Rev. Nigel Robb April 2nd

Some suggested reflections for the restricted situation

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and martyr in Nazi Germany

Hymn

People turn to God when they are sore bestead

Pray for help, ask for peace and for bread;

Seek release from being ill, guilty and dead;

So do them all, all, Christians and heathens

 

People turn to God we He is sore bestead

And find him poor, scorned,

Without roof and bread,

Devoured by weakness and sin,

Near dead:

Christians stand by God in God’s grief.

 

God turns to all people when they are sore bestead,

Feeds their souls and bodies with God’s bread;

For Christians and heathens at the cross

God meets death; and gives both of them relief.

 

‘Bestead ‘meaning ‘in need to have aid and help’/ or ‘burdened’

 

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2.Deuteronomy 6:10-12

‘…take care that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery

There is a Jewish prayer sung during Passover that is called Dayenu, a Hebrew word for ‘it would have been enough’.  The prayer functions as a liturgical remembrance of Israel’s collective history.  ‘If the only thing the Lord had done,’ the prayer goes, ‘was bring us out of Egypt, it would have been enough’.  ‘If the only thing the Lord had done was split the Red Sea, it would have been enough’.  The prayer goes on until Israel’s history has been sung in gratitude. Of course the beauty of this prayer is that the Lord has done so much more than these things.

God has brought us out of Egypt. God had given us Jesus and, through the Son, the inbreaking of a new kingdom and hope. He had given us family and friends, leaves in the trees in spring, sun in the summer, rain in the autumn, snow in the winter, poetry and music and dance. If all that God has done was give us homes we did not build and vineyards we did not plant and cisterns we did not dig, it would have been enough.  As it is, God had given us so much that the more we pause in gratitude, the more we can think of an infinite number of ‘it would have been enoughs’.

Life can be painful, grief is unavoidable. We are haunted by yesterday and anxious about tomorrow. Yet the practice of gratitude – of realising that everything is more than enough because we do not deserve anything – is a profound comfort. Indeed we are small, far smaller than we know, yet are precious to God.

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3. Isaiah 41 :10

‘..do not fear for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God, I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right arm’.

In the book, Letters to Sam : A Grandfather’s lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life, Dr Dan Gottlieb describes suffering as feeling like you are ‘alone in a dark tunnel’. Often people’s instinct is to stand outside the tunnel and try to tell you how to get out. Dr Gottlieb explains that what we need most is for someone to come into the tunnel and simply ‘sit in the darkness with us’.

Many of us have been in that dark tunnel he refers to and, perhaps, at some point in our lives we have all been there.  It is very comforting when we find ourselves in the darkness, it is a great blessing to somehow feel that God is with us in the tunnel, sad about our suffering, but there beside us.   Our prayer might be that each of us will somehow feel that presence when we need it most. This is why the words from Isaiah may be a reality in our lives:

‘..Do not fear for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God, I will strengthen you, I will help you, and I will uphold you with my victorious right arm’.

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4. Hosea 3 : 4-5

‘Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God…they shall come in awe to the lord and to his goodness in the latter days’

Hosea is not an especially comforting book of the Bible. Its overarching message is to indict Israel for its faithlessness and to pronounce the judgement and punishment that the people are rightly experiencing as a result.  Hosea finds almost nothing salvageable in Israel and instead sees the only remedy is to start over at the beginning and to take Israel back to the wilderness where it first came to know its God, a process that will require profound difficulty, pain and loss.

Times of pain are inevitable. Especially difficult are times when the hardships we face are due to our own failures or shortcomings, when we may feel as though we are responsible for our sufferings.  Many suffer due to the actions of others, through no fault of their own, and the Bible has much to say about God’s vindication of the righteous sufferer. These verses in Hosea – among the few hopeful verses in the whole book- provide the assurance that even in those situations in which we suffer due to our own faithfulness, God will work through our times of hardship to bring us back to a place of restoration and flourishing.

