Sunday, April 12, 2009

We don't do God.

I really didn't like her. She was loud-mouthed with foul language; her sexually flagrant behavior on reality TV was offensive to me. She was uneducated and ignorant. She hurled racist insults at other cast members. My best thoughts for her were to ignore her. When she turned out to have terminal cancer, derived from a sexually-transmitted disease, I felt, "Well, what can you expect?"

Yet she had a great public following. She was news, albeit handled by a great publicity machine. You could perhaps find extenuating circumstances; a doctor I know looked after her father, a heroin addict recently discharged from prison and infected with hepatitis C when he came into hospital with his muscles dissolving because he had been lying inert on them for days.

But I found the sermon preached at her funeral when she died. I quote a slightly edited version.

"Reality's a word that's often been linked to her: a star, possibly the greatest star of what we call reality TV. But we know, don't we, that her life was far from free of some of the harsher realities of life. She had her fair share, possibly more than her fair share, of life's hardships. But as we've seen, particularly over the past months, she's inspired so many with her courage in fighting cancer and her dignity in facing death."

"There's one thing we don't expect to find as we come to bury this vibrant 27 year old mother, daughter, wife and friend - HOPE. Even when we're faced with the harsh reality of death, hope is what is offered by the Christian faith, the Christian faith into which she herself was baptised just four weeks ago today. And that hope is not found in the rules or rituals of an ancient religion, but in a living person, Jesus Christ, whose name she wasn't afraid to take on her lips: not as a swear word but as the name of the person she wanted her children to get to know for themselves."

"I know that she liked reading the gospel of Luke in the New Testament; it's the one that highlights God's love for unlikely people. She will have read there how Jesus welcomed those who weren't particularly religious, and how Jesus spent time with people like herself: down to earth people whose lives, like hers, were at times flawed and difficult, but whose lives were precious to God. And she will have read there, in Luke's gospel, of Jesus bringing the hope that we all need. She discovered that turning to Jesus brought comfort and peace for herself and her children. She discovered it late on, but she discovered it in time. Why not discover it for yourselves now?"

"You see, we don't have all the answers to our questions of suffering and pain. But we do have Jesus who shares what we're going through, and who shows infinite compassion and care. We don't have the guarantee of a pain-free life, but we do have Jesus, who can walk with us through illness, grief and anything else life may throw at us. We don't have a way of finally escaping death, but we do have Jesus, who died for us and then defeated death itself at Easter, giving us hope of life beyond the grave. And that life is not just a continuation of what we have now, but a life that is finally free from sickness, from pain, from grief, and from all that spoils our lives and our world here. How true are her words that heaven is a place where sick people go to be made well, because heaven is where we finally meet face to face Jesus, the greatest healer of all, who alone is able to make our broken lives whole."

"Her baptism symbolised that she had made a choice, a choice that we can - that we must - all make: to trust in the Jesus that we find, not only in Luke's gospel, but in the whole of the Bible. I had the privilege last week of being able to see the Bible she read from. She underlined one chapter more fully than any other. It's one of the most momentous passages of the whole Bible. and it's actually in the Old Testament, in a book of the Bible called Isaiah and chapter 53. The words were written 700 years before Jesus, but speak of him and describe exactly what He came to do. They're words that lie at the heart of the Christian faith and describe the events of Good Friday that Christians will remember this coming week. Here are some of the words that she underlined:

All of us were like sheep that were lost,

Each of us going his own way.

But the Lord made the punishment fall on him,

The punishment all of us deserve.

"These words explain that it is possible to be confident about heaven, even though our lives are flawed. You see none of us - not you, not me, not her - can stand before a holy God with lives free from mistakes, from faults, from things that we regret. As these verses that she underlined tell us, we don't have perfect lives. But we do have Jesus, who opened heaven's doors: not for great achievers, not for those who think they are better than others, but for people like her, who simply reach out to Jesus and trust in him, even when all else seems hopeless."

"To me, the fact these verses are underlined means that she understood this incredible good news about Jesus. It means that she has only completed the first chapter of a life that continues in his loving presence. It means that when the last column inches have been written about her unforgettable life, then that in no way is the end of her story."

Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin-doctor famously said, "We don't do God." For the past many years God has ben sidelined from public life. Priests are portrayed on television as wimps or buffoons, the public face of religion is compromising or asinine, or even worse positively scary. The press loves to build people up so as to be able to tear them down. I was encouraged, therefore, this Easter that individuals were prepared to stand up for their faith and not be ashamed.

AN Wilson is an author, journalist, pundit and member of the chattering classes. In yesterday's Daily Mail he, too, came out of the closet. In an article that again I reproduce in a slightly edited version, he says:

"For much of my life, I, too, have been one of those who did not believe. It was in my young manhood that I began to wonder how much of the Easter story I accepted, and in my 30s I lost any religious belief whatsoever. Like many people who lost faith, I felt anger with myself for having been 'conned' by such a story. I began to rail against Christianity, and wrote a book, entitled Jesus, which endeavoured to establish that he had been no more than a messianic prophet who had well and truly failed, and died."

