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Suffering and a God of love

A new piece in The Age faith column this morning. Here it is:


It’s a question that gets lobbed at Christians constantly. One that’s probably on the minds of many Australians in the wake of bushfires, floods, cyclones and earthquakes. How can anyone believe in a loving God in a world where there is so much suffering?

Any easy answers render God arbitrary and capricious at worst, at best, aloof and uncaring. Neither of which inspire my devotion.

Part of what I can say as a Christian is that I don’t get it either.  But there are at least some things I can assert about the problem of suffering and a God of love.

There has always been appalling suffering. The only reason we are more aware of it this summer is because it is happening to people like us.

Much of the current crop of natural disasters are arguably the doing of humankind, who (and every one of us has contributed to this) have been mindless consumers for too long.

Awful things happen in this world and it does not for one moment mean that the victims deserve it or are being punished. In the gospel of Luke Jesus is asked, when a tower fell killing several random people, what they had done to make God so angry. God had nothing to do with it, he says. Stuff happens. Suffering is not God’s judgement on people.

Perhaps the most important thing a Christian can say is to respond to the question, where is God when humans are wounded, dying, grieving, afraid?

In his book on the Holocaust, Night, Elie Wiesel writes of an experience in Auschwitz where he and his fellow inmates were forced to watch the slow death by hanging of a young boy. As the man in line behind him asked, ‘Where is God?’ Wiesel answered, ‘God is here, God is hanging on this gallows’.

One reading is that in this brutal, senseless death, belief in a God of love also died. For Christians, that terrible story has another resonance because our central narrative places God literally on the gallows, when Jesus of Nazareth who was somehow, mysteriously, God, was misunderstood, betrayed and abandoned by his friends and tortured to death by corrupt political and religious authorities.

But the evidence for God’s solidarity with suffering people is there long before the life of Jesus. In the Hebrew scriptures God is often portrayed as being the liberator of the oppressed, lover of justice and mercy.

If Jesus was showing us how God feels about us, the message was clear – God cares about human suffering. God, Jesus said, is aware of every sparrow that falls dead. He described God as our loving father. The word he used was the equivalent of ‘Daddy’.

I don’t believe that God causes terrible ‘acts of nature’. The world is the way it is. But when bad things happen, it is clear where God is. God is there. In the pain and chaos, the confusion and the long clean up, God is there.


Another year begins

First proper entry for 2011, unless you count posting a published article, which is cheating, really. I had planned to post in January, just as I had planned to do lots of creative and deeply reflective journaling and rewrite a few chapters of the novel.

Did I do any of these? Not on your life. I didn’t so much as open my computer. And I’m glad I didn’t. Sometimes you just gotta do nothing, and find out that the world doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact, probably no one even notices, unless you are say, Anna Bligh. And that’s a good reminder of how irrelevant each of us is in the scheme of things.

So, I had a pretty lazy holiday. This last week, back into the routine of early starts and tight schedules, school and work and lists of must-do things, I feel the benefits of that laziness – renewed energy and enthusiasm for the people and the tasks that fill my days.

Wonderful as holidays are, however, in some ways I find them difficult and I suspect I’m not alone in this. For one thing, there’s an expectation that you’ll have fun, so you feel vaguely guilty if you’re not having a whale of a time.

When we had a houseful of toddlers and babies, I found holidays a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we had two parents around full time, which halved my load. On the other, we had none of the routines and activities that helped us through our days. And we were often in places where the facilities were a lot less efficient those at home.

But even once the kids were older, holidays could be fraught. It wasn’t so much that the kids or their dad irritated me. I irritated me. In normal life, there is lots of busy stuff for me to hide behind. Work, commitments, friendships, all of which I am reasonably good at.

Holidays are confronting because you are with the people who know you best 24/7, and often the me that is revealed isn’t very pretty – grumpy, weary, just wanting to be left alone. Mother and partner are the roles I’ve always felt worst at, and on a family holiday they are the only roles available to me.