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5. Mark 15 :33-34

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Jesus felt abandoned by God on the cross, and with that we can identify.  We have each felt abandoned, and sometimes even abandoned by God.  Yet though Jesus felt abandoned by God, it was to God that he turned to in his darkest hour.  Despite his anguish, he remained faithful to God. It is that faith, Jesus’ unwavering faith in God, is which we trust. After all, it is not our faith that saves us, but the faith of Jesus. That is why we pray and do all things in his name. So we are invited in our darkest hours, to trust in God.  We can trust in God because Jesus did and his faith has made all the difference- for the world and all of us.

God does not rescue us from every trial and tribulation, but God sees us through them.  Even if we feel abandoned, God is with us, not showing us a way out, but a way through to new and resurrected life.

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6. Romans 8 :28

‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’.

Many advise never to use this text when talking with a person who is mourning and enduring grief.  Often, however, people of faith use it, trying to be positive. 

The verse gives us permission to believe that death is a hideous thing – which we are not built to take it in our stride when relationships end too abruptly and too permanently- while also believing that the hideous things are not useless to God. It perhaps can be a new lens through which we see grieving people, and see the many different ways in which hurt, regret, and confusion were accompanied by strength, hope and love.

Looking through that lens, we do not have the answers to the big questions of ‘Why?’ or ‘Why now?’ to see how God brings hope and healing to life in the wake of death. Through that lens, we see a God who is with us in our sorrow and who will use even the sorrow and grief for the good of those who love God.

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7. Luke 18 :1-8

‘And the Lord said,’…I tell you God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

What does it mean for Jesus to use a marginalised widow having a very hard time to exemplify what it means to pray always without giving up?  She is between a rock and a hard place, trapped between an opponent on one hand and an unjust judge on the other.  Yet for Jesus, she exemplifies a paragon of praise. She was not a priest, or a scribe, but a widow.

For those of us who have ever felt as if we have had our backs against the wall, between a rock and hard place, we can be confident that even when situations are hopelessly stacked against us or the people whom we love. We learn from the widow that it is our voice, our creative expression which can topple the sternest of opposition. When we speak up, praying with passion and persistence, we wield tools of great power. The odds seem hopelessly stacked against the widow, and against us, yet we still have our voices.

 

So we are to pray with our voices – whether it comes out through our vocal cords, or signing with our hands, writing with a pen, participating in demonstration of solidarity with those who look after our welfare, or however we express ourselves and our faith, we pray and do not give up.

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8. Galatians 6 :9

‘So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.’

Weariness can creep up on us in our pursuits to do what is right in both secular and sacred tasks.

If we are honest, we often find ourselves discouraged, lost, and weary in our attempts to do well in the church and our communities. It is easy to start a new project or outreach in mission with zeal and energy.  It can be difficult to keep that enthusiasm when attendance dwindles and sign up lists are only half full. It is natural to find ourselves disheartened, discouraged and even hopeless when our idea of success is not seen. Yet we are encouraged to endure in our pursuits to do what is right and fight for the good of all people.  We know that our suffering is short term, but we can be confident that the results of our labours will be bountiful when blessed by God.

The text from Galatians encourages believers to continue to work for what is right because we will see the fruits of our labours if we do not give up! At the right time, we will be able to see how God worked through the disappointments, failures, and stagnant numbers.  When we persevere through the difficult seasons, discouraging results, and barren fields, we may, in God’s time, reap the harvest that God provides.

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9. Psalm 137

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung our harps’.

Babylon was a historic site, the most famous city in ancient Mesopotamia.  For some, it was a place of splendour and of power; for others, it represented separation, subjugation and slavery.

Pain comes jumping off the page as we read over the text of Psalm 137. A major reason for the people’s pain was their forced removal from Jerusalem, which had not only been their capital, but also their spiritual centre.  The people of Israel were also humiliated by their captors, who required them to sing familiar, religious and historical songs for the entertainment of their oppressors.

