The Big Questions

Some years ago I attended a clergy conference at which we were discussing a rather esoteric document produced by, I believe, the Primate’s Theological Commission (non-Anglican readers should note that in this context ‘primate’ refers to the presiding archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, not to a monkey).

I have no exact memory of what the subject matter was, but I think it was something along the lines of ‘What exactly is an Anglican?’ or ‘is it possible to draw a circle so that everyone inside that circle is seen to be Anglican?’ or ‘How do Anglicans actually do theology and ethics?’ All of it of course was an attempt to dance around the issue of whether being gay or lesbian is, in fact, A Good Thing in the Anglican Church.

A comment that I frequently heard at the conference, from my clergy colleagues, was that the members of our congregations ‘Don’t do theology’ and that it was hard to drum up any enthusiasm for this sort of theological reflection at the parish level.

Now, as it happened, the conference was being held at Lakeland College in Lloydminster, so I had a fairly long drive through open prairie country to get there. It was a very dry summer; many of the sloughs had gone completely dry, and the crops were not in good shape at all. I remember looking at the parched ground I was driving through and thinking ‘some farmers are not going to make it through this season’. For some, I suspected, it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The next day, when I kept hearing at the conference that ‘lay people aren’t too enthusiastic about this sort of theological reflection’, I found myself wondering whether or not that was true. Could it be, perhaps, that we were just reflecting on the wrong subjects? How surprising was it that the lay people of eastern Alberta didn’t find discussions of ‘what constitutes a distinctively Anglican method of doing theology?’ particularly exciting? Their crops were dying in the fields around them, and those of them who considered themselves Christians were no doubt praying fervently for rain several times a day. That summer their prayers were not answered, and undoubtedly some of them lost their farms as a result. The luxury of a theological discussion about whether or not God was particularly interested in the evolution of a tiny theological tradition originating far away in the British Isles was something they literally did not have time for. Some of them, no doubt, were clinging to their Christian faith by their fingernails – any Christian faith, Anglican or not.

And I found myself wondering, is it in fact true that there’s no theological reflection going on in the coffee shops of Vermilion or Wainwright? What do Christian farmers talk about when they get together for coffee? And do they ever struggle with the ‘why?’ questions? You know the ones I mean. ‘Why doesn’t God answer my prayer and send me rain so that my farm can survive?’ ‘What does it mean to say that God is all-powerful and then to say that you can’t blame him for the drought?’ ‘How can you possibly believe that God is a God of love when he can’t even be bothered to help me feed my family by sending us a drop of rain?’ All of those questions, of course, are just ringing the changes on the perennial theological questions of evil; ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ ‘Why is God silent?’ ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

Why weren’t we gathering together as clergy to help our parishioners grapple with these questions, rather than ‘Anglican Identity’? Does God actually give a sh** about Anglican identity? What does it mean to be a pastor among people who are struggling to make sense of the silence and inaction of the heavens? And is it, in fact, the case that we don’t want to deal with these questions, or help our parishioners deal with them, because we are terrified that we don’t have any answers for them, and, as professional religionists, we desperately need to Have All The Answers?

Here’s what I know about the questions around the problem of pain and evil and the silence and inactivity of God. First, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to those questions – answers, that is, that dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. I said to an agnostic friend last week that the problem of evil is the greatest challenge to faith for most believers. Most of us can’t find a coherent answer to it that actually satisfies us. We stay believers, because leaving God out of our world views raises even more difficult questions for us (more about that some other time, perhaps). But I have yet to hear a theological explanation for evil and the silence and inactivity of God that I find completely convincing.

So no, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to these questions, which may be why we pastors are so afraid of them. But the second thing I know is this: nevertheless, it is crucial for us to continue to acknowledge these questions and to keep exploring them and discussing them with people. If we don’t, people think they aren’t allowed to question God, and when they can no longer restrain themselves from questioning God, then they drop out of faith altogether. This is because their pastors have never taught them that praying the questioning and angry psalms is a Christian thing to do.

For the last two years I have watched from a distance as my Dad has gotten increasingly more frail through the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. He lost more and more control over bodily functions as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. He lost most of his dignity and most of his sense of joy in his life. It would not surprise me to learn that he came close to losing his faith, though I don’t think he did; I do know that he struggled with the ‘why?’ questions just like any other Christian would. Eventually he almost lost his ability to swallow, and so more and more particles of food got stuck in his aesophagus. When he died, he was struggling to breathe, so my Mum tells me.

My Dad died on August 12th. It is now September 6th, and I am still waiting for a call from a Christian pastor or priest who will offer to get together with me and help me struggle with the theological issues raised by my Dad’s death. I do not expect to find answers to these questions, and I do not expect to lose my faith over them, but they are troubling me. I need to talk about them. During the past three weeks two friends – a lay member of my congregation, and a songwriter friend who is an agnostic – have taken the trouble to invite me to join them for coffee or lunch and give me space to talk about my Dad. Many people have left kind messages on Facebook, and I am grateful for their support and sympathy. But I am still waiting for the opportunity to have a theological conversation with a Christian pastor about the problem of pain and the seeming unresponsiveness of God. And I find myself wondering, would we really rather discuss ‘Anglican Identity’ and ‘Missional Theology’ than grapple with the biggest questions that ordinary Christians face in their lives?

