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God Doesn’t Stand at the Crossroads

I remember once during a parish mission I was leading, that a fine young man was very involved in the preparation week and then came to the first of the big evening services of the mission. But then he never came back for the rest of the week, and I missed him. It was only at the end of the mission fortnight that I met his father who explained that his son had heard God speaking to him through the mission and telling him to be His priest. The good young chap had set his sights on a particular career and marriage, and frankly – he ran away. He didn’t want to face what God was saying to him in his heart.

Some years ago I wrote a poem called “God Doesn’t Stand at the Crossroads”:
God Doesn’t Stand at the Crossroads

What I tried to express in this poem, and it is pertinent to my life, is that, as we journey through our lives we often face decisions, sometimes small but sometimes major, and these decision moments can be like coming to a crossroads or a junction. We can rarely stand still – we usually have to go one way or the other. And having chosen a certain route, and travelled a distance, we may look back and wonder… did I take the right path?

So often, after we have committed to a particular direction, we receive new information and insights that we just didn’t have back then at the crossroads, and we all know about hindsight – how we can condemn ourselves unjustly for not knowing then what we know now.

Often times, our decisions will be right and appropriate for our stage in life, but what do we do when we begin to realise that we in fact took a wrong direction? This wrong direction may not necessarily bring in sin and guilt – after all, none of us has a crystal ball and we can sometimes only hope for the best and even sometimes change direction within our choices. And of course sometimes there is no going back…

Sometimes though, we come to realise that we did take a wrong turn. This wrong turn can be chosen through selfishness, immaturity or peer pressure, or through the complexities of life, etc. But equally we may conclude that we purposely (consciously?) blocked certain facts and chose what seemed to us to be the most appealing (most convenient?) option.

And what about God? I believe that God has a clear purpose for our lives – a purpose that will absolutely be the best for us and for others. A purpose which nonetheless may not be an easy path, and may actually involve the Cross. Whatever path God may want us to follow – our true vocation – He in no way can force us to follow this ‘best path’. He can only hope that we make the effort to discern His will and that other people are there to guide us.

What then can we say when it becomes clear that we effectively dodged His will and purposely took a ‘wrong’ path? Does God, so to speak, stand back at the decision point implacably waiting for us to crawl back? I think Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son makes it very clear that while God cannot prevent or force our path He waits, waits patiently, even impatiently, but with ready forgiveness for when we come to our senses. And if, unlike the Prodigal Son, we cannot realistically retrace our steps, I think God is actually always at our side, ever ready to embrace us with His unconditional love. I think God actually adjusts His will and accepts our ‘now’ and graces us with a ‘new beginning’.

I wonder if that young man did indeed get married and reject what appeared to be God’s will for him? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is clear – God loves him regardless and is with him always. After all, there is nothing we can do to stop God loving us,

Martin

God’s Ways are Not Our Ways

There is an old story told – I doubt it is a true story – about a woman who lost the key to her cottage door. She was very concerned and upset because she had to wedge the door shut with a chair to make her feel safe at night. As a devout Catholic she had a statue of St Anthony and she decided to pray to St Anthony that he might find her key.

NB there is an old tradition of praying to St Anthony for finding things that have been lost. I think this arose because St Anthony, a Franciscan priest in the thirteenth century, had lost a precious book – it actually had been stolen – and through his prayers it was eventually returned to him.

So she prayed, and she prayed. A day went by, then another, and another, and still the key was not found. After a full week she got so annoyed with St Anthony that she grabbed his statue and threw it out into the field. But then she felt bad and had second thoughts. It wasn’t right to throw a holy statue away. After a while she decided to go and fetch the statue lying across in the field. She went over to retrieve the statue and – lo and behold – beside the statue in the grass was her missing key! She would never have found it otherwise. St Anthony had delivered after all.

A pious story of dubious origin, and therefore not a story worth bothering with? Best consigned to the waste bin of junk religious curiosities and anyway, we shouldn’t be praying to anyone but God Himself. Well yes, but…

I tell this story because I think there is a certain logic, a divine logic, to the story. Let me explain. When we pray and ask God (or pray to Him through His saints) for something, be it a missing key or even something much more important such as the health of a loved one or for peace in the world, we have to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. So often we ask but we really want the answer or the solution to be as we want and we expect it to be. And also to be granted in our own timescale. But often as not God has other ideas. And His ways are always best though we may often not appreciate that.

The woman in the story wanted to find her key. She wanted to find it and she wanted to find it straight away. Her logic. Her timescale. And perfectly understandable. The key mattered after all. St Anthony – but really God – led her to the key. But not in the way she expected.