Hope, however, came through the songs, as it can ours, even in the midst of pain and suffering.

I love the Lord, who heard my cry

And chased my grief away

Oh, let my heart no more despair

While I have breath to pray.

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10. I Corinthians 3 :6-9

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’

‘Remember when you said to me…’ This is the kind of thing that is often said to a minister.  Often a long forgotten sermon, or a passing remark we instantly forgot, or even something that was heard, but we may not recall having said it at all.  Often the phrase is from an interaction that is far in the past, yet had a strategic influence. Often it was not thought of as a major part of the conversation. Yet a  seed was planted and God made it grow.

Often if we look back on our lives, there are many people who were placed in or on our paths and who changed our lives.  Most often it was a word of encouragement, a smile, or some praise and affirmation.  A comment on an essay which set off inspiration and excitement about a subject we struggled to understand.  The words may not have been fancy or magical, nor were they said with the intention to change lives forever and have long lasting consequences.  They resonated within our lives and the God who created us, changed us through the planting of a seed.

Every interaction is a chance to plant a seed. Even if we never witness the growth of that seed, we can be confident that we are part of God’s creative team to change the world.

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11. II Corinthians 4: 16-18

‘…because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.’

It can be so difficult to live in this world and not lose heart. Every murder, every accidental tragedy, every disappointing human interaction, every act of discrimination or prejudice, every attack on human resilience by insidious illness, and every personal plan that goes wrong, causes us to ask questions.  We ask ourselves, ‘Will it ever end?’ ‘Is it possible for humans to feel real joy on this earth?’

If we focus our attention on the brokenness in the world, the pain is all we are going to see. We can easily lose the ability to hope because we are unable to recognise God’s love and faithfulness in the midst of personal and global tragedies which we are witnessing every day.  We need to start looking for signs of God’s activity in creative ways. It may be in a conversation that seems sacred with a friend, a few minutes of peace while we listen to the birds singing in the trees, or a hymn which touches us deep  within.  We may not be apparently growing, but are assured that God renews our sprit each day.

Are we ready to notice and recognise the presence of God in our time and place?

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12. Psalm 77

‘Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters, yet your footprints were unseen’

The hymn writer William Cowper may have been inspired by this Psalm when he wrote :

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

We find it very difficult at times to make sense of the pain, the seeming lack of divine plan or purpose in the world today. The psalmist eventually is released from his depth of despair by rehearsing God’s faithful acts of the past. Yet, and this is important, even as the fog lifts, concealing clouds remain. William Cowper continues :

 

God’s purposes will ripen fast

Unfolding every hour

The bud may leave a bitter taste

 But sweet will be the flower

The storms brew around us, and sometimes come to a climax. We may find it tough to try to trace God’s footprints, but we can trust in the definite and reliable providential love of our faithful and gracious Saviour.

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13. Matthew 28 : 1-10

‘…and indeed he is going ahead of you’

Most of us have plans, even if the plan is just to create a plan. We create plans for our work, our relationships, children, finances, futures, pensions and how we will recover from our past mistakes.

We do not readily or willingly admit this, but we also have plans for Jesus.  Like the first disciples, we started following Jesus because we thought he would lead us to a better life.  That was the plan. Then, on Good Friday, we experienced in some way the crucifixion of all those expectations. 

We then went in our journey with the Marys, Mary Magdalen and her name sake, to the tomb to mourn the loss of the one we thought could save our dreams and make our plans a reality. We found that we could not even count on our plans to grieve because we, like them, have discovered that the tomb is empty.  Jesus never stays where we leave him.

The words of the angel at the tomb reverberate far and wide, and address our condition.  He tells us, and the women, that Jesus ‘is going ahead of you’. This is as much of a plan as we ever can receive from Jesus. We know little about the future, but we do know that a risen Saviour is waiting there. This is the only plan we will ever need.

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