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BANNER If God exists...

There are no easy answers to that, but we explored this BIG question and more together on zoom on 19 January 2021. 

Below is a transcript of the meeting. 

 

If God exists, why doesn’t he come and sort this mess out ?

Welcome everyone. Thanks very much for logging in.

In different times, we would be in the same room and it would be an opportunity to discuss in person and to gather wisdom from each other. Sadly,  that’s not possible today, but hopefully a little later there will be an opportunity for those of us who’d like to, to break into smaller groups to discuss and reflect a bit. Some of us I know will prefer just to listen and that’s fine, you’d be very welcome to just stay muted.

I should say, that it’s very possible that you’ll have more questions at the end of this that when you started. And actually, that’s a good thing, that’s healthy, that’s a sign of growth. I should also say, that there is no such thing as a stupid question.  In the future we’d like to explore some of your other Questions, so, if you have any... feel free to put them in the chat at the end. On my laptop, when I screen share a PowerPoint, I can’t see chat and my experience is that it can distracting, so if you can, hold off until the end - that would be fantastic.

Hopefully we won’t go much over an hour tonight.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably...

‘If God exists, why doesn’t he come and sort this mess out?’

Now, I do need to start with a disclaimer/spoiler... I don’t know the answer, and anyone who says they do, be just a little bit suspicious, because I don’t believe there is a water-tight answer. We’re dealing with God here; the ultimate mystery.     I’ve spent a good 40 years thinking about it off and on, so tonight will be a few thoughts and ideas and responses I’ve found helpful. And I’m sure some of you will add to the mix and that’s the great thing about learning together. 

‘If God exists..’

So, the question presumes that there is a God, however we understand that word.  You might be relieved to hear that  I do believe that God exists!  What I will say is that with time and experience my idea of God has changed a lot over the years. And it continues to so. So tonight, be warned, we might have to risk re-evaluating our own ideas about God. 

I imagine among us there will be a spectrum of belief in the existence of God. Some of us will feel pretty certain, others less so. Maybe some of us fluctuate between the two depending on how life is treating us. If we’re honest it’s the messy times, the times when we can’t make sense of things or when we’re going through pain or hardship, or those close to us are, that we begin to doubt the goodness or the power or the existence of God. 

It’s these hard times that show us just what kind of God we believe in. Because behind those question ‘where are you?’, or ‘why?’ is usually the idea that God has somehow guaranteed an easier life, or should be looking out for us; or should be stepping in to sort things out. 

So, assuming God exists... why doesn’t he come and sort this mess out?

This is much more than a theoretical question. There will be times in our lives, perhaps none more so than these times, when a particular ‘mess’, or suffering will be at the forefront of our thoughts, so I want, before we properly get into the head stuff, just for a moment, to give a little space for the heart stuff. So a question - What particular mess, yours, others, the world’s is on your heart at this particular moment?

Just sit with that for a second.

Tonight, isn’t about trying to give tidy answers to the mess, or actually is it about letting God off the hook – some suffering I think is indefensible and the only proper response is to scream the heavens blue.  We will not solve this but hopefully we might make some sense of it, create some scaffolding; a theology if you like, ideas that will help us hold the tensions and find some meaning or comfort within them. 

The question itself ‘why doesn’t God come and sort this mess out?’ is, and I take comfort from this, one we find a lot in the Old Testament and in the raw honesty of the Psalms in particular.  Isaiah 64 v 1 says   ‘Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!’

This idea of God coming down and sorting things out is a big one in the Bible, and there are many examples there of God’s intervention in human history and individual lives. There’s also in some places almost this idea of karma; cause and effect; whatever goes around comes around; we reap what we sow. It’s what lies behind questions like ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ I’ll stick my neck out here however and say I don’t believe that a good life shields us from bad things; and God doesn’t make those kinds of guarantees; we are all subject to the same fragile life and the same sheer bad luck. What God does promise however is to be with us in it. We’ll come back to that.

I’d like to outline three possible approaches to this question which together might help us form something of our own response.