Reflections inspired by mortality

So the day of my Dad’s funeral has come and gone. It seems strange, somehow; I’ve lived with the impending reality of this day for two or three years, since the day Dad asked me to preach at it, and now it is a past event. Somehow it seems as if it should be a permanent event, existing continually outside of time.

This morning I find myself remembering the words of an old Bruce Cockburn song from the 1980s:

I don’t mean to cling to you my friends
It’s just I hate the day to have to end
Never enough time to spend
I haven’t done enough for this to be the end

There must be more… more…
More songs more warmth
More love more life
Not more fear not more fame
Not more money not more games

That’s the way I felt yesterday. I was the preacher at the service, so I had the best view of who was there. Many, but not all, of the faces were familiar to me. Mum and Dad returned to England from Canada in 1978, and from that day on their circle of acquaintance diverged from mine; I know some of the friends they’ve made since then (especially over the past twenty or so years in Oakham and Ketton), but not all. Still, there were lots of extended family members there, and friends going all the way back to our Southminster days. We had the service at St. Mary’s, Ketton, which was Dad and Mum’s home church for the past few years, and the vicar, Andrew Rayment, did a fine job with the service and the prayers. We sang some fine hymns that Dad loved – ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘To God be the Glory’, and my personal favourite, ‘Thine be the Glory’, with those great lines:

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

My brother Mike read the reading Dad had selected, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and my niece Ellie read the gospel, John 14:1-6. I preached, and people were kind enough to tell me that they had appreciated it afterwards. When the service was over we went to Grantham Crematorium for the cremation, and then back to Oakham for a reception.

That was when I had my Cockburn ‘It’s just I hate the day to have to end’ feeling. The love of people was palpable in that room – their affection for Dad, and their affection for Mum, and Mike and me. It’s funny, but I haven’t really felt of myself as being a ‘mourner’ yet. I’ve officiated at so many funerals and tried to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, but until yesterday it hadn’t really sunk in that I was in that category. I guess people seem to feel that clergy are somehow above all that; I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. But yesterday at the reception in Ketton I was in the midst of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends I’d known since long before I had any idea of being a clergy person, and they were united in love for Dad and Mum and in wanting to provide support for us. And it was all the more poignant in that some of them were the family of my Uncle John, who died three days after my Dad, and whose funeral is tomorrow.

‘Cling onto these relationships’, I found myself thinking. ‘Make no excuses for not keeping in touch with them. Do all you can to let them know you love them and appreciate them. These are the most important things in life. The gospel of Jesus Christ – which gives my life meaning and gives me hope for the future as well as strength for the present – and the love that human beings share with each other – in the end, this is what matters’.

I said to my old friend Steve Palmer afterwards that since Dad died I find that my patience with the bullshit that often happens in churchland has been at an all time low. That may not be a good thing – impatience is rarely a good thing – but I find myself thinking about things in the light of my Dad’s death and wondering why we’re bothering with so much that isn’t really important in the light of eternity. I’m not pointing fingers at my congregation or diocese, or even myself; I’m just making a general observation about the tendency of Christians to get worked up about the latest fad or fashion in ‘church health’ or ‘congregational development’ or whatever the latest trend is (I’ve been around long enough to be seeing most of them come around for the second time now), all the time doing our best to avoid the thought of actually asking someone how they are doing, and really wanting an answer, or actually talking about Jesus with a non-Christian friend.

My Dad’s life counted; that was obvious yesterday. There were people in that church who became Christians through his ministry, and at least two people who are in ordained ministry because of him. Dad was far from perfect, but he knew how to share the gospel, how to love people, and how to encourage people in their Christian calling. He and Mum also did a pretty good job of bringing up Christian sons, and that wasn’t just luck, it was also prayer and hard work and, at times, sheer cussedness!

I really hope that I will remember, from now on, to major on the things that will really count, and not to get caught up in fascinating side roads and the latest fads and fashions. This blog post is my reminder to myself: make your life count, and refuse to allow either other people’s opinions or your own laziness and inertia to cause you to settle for less than that.

Many years ago I was out walking one day beside the Peel River in Aklavik. I was pondering what it was that God wanted me to do, and I got an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but somehow three words impressed themselves firmly on my mind, and I have never doubted from that day to this that they were God’s guidance to me (and I very, very rarely experience what I believe to be clear, unambiguous guidance from God). The three words were ‘prayer’, ‘love’, and ‘evangelism’. Ever since then, I have felt most at peace with myself when I have made these three things the centre of my life and ministry. When I’ve gotten diverted from these things, I’ve felt that my life was off centre and everything was somehow out of place.

So, as old Thomas Ken put it,

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
Live each day as if ’twere thy last.

This I will do, The Lord being my helper.