‘Light a Candle to Remember’: Reflection on Romans 8:31-39
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the disaster at Aberfan, of which more later. 2016 will also be remembered as a year when an unusually large number of well-known celebrities left us: David Bowie, Sir Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Muhammad Ali and Gene Wilder, to name but a few. We are each here tonight to remember a loved one, for me my mother, who died in January.
One obituary of 2016 you might have missed, was the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who died in September. He was dubbed the ‘unbelieving bishop’ by most of the tabloid press. Shortly after his consecration in 1984, a serious fire damaged York Minster and many press hacks were quick to describe it as an act of Divine judgement on Dr Jenkins’ appointment.
He was often misquoted. Once accused of describing the resurrection as ‘a conjuring trick with bones’, he actually said it was much more than this. He was totally convinced of the power and reality of God’s love as shown in the resurrection and firmly believed that we are taken by God after death into something infinitely worthwhile.
Bishop Jenkins was once told that his sentences were too involved and he liked long words too much. So he decided to write down in as few words as possible, what he saw as the essence of Christianity and what compels us to go on. This was his statement: ‘God is, he is as he is in Jesus, so there is hope’. In other words, in Jesus, we can see what God is like, which gives us hope’.
Many theologians have claimed that this eight verse reading from Romans is the purest statement of the gospel, another summary of the Christian faith and that they are the finest verses in the bible. The passage could be summarised in 12 words: ‘God is for us and nothing can separate us from that love’. All well and good, except that, to use a popular expression, there is a large elephant in the room, that is, the question of suffering. If God is for us, why is life so hard at times? Why is there so much evil in the world? Where is God when a teenager gets cancer? Where is God’s love when terrorists commit atrocities on innocent people? Where is God in the pain of bereavement?
We will all have experienced a time when we felt separated from God’s presence and his love. When we’ve felt very alone, how could we feel that God was for us? Yet there it is. God is for us, and nothing can separate us from that love. So what does that actually mean? It must be said that God’s love is not a magic potion that can protect us from the hurts of life. Just because we are children of God, we will not be shielded from suffering, illness, sadness, death. And just because we are not shielded, we can’t blame God when we do go through tough times.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, written in memory of his son who died at the age of 14, addresses this problem, known as theodicy. He writes: ‘God does not cause our misfortune. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehaviour, nor part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are’.
It is comforting to know that we cannot be separated from God’s love. That when we suffer, He suffers with us. When we grieve, He grieves with us. When we cry, He cries with us, his arm around our shoulders, supporting us, holding us up. Knowing God loves us gives hope and comfort. And the God whom we see in Jesus, is enough to give us confidence, not only in the future, but in the life to come. None of us can provide or explain the answers to life’s mysteries. Yet words are not always necessary to explain our feelings to others and in my own experience of pastoral visits, it’s clear that sometimes we don’t even need to try, but simply leave the situation in God’s hands.
Bishop Jenkins tells the story of visiting a college steward when he was a chaplain in Oxford. The man was dying and after chatting about various things, he said to the Bishop, ‘well you just don’t know, do you?’. They sat together in silence until he left. Two days later, the man died and his wife phoned Bishop David and said, ‘I’m so glad you came to see John, because he was really cheered by your visit’. It was clear that simply by sitting together in silence, but sharing Christian fellowship, God had been present and at work.
God is a mystery and each of us meets him through a different set of pictures, experiences and ideas. And because we are unable to comprehend that mystery, we try to reach out for certainties and irrefutable signs. The danger of this is that we focus on the wrong things, instead of keeping our eyes on him. We need to trust in the God we see in Jesus, through which our hope comes. There is nothing in the bible which suggests that God gathers people up into a cosy comfort which is unquestioning. Yet the comfort believers receive from God, is the kind of strength which enables them to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.
To return to Aberfan. On 21st October 1966, 28 adults and 116 children died. It was one of those terrible moments when you remember where you were and what you were doing when the news broke. Irving Penberthy was the Methodist minister at the time. Only now has he felt able to speak about the horror of that day’s events. He described feelings of complete helplessness and bewilderment and what he called a ‘storm of sorrow’. Though he himself lost a son, through his own tears he comforted others. It was, he remarked, no time for words.
His immediate job was to go with the parents into the makeshift morgue and be with them as they found their children. Later, as the village discovered how to live again, he rallied the community to build a community centre, to sing together, to learn how to laugh once more, to rediscover faith.
And despite this unspeakable tragedy, he was still able to proclaim with confidence, his certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God. His son-in law recently wrote a hymn to mark the 50th anniversary, a moving statement of faith in the midst of tragedy:
God who knows our darkest moments
meets us in our brokenness:
walks beside us as a whisper,
holds our pain in his caress.
God, who leads through shadowed valleys,
where death’s bleakness dims our sight,
speaks a peace beyond our knowing,
floods our anguish with his light.
Lift us up, now, risen Saviour
to the place where mercy plays,
where our broken hopes and heartache
find their healing in your gaze.
This is love, that God has saved us!
This is love, that Christ has died!
We rejoice that love has conquered
and has drawn us to your side.