality of character growth and transformation. We can become more like Jesus, who suffered our consequences so we wouldn’t have to. It is not good for human beings to be alone. Even though we can’t meet fully as we’d like, we can still be a comfort and support to one another, as we travel through adversity together.

Whatever your circumstances, may you know the purposeful love of God working through them in the week to come.

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