The first is the idea of human freedom or free will.
God did not create human beings like robots, pre-programmed to do exactly what we are intended to do. Instead he took the biggest risk in giving us free will; freedom to make our own choices, to use our own power for good or for otherwise. This is essentially what makes us human. It is also if you think about it a pre-condition for love.  Love cannot be manufactured or programmed. Neither can it be demanded or bought. For love to be love it must always be freely given. No freedom - no love and arguably love is what all this is about.   The problem with freedom is that we can abuse it   - Emotionally, physically, economically.  And we all do.   So much of the world’s mess and pain stems from the selfish and cruel or ignorant choices human beings make.

We’re all very aware that the way we choose to live for example impacts the environment – which impacts everything.  If you saw David Attenborough’s Extinction programme you’ll also know that humanity is trespassing into ecosystems with terrible consequences not just for the earth and the animals but also for us...  it’s thought for instance that Covid 19 and other viruses can be traced back to trespassing where we shouldn’t.

Lots of us would like a God who regularly intervenes. If we had power to prevent our own child being hurt we would use it. Why then shouldn’t God parachute in and do something?
The question is where does God draw the line? If we expect God to curb someone else’s free will then we should also expect him to curb ours. And to step in every single time a human being makes a wrong choice would that not be to defeat the purpose of life and indeed love? Maybe our second approach will help us think this through a little more.
Our second approach could be summed up in some words by the poet John Keats who described the world as a vale or place of soul-making. What he seems to be saying is that only a world containing the possibility of suffering and hardship would allow us to truly grow and develop as people.

Think about that…
  • If there was no danger in the world, then there would be no such thing as courage
  • If the world contained an abundance of everything, there would be no such thing as generosity or selflessness
  • And if there were no challenges or setbacks in life, there would be no opportunities to develop perseverance and character because it is largely as we know our failures and setbacks and yes our sufferings that make us who we are
Let me share with you a story I heard many years ago…
A young child was watching a chrysalis and inside she could see the butterfly struggling to get free. Thinking she could help she found a scalpel and very carefully, very gently opened the chrysalis to release the butterfly. Because the butterfly however had not had the experience of fighting and strengthening its wings, it did not have the strength to fly
What seemed like a kindness was in fact a disservice.

All that we value about humanity would be unrecognizable without the chrysalis of hardship. We would lose whole layers of meaning and depth from our lives. If there were no hardships and challenges, or if God always intervened to sweep our difficulties aside or to cut us free, then human life would be of a totally different order, we would not become who we were created to be; we would never grow up.

This has even led some Christian writers to suggest that God’s world is good in a highly specific sense. It is good in the sense that it is fit for a very important purpose. It is the right sort of environment for soul-making – for giving people the opportunity to grow and develop and become.   There are undoubtedly some important insights within this but some suffering is so damned awful, so inexcusable, so crushing that it is very hard to see it as part of some Masterplan.   

Reflect on this idea… does God ever intend or cause suffering?    My own personal belief is that although the conditions for life and love can be traced back to the Creator, the God I believe in, never intentionally causes or sends suffering to test or better us.

The first approach focused on the mess caused through human wrongdoing. The second on the character of suffering and on the complex and profound part it plays in human becoming. The third approach focuses on the way in which God creates.

Think about the workings of a clock. It’s an incredible piece of craftsmanship and engineering, made to operate in one pre-set, pre-determined way.   Creation however isn’t like a clock. God created the material world with the capacity to develop in its own way – so that it wouldn’t just be a rigid extension of himself. We do not live in a world where every aspect of existence, where every change and development in the natural order has been wholly pre-determined from the outset.    If the material world genuinely possesses some degree of potential, some capacity to develop in its own way, then it must also possess some potential to develop elements of disorder.

Evolution shouldn’t be a dirty word to Christians – it’s not asking the same questions that Genesis for example is trying to grapple with. Nor does it negate the need for a Creator. Evolution gives us some very helpful insights into how things evolve and mutate, and helps explain perhaps why diseases and other dysfunctions emerge.   Sickness and suffering are part of the cycle of life; from the insect to the mountain everything is subject to that process, even stars are born, they live and they die. If there is to be new life, then the old must die - our planet cannot sustain us all. And we all die from something; so disease regrettably is necessary. That’s cold comfort I know when someone we love is taken far too early.