A corny story, with a cheesy ending? I can’t disagree, and I’m afraid such stories are often given to the faithful as if they are Gospel truths. But, even in such corny tales there can be a morsel of truth. I think the story’s happy ending actually illustrates this profound truth that God’s ways are different to ours, and always have far better outcomes. For God sees with an eternal perspective. He knows what is best for us and everyone. We see only partially. God sees the totality.

I believe God always answers sincere prayer. As Scripture says:

“The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.” Sirach 35: 21

The humble and sincere person may actually sense what really matters, and may therefore ask more appropriately.

In terms of asking God for something, the lessons may be: especially if we feel that God hasn’t answered our prayer:

~ is our prayer in keeping with His greater purpose?

~ what is God’s timescale for a resolution?

~ is He in fact wanting us to look further and elsewhere to see the answer?

If we only knew how much God loves us we would never doubt that He delights to hear and answer us.

Martin

The Absence of God

A story I’ve told elsewhere and believe to be true is of how a Jewish person scratched with their fingernails on the wall of the gas chamber as they were dying the following words: “There is no God”.

Their sad but completely understandable conviction surely resonates with everyone who has ever suffered, especially when that suffering is great and unsolvable, such as parents facing the illness and death of a young child. And while we religious folk maintain that God has spoken through Jesus, through the Bible, through holy men and women through the ages, and still speaks through the signs of the times, through the natural world, and through our own conscience, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that for all practical purposes God appears to be absent in our world and in our lives.

It really doesn’t do to try and fudge this issue, and no amount of pious sermonising and religious ritual will persuade decent people who have cast off any pretence at belief in a god. Words, as they say, are cheap. And yet a blog fundamentally depends on words, so what can I say here to honestly address the seeming absence of God?

The first aspect should be to attempt to answer the question: why, if God is supposed to be all-loving, does He hide from us? Why, if He truly is all-powerful, does He not intervene to convince and even to heal?

The answer touches the very nature of love, and it may sound counter-intuitive but God is absent precisely because He loves us! We are created in radical freedom, and this necessitates that God must stand back and allow us choices. Even God cannot have it both ways: either He steps outside of human life and allows us to be ourselves, or He is present and compromises that radical freedom. And so, the absence of God in this life is the very touchstone of His great love and the very guarantee of our great dignity as free beings made in His image. I don’t think there is any getting around this ‘fact’ of life and death.

I believe that God loves all creation, and not just human beings but the entire universe. I further believe that this life is but the momentary preparation for the real life, the eternal life, where choice will no longer be an issue, and will no longer engage and torment us with its complexities and consequences. That eternal life will be fully redeemed and healed, and is where God desperately wants us to be, with Him forever. In that life to come, we achieve our full potential, and there will be no more sin, no more suffering, no more goodbyes, and no more death. We cannot begin to conceive of such a world, and if we but knew a fraction of it we would be enthralled and desirous of arriving at our true home. And full of joy.

So a wonderful future lies ahead of us – but… we have no proof of this. No one has come back from the dead to confirm this, and even the claim that Jesus has risen from the dead cannot be proved. Where does that leave us?

The unavoidable truth is that we need faith. Faith is not irrational. It is not believing in fairy tales. In fact, everyone lives by faith – even atheists and agnostics, since no one can one hundred percent guarantee that what we take in with our senses is in fact reality.

Faith honours mystery. And mystery is not nonsense – it is the limit of our understanding. Faith, based on a judicious evaluation of reality, is actually the honest path – the true way of human life in this world. And as regards faith in God, the revelation of Jesus resonates with what we can discern in our hearts – an inner truth that is common to all humanity.

God appears absent in this life. God will not ‘descend’ in a cloud and sort us out! We have therefore to accept this and work to understand the meaning behind our existence. Ultimately however, it is not formal belief in God that will see us home to our eternal destiny – it is quite simply love.

“He who lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in him.” 1 John 4: 16

For God is love,

Martin

Racism is an Obscenity

In an earlier blog, “Loving without Limits”, I tried to articulate how the quality of our love should always mirror the quality of God’s love for us – namely that His love is utterly unconditional and inclusive. God loves everyone without exception, and we are called to do the same. No exceptions.

In that earlier blog I used the image of the corral – to express how we often build a barrier around ourselves and especially around our tribe or kin. What this means is that we tend to love and associate with our own kind and – while we may not hate others – we effectively don’t care or bother with those outside our ‘circle’. This corral mentality is akin to racism and is also a fundamental denial of the love that we are all called to show – if we are serious about following Christ.

It follows therefore that racism is totally against the Gospel of Jesus, and if we claim to follow Christ and have racist inclinations, whether overt or subtle, we are being at best hypocritical but in fact living in direct opposition to His teaching. And while we may fool others, and even ourselves, we will never ever fool God. Racism and Christianity are diametrically opposed.