"Why did I, along with so many others, become so dismissive of Christianity?
Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti. To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy, like having spots or wearing specs."

"This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio. The vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia in Britain are unbelievers, many of them quite fervent in their hatred of religion itself. In this world they ignore all the benign aspects of religion and see it purely as a sinister agent of control, especially over women.
One suspects this is how it is viewed in most liberal circles, in university common rooms, at the BBC and, perhaps above all, sadly, by the bishops of the Church of England, who despite their episcopal regalia, nourish few discernible beliefs that could be distinguished from the liberalism of the age."

"For ten or 15 of my middle years, I, too, was one of the mockers. But, as time passed, I found myself going back to church, although at first only as a fellow traveller with the believers, not as one who shared the faith that Jesus had truly risen from the grave. Some time over the past five or six years - I could not tell you exactly when - I found that I had changed."

"My own return to faith has surprised no one more than myself. Why did I return to it? Partially, perhaps it is no more than the confidence I have gained with age.
Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists; foul-mouthed, self-satisfied TV presenters and the smug, tieless architects of so much television output. But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known - not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die."

"The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people's lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings. Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love - whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends - and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves."

"Ah, say the rationalists. But no one can possibly rise again after death, for that is beyond the realm of scientific possibility. And it is true to say that no one can ever prove - nor, indeed, disprove - the existence of an after-life or God, or answer the conundrums of honest doubters (how does a loving God allow an earthquake in Italy?)"

"Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person. In the past, I have questioned its veracity and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it. Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ.
Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus's trial - and just how historical the Gospel accounts are."

"Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith. Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I've been convinced without it. And in contrast to those ephemeral pundits of today, I have as my companions in belief such Christians as Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Johnson and all the saints, known and unknown, throughout the ages. When that great saint Thomas More, Chancellor of England, was on trial for his life for daring to defy Henry VIII, one of his prosecutors asked him if it did not worry him that he was standing out against all the bishops of England."

"He replied: 'My lord, for one bishop of your opinion, I have a hundred saints of mine.'"

"Now, I think of that exchange and of his bravery in proclaiming his faith. Our bishops and theologians, frightened as they have been by the pounding of secularist guns, need that kind of bravery more than ever. Sadly, they have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all. As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.
Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat. The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story."

"J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music. Most of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past 1,500 years have believed it. But an even stronger argument is the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives - the lives of the men and women with whom you mingle on a daily basis, the man, woman or child next to you in church each Sunday morning."

My final example is Paul Moore. He was a banker, hardly anyone's favorite profession these days. He was head of regulatory affairs at Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS). He was a bit of a hero. In 2004 he warned the bank against lending to people with no means of repaying the debt and against the unregulated investment in toxic assets. His protests were brushed aside and the chief financial officer even refused to minute them. Despite this he continued to protest and the CEO eventually dismissed him, replacing him with a man with no experience in banking regulation.

He was devastated. When he phoned his wife she replied, "Perhaps this is all part of God's wider plan for your life."

You see he was a Christian, though not boasting about it, just living quietly and getting on with his life. On suing for unfair dismissal he was offered a large financial settlement and a gagging order. He wrestled with his conscience and, perhaps wrongly, took the money. God is a God of second chances. When the financial crisis broke he was given another opportunity to tell his story. Now, despite the gagging order he told the House of Commons Select Committee the whole truth about why the public needed to spend 28 billion pounds to bail out HBOS, who the culpable executives were and why Sir James Crosby, former CEO of HBOS was no fit person to run the financial services authority (FSA).

This morning on a BBC radio news program, Paul Moore gave his testimony. He told how his faith allowed him to cope with this crisis in his life. He is not a socialist; he believes in capitalism. But he also believes in honesty and telling the truth, a capacity sadly absent from the high echelons of power, whether political or financial.

So this Easter Day I am pleased to report that a TV reality star, member of the chattering classes and a banker have all declared their love of the Lord Jesus. More importantly, Jesus has shown that anyone can be saved.


Marcia said...

I agree that it is the unknown witness of unknown people that is often crucial for the Spirit's work in bringing faith! Thanks for the three stories!

Watcher said...

As I read the stories, I felt greatly encouraged, particularly as we live in an environment that is cynically empty: from its great font of negativity Christian faith and heritage is marginalised, ignored and denigrated, but that doesn't particularly effect me emotionally: because the only offering in subsitution is like dust running through the fingers: there is nothing to offer, not even the values that the 'left' trades in on the basis of a now disregarded Christian view of life and relationships.

Deb Light said...

How wonderful to know that the Reality Star of whom you speak (I've seen clips from her show) came to know the Lord before she died.

Also the author of that book against Christianity.

God is good!

I hope both of their lives will serve to set an example that our God is a forgiving God and it is never too late to accept him.

Thank You Dr. Terry for this well written piece!

Hope you are feeling well!
God Bless,
Deb Light