Going to pause there to go into smaller groups to chat for about ten minutes max. Please don’t feel you need to say anything – keep yourself muted and people will know not to ask. If you do want to chat remember to unmute yourself. You might want to take a screen shot of these questions
 
There is as I said at the beginning no watertight answer to this question. I personally believe that rather than asking God to come and sort this mess out, God has asked us, wherever we are and with what choices and power we have, to do everything we can to sort this mess out. That’s in my experience,  how God works most of the time... through you and me; God needs us.

In these times of Covid for instance; God I believe is the one who inspires the compassion that drives the ICU staff, who inspires the wisdom and the expertise that has led to the development of vaccines; who inspires a neighbour to do the shopping for someone shielding; who inspires you and me to observe hands, face, space. 

Christianity believes that God is not passive in the face of all this suffering.  Christians believe that in Jesus God entered wholesale into the reality of being human. He shared all of our experience; the highs and the hell of being human. On the cross he took the full force of our cruelty and inhumanity, he absorbed all that our free will could throw at him. He hung in solidarity with all those who have and still suffer and finally he faced the agony of that great disorder, death.

So God understands from personal experience what suffering is. And he waits with us and walks with us and weeps with us in the midst of it.  But the death of Jesus is not the end of the story of course; Christians believe in resurrection; this idea that God takes the broken pieces of life and crafts them into something called hope; that deep, certain knowledge that goodness is always stronger than evil, that light is stronger than darkness, that love is stronger even than death. In the end love wins.   God will make all things new; will heal even the most broken heart, will dry every eye red with weeping. That is a promise.

As professor Hans Kung says ‘God’s kingdom is creation healed’.   And that kingdom comes, through us; the ways we use our freedom to alleviate the suffering of others, to bring healing with our words and our presence and our expertise and our choices.

I’m indebted to the vicar of St Martins in the Fields Sam Wells who offers three ways of praying within suffering – some of the St A and St M folk have heard this.  He asks us to imagine a moment after church over coffee when we begin chatting to someone and just as we are about to break off the conversation, that person touches our arm and says ‘say a prayer for my dad will you, he’s not himself, the dementia’s getting worse, he’s disappearing before my eyes’.   And at that moment you realise you are standing on holy ground, looking into the fear and heartbreak of your friend’s soul. And instinctively you say ‘of course, of course I’ll pray’  But where do you start, how do we pray about such a slow burning tragedy?

Sam suggests that usually we pray in one of two ways:

The first he calls the prayer of resurrection; ‘God fix this, override the rules of this world, step in and make possible the impossible. Reverse this disease’. After all resurrection isn’t this what our faith is built on?. Should we not expect the miraculous? Isn’t it a question of just having enough faith? And a big part of us wants to pray like this but we’re afraid; afraid that we don’t have enough faith; afraid of our hopes getting trashed.

The second prayer he calls the prayer of Incarnation; ’God in Jesus you shared our pain and sorrow and sheer bad luck. Jesus you were broken and desolate and alone with no guarantees. Visit my friend now and sit with them, hold their hand and give them patience and hope to get them through the day and send companions to show you care’
It’s a prayer I find myself praying often. It’s usually as far as my faith can stretch. I cannot bring myself to offer hope that may prove to be false. I trust that the simple knowledge that my friend is not alone might be enough. And in praying of course for companions I must be prepared myself to be part of that answer. 

There is a third prayer however, one Sam calls the prayer of transfiguration:
‘God in your son’s transfiguration we see a whole new reality within, beneath and beyond what we thought we understood. In their times of bewilderment and confusion show my friend and her father that they may find a deeper truth to their life than they ever knew, make firmer friends than they ever had, find reasons for living beyond what they ever imagined and be folded into your grace like never before. Peel back the beauty and strength of their true humanity, transform and transfigure from this chaos and pain something new, something good, something of life’.   There are I think few prayers as powerful as the prayer of transfiguration.  It’s not the prayer of fix this and take it off my desk nor be with me and share this struggle. It’s a prayer which asks God to take us up the mountain, upstairs even if just for a moment so that we can see beyond and know a deeper reality

To end a prayer of transfiguration for any of us going through tough times;

‘Make this trial and tragedy, this problem and pain a glimpse of your glory, a window into your world, where I can see you face, sense the mystery in all things, and walk with angels and saints. Bring me closer to you in this crisis than I have ever been in calmer times. Make this a moment of truth and when I cower in fear and feel alone, touch me and raise me and make me alive like never before…’

Thank you all very much for coming and contributing and bringing your own story and your own wisdom.