But I want to go even further than this and say that racism in all its forms is actually an obscenity in the eyes of God. And while all sins can be forgiven and God’s love is certainly greater than human sin, the sin of racism is an awful cancer in the human soul, and its effects are widespread and often devastating. Read “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox if you want a horrendous account of unbridled racism – in our day and age.

Imagine fifty people come into a room to meet you for the first time. You don’t know them but immediately – on the basis of their skin colour – you tell a number to go: you don’t want to meet them or have anything to do with them. How utterly illogical and stupid is that? You have made a value judgment on the basis of something that none of us can change. And why would we ever want to change our skin colour? Victims of racism may well have an answer to that question.

It is hard to love someone who has done you harm, and wanting to avoid them is perhaps only natural. But to want to avoid someone because of their skin colour? Someone you may never have met before and have no idea of whether they are good or bad? This is why I say that racism is an obscenity in the eyes of God. It is the worst form of corralling love. It strikes at the very heart of the core nature of God’s love.

Jesus actually emphasised this in many of His parables, where He was at pains to state that it is the other, the foreigner, the stranger, the ‘least’ who should be the focus of our love, and is often the very person who may show us love. He goes further and directly states:

“If you only love those who love you… “ (Matthew 5: 46)

meaning that love of our own kin or tribe to the exclusion of others is not what God asks of us. And we are always to give in the measure which we have received from God – that is, without limit.

Most of us, as good people, might say that we don’t hate others and that we don’t hate those who are different to us, whether in the colour of skin or perhaps ideology, sexual identity, or whatever. But racism can be very subtle, and I think there are profound undercurrents of racism particularly in ‘western’ societies that we imbibe from our earliest breaths. This may manifest as perhaps choosing to talk to someone of the same colour at a meeting, but this inclination can also involve the same sex, the same dress code, the same age group, even when we recognise the same accent – to the exclusion of others. At such events I feel that Jesus is prompting me to go and speak to the obvious stranger, the apparent loner, etc. We should, all of us, take the time to look into our hearts and try to discern if we have any subtle prejudices that God may be wanting to heal.

As Christians we are called to hold no barriers – even with those who have done us wrong! While that last point is hard, we should certainly not hold barriers simply on those unchangeable qualities of skin colour, sex, and age.

To be a racist is terrible. To be a racist and Christian is beyond obscene.

God made us who we are, and loves us as we are. All of us!

Martin

Always Hope

No matter how dark things can get, no matter how desperate things appear – there is always hope. To use the old metaphor, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. And this simple fact is true at both the individual and the collective levels.

How can I say this? Am I pretending that somehow everything will come right for individuals and for humanity in this world, that we will reach a point where evil and subterfuge are ended? Surely that’s pie in the sky, and dangerous: is there anything more cruel than to give someone or some group false hope?

This cast-iron hope that I am talking about is rooted in – faith in God. It is God, who in this world appears to be so absent, who will nonetheless bring all things together for the good: all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. In His time, in His way, in His kingdom.

Someone may say: “I know a child who died of a wasting illness, and no medicine, no prayers made any difference. The child died. There was no hope in that situation.”

The only answer I can give in such a dreadful situation, and words are limited, is that not even death can separate us from God’s love. If all your focus is on this world, this life, then you miss the point – God’s point. Nothing and no one is ever lost to God. Some would even say that death is the final healing. Thus the inevitability of our death does not negate a blessed hope – and I have sat with people who have died in that wonderful hope.

We are never promised that everything will be rosy in this life. God certainly has never promised that – in fact He affirms the cross, both in His word and in His example.

Hope obviously concerns the future but it radically affects the present. If we have a current suffering, perhaps a serious illness, but we are assured we will get better and we will be cured, then we have hope, and that hope gives us a strength today which often helps to promote our recovery. There is a story told of a woman who set out to swim the English Channel – twenty one miles across at the narrowest point. A considerable swim, but she was a strong and experienced swimmer, and she was doing really well, and almost at the coast of France, when a sudden fog came down on the water. Immediately she started to struggle and after a short while gave up and climbed into the support boat. She later said: “If only I could have seen the cliffs.”

Faith in a loving God is somewhat like seeing the cliffs, being able to sense the destination or the end point of our suffering. God offers all of us this hope today, because as I say, hope concerns the future but it massively impacts on our present. Real hope can put a ‘spring in our step’. It can even bring a deep joy in the midst of difficulties.

A thought – when someone’s life is so painful and bleak that they commit suicide – could that be in some way an implicit hope in eternity?

There is always hope. Praise Him.

Martin