God and Grenfell

1 Aberfan

Aberfan Memorial

Recently, our family travelled up to the “book capital of Britain”, Hay-on-Wye, for the day. We hadn’t banked on our three year old demanding a book in every single bookshop we stepped foot in, but, apart from a continually screaming child, we had a lovely time. On the way back, we saw signs to Aberfan, and, as my daughter was studying the tragedy that had taken place there at her school, she asked whether we could take a detour to the memorial. The memorial is on the site of Pantglas school where, fifty years ago, over 100 young children, a whole generation, were lost with the collapse of the colliery tip. There are two sections to the memorial – first, a beautiful and peaceful garden and, second, a lovely playground for children. As I watched my daughter playing on the swings and the slide, knowing she was the same age as the primary-school children who had lost their lives, my mind slipped into a prayer of protest – where were you, Lord, on that horrific day? Were you sitting on your hands on your golden throne?

2 God has FailedOn Wednesday morning, as I watched the news on TV, I found myself asking the same questions. I watched the harrowing images of the fire in the Grenfell Tower, the tears and grief of the friends and relatives, and the photos of the smiling children and adults missing. How could a loving, caring Father God allow this to happen? I started feeling disappointment with God, disheartened in my faith, a little angry even. A church in Tamworth was vandalised earlier this week, with “God has Failed” sprayed on its walls. However inane that act of vandalism was in itself, part of me could understand how people could come to that view in light of tragedies, wars, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. If we are truthful with ourselves, many of us feel like the 50% of participants in a recent US opinion poll who, when asked for their “approval rating” for God, thought that the Almighty should be able to handle things in our world a little better.

JesusWhen we Christians start feeling that way, though, we actually stand in a long line of faithful who have challenged God when facing pain, grief, and suffering – Job, the Psalmist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, to name but a few. Even Jesus himself cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such a response is natural in light of our personal relationship with our Father. As in any intimate relationship, nothing is too trivial or too important, and nothing too painful or too secular, to be excluded. A father-child relationship allows us to lay bare all our humanly experiences and emotions before our creator God – not only our joys, but also our pain, our despair, our questioning, our cries for help. God is not threatened or intimidated by our prayers of protest and our honest cries of confusion. In fact, as John Bunyan wrote, “the best prayers have often more groans than words”.

None of us, whether we are people of faith or not, have any answers to explain, in the words of Dostoevsky, “the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre”. In facing suffering, we cannot explain away or justify its apparent senselessness. But, in asking where God is in such tragedy, we are led to relate suffering to love and hope, as St Paul does in Romans 5 (see verses 1-11). In light of my own experience of ministry to those facing so much tragedy and grief, I have come to recognise that God’s kingdom does not simply break through in our stirring moments – in beautiful walks in the countryside, uplifting pieces of music, and heartening moments with our friends and family. Instead, God’s kingdom also breaks through the dust, dirt, and despair of our suffering, and our call as Christians at times of tragedy is to focus our gaze through our tears to recognise glimpses of his love.

3 Rowan WilliamsIn an article in the Sunday Telegraph in 2004, Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected on the horror of the Boxing Day tsunami, which had just devastated South Asia. In facing such horrors, he wrote that our faith has no “answers”. Yet we still witness the kingdom in the sacrificial compulsion of people to care for each other and the impulse they have to make a difference. It is in those driven by, in Rowan Williams’s words, “the imperative for practical service and love” that we see God’s light shining. After all, when pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, those who face heartbreak, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done.

4 donationsWe’ve seen this in just the most amazing way these past few days. Alongside the tireless work of the emergency services and the hospitals, we have seen, on the ground, “an army of caring”, as the press have dubbed it – huge distribution centres, with donated toys, water, food, and clothes; churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all open and welcoming those of any or no faith; sports centres and community halls open; individuals travelling many hundreds of miles to help; celebrities, politicians, and bishops pulling their sleeves up and standing alongside those in their loss; locals opening their gardens and houses for anyone to pop in; people cooking meals and giving them out freely; and three million pounds donated within 48 hours.

6 rainbowA friend of mine who lives directly opposite Grenfell Tower posted the following on her facebook page yesterday: “There is a place for God in this. He is in the hearts of those who feel empty and want to do something, he is with those who give money or time to help, he is with us as we weep and mourn. But can we see it? Do we recognise him where he is to be found?” There are certainly times when we, his followers, can’t offer any words to explain tragedy, less still can we take any pain away. But we are comforted that, through the cross, God knows about grief, loss, pain, abandonment, and fear, and, because of this, he stands alongside those who cry out in distress and agony. In very real and practical terms, he does this through the love and compassion of those who are made in his image. As Teresa of Avila put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” On Mount Sinai, God revealed himself as “the God of compassion and mercy” (Exodus 34:6), and so when his people, of whatever background or tradition, are inspired to reach out in compassion, God himself is present. That is the hope that springs from suffering, that is the glimpse of God’s kingdom, that is the rainbow in the storm.

 

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

Recently I was privileged to have been asked to contribute a guest post on my story for the “God and Suffering: Our Story” series on the wonderful Thorns and Gold blog. The Thorns and Gold blog explores themes of suffering, faith, and hope, and is certainly worth following. Here, though, is my own guest contribution to that blog:

shutterstock_113875279Ten years ago my life changed completely when I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition and required major back surgery. This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.

my-god-my-god-why-have-you-forsaken-meSix months later I was lying in a hospital bed in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London and I opened my Bible on Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest”. My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Physical pain, combined with the mental anxiety of facing a long-term, chronic condition, led me to ask questions most of us face at some point in our lives: What’s the point of this suffering? Why doesn’t God stop suffering? Is life really worth this pain?

tears2During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love. On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy – bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain. At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain.

Through my own experience of suffering I realised that, while I couldn’t change the pain I was feeling, I could change my attitude towards the situation. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring. As an Arabian saying reminds us: ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the garden’.

hope_in_focusFor all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on. ‘The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).

Cappella_Sistina_Sistine_Chapel_2476394326Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms (even during meetings) or lying down (while I prepare lectures or sermons). I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically. No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury – in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on. Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us.

reflections on Christ - crucifixionI can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. ‘In all their distress, He too was distressed’ (Isaiah 63:9). Likewise, Jesus’s sorrows on the cross show us that God truly understands our dark times. As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through. ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

cropped-there-is-always-hope-2516881-1Those times when the still small voice of calm seems mute may well be frequent for us, but my own experience is that, even in that silence, we can actively listen for his voice. By doing so, we affirm the importance of love, joy, hope, and meaning in our dark times, rather than dwelling on the horrible reality of suffering. Even though it may not feel like it at the time, our trials and tribulations are, therefore, turned into triumphs of our will and spirit. After all, like diamonds, which sparkle all the more brightly the more facets are cut, our lives reflect God’s light all the more brilliantly when we have many cuts.

See also my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and the following blog posts:

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living