Just to say, that if there’s anything you’d value chatting through in person, we’re still allowed to go for a walk with one other – so drop me a line – my email is on the screen


 


 

Glenys
Hello and welcome to St Andrew's. If you are new, we have a page for you to get to know us and learn more about planning a visit.
Click here to see more.

Planning your Visit

A Warm Hello 

The following information is specifically for those planning a visit so that you know, beforehand, what to expect on a Sunday morning. During the period of Covid-19, please see the information at the bottom of this page.

Where and When

We meet at the Church Building (details below) for our main Sunday Service starting at 10.30am. For your first visit, we recommend arriving 10-15 minutes early to ensure you find a parking space and can settle in before the service begins. When you arrive, you should be greeted by someone on our Welcome Team who will be wearing a Welcome Badge.

Plan your journey:
Unfortunately, St Andrew's does not have its own carpark. However, there is a council-run pay and display carpark a short distance along St Andrew Street, to the east of the church - there is no charge for parking in this carpark on Sundays, but please check for charges on other days.

This is a useful East Herts Council website page for full details of parking in Hertford.

There are single yellow lines outside the church with parking restrictions, but some 30-minute parking bays are situated on the opposite side of the road for short stays (longer on Sundays).

Open Google Maps

Accessibility: There is wheelchair access, and a sound loop for anyone who needs it. Please let one of the Welcome Team know on your arrival and they will help you to get set up. There is a disabled toilet towards the back of the church, behind the kitchen.

Our Service

The service will usually begin promptly at 10.30am and will last between 60 and 75 minutes. We enjoy the presence of an excellent choir who help us sing hymns (modern and traditional) as well as provide anthems and special songs through the period of communion. We have a traditional organ but also benefit from music played on the piano and by our band (eg on the Second Sunday of each month when we have an All-Age Service in which our children and young people are fully involved).

Each 10.30am service includes a sermon, prayers and eucharist.

After the service, everyone is invited for coffee and conversation - some like to stay for a  quick chat while others remain in the church for a longer time.

Communion

Children and Young People

We have a great programme lined up for our children. This is organised by our Family, Children and Youth Worker, Tracy Plumpton, who is always delighted to welcome new faces. Those arriving before their first service at St Andrew’s can ask to see Tracy or one of the other leaders.

We really value worshipping God together as a family, so children stay with their parent or grown-up at the start of the service before being invited to leave for the age appropriate activities after the first hymn. You will need to go with your children to their groups and register them as part of our child safety policy.

The children and young people then return to the main service in time to join the eucharist and, if confirmed, take Holy Communion or, if not, receive a blessing.

There is a Children's Corner in church where you can go at any time. You will find books, toys and drawing materials there.

Toilet and baby-change facilities are located at the back of church, behind the kitchen.

Junior Church celebration

Getting Connected


Home Groups

While Sundays are a great way to meet new people, it is often in smaller gatherings that you can really get to know someone. Being part of one of our small groups allows you to make new friends, share together and support each other. We have a variety of groups that meet throughout the week. Check out Home Groups on our website and see if there’s one that you could join. Alternatively, speak to a member of the Welcome Team who will give you the information that you need.

Serving and Volunteering

If you want to get involved in the life of the church and help us make Sundays run smoothly, you can sign up to serve on a team. Please contact Phil in the Church Office.

SPECIAL ARRANGEMENTS DURING COVID-19:
What we describe above reflects our normal practice on Sunday mornings. However, since March 2020 we have had to adopt new ways of organising ourselves. For up-to-date information about current services (in church and online via Zoom), please look at details on our Worship and Prayer Page and note that when we're able to worship inside the church building, we ask you to book places at our 10.30am Sunday Service in church (book here). Everyone entering the church is asked to wear a face covering (don’t worry if you forget, we have a supply by the entrance door!).
 
Get in touch with us
If you have any questions, please do get in touch. You'll find our contact details here.

We hope that you will feel at home at our church.