If I can get through this feeling of panic and inadequacy, and I always do, I am rewarded with increased self-acceptance and closeness to the ones I love the most. But for a few days there, it can be pretty torrid.

This year was a bit poignant too, as it’s the first year we haven’t had all the kids around. We are on the cusp of being empty-nesters – a state I mostly look forward to.  We’re not quite there though – a phase I find awkward, a stage that takes some getting used to. We have had decades of holidays spent with large broods of offspring and hangers on – laughter, chaos, massive meals and the positive energy generated by a large and mainly happy family. This year, the first few days our ‘family’ consisted of one bored and sulky teenager and two fed up parents. Our family seemed almost unrecognizable – miserably tapering off with a whimper, after 25 years of glorious bangs.

Things looked up. More of our kids came down. Their friends did too. Everyone cheered up. And in the face of what is happening in parts of Victoria, in vast tracts of Queensland, in Brazil and Afghanistan, I am just grateful to have the whole gang alive, our house intact, a job to go to and a functioning city in which to live.

Another year begins.


Faith reflection on holidays

Had a faith column in the Age two weekends ago - here 'tis.


I’m about to head off on my annual summer holiday. Two whole weeks at my favourite beach shack with my husband, the dog and a couple of dozen library books for company. With assorted offspring and their companions coming and going.

What I’m hoping for this year is exactly what happened last summer. During the mostly cloudy mornings we slept in and then lay in bed with novels and serial cups of tea and got up at 10.30 or so for long beach walks and runs.

Sunny but not too hot afternoons found me frolicking in the surf like a five-year-old and then sitting on our long verandah, alternating between shade and sun, deep in a book. Around 6 o’clock a gin and tonic for me, a beer for him, a glass of wine with dinner, and I didn’t cook once. It doesn’t get much better than that.

But the best thing about last year’s holiday was my change in attitude. I have had a lifetime of perfectly good adult holidays married by guilt. Why should I, my reasoning goes, who have so much in my everyday life, be privileged with four weeks of paid leave every year?

And every summer, it seems, world disasters conspire to make me feel less deserving than ever. I was kayaking in ignorant bliss on the Snowy River the year the tsunami struck. Two years ago I came back from four weeks in India to Black Saturday. In early 2010 there was the horror of Haiti; this year we have had the floods in Queensland, and who knows what else lies ahead?

It is a discipline to take holidays and to let myself switch off – from my own job, from family concerns, from a world full of pain. Just as it is a discipline – and an increasingly difficult one to maintain in our society – to take one day off a week. The Jewish and Christian practice of having a dedicated Sabbath day has much to recommend it – physically, emotionally and spiritually. In the creation stories even God rested on the seventh day. In the gospel tales, Jesus spent time by himself praying, went sailing, enjoyed long meals and conversations with his closest friends.

From a Christian perspective holidays are not simply good for my health. They remind me – as I need to be reminded again and again – that increased compassion and generosity flowing into the world does not depend on me (and just as well too!) It depends on God’s commitment to keep loving the world, come what may. Our role is to recognize where God is at work and to play our part as we can.

Holidays remind me about grace – that God’s love for me and for everyone is constant and unstinting, and will never depend on how much busy work I do. And that love and gratitude are always better motivators than guilt.



Christmas at our place and the joys of January

First day back from the bonus ten-day Christmas-New Year break, and I’m chatting to my colleague about our levels of busyness. We’re on the same floor, but it different departments, and we both admitted, in half embarrassed whispers, that there wasn’t a lot of urgent work to be done.

‘Oh yes I love January,’ I said to her. ‘All those public holidays and then you come back to work and it’s usually quiet enough to get sorted for the year ahead.’

My office buddy is from the UK; this is her first Christmas down under. She can’t believe how different January is in the work place here.

‘At home, January is the very worst month,’ she said. ‘You have a very short holiday and then you’re back to work and the weather’s terrible and you go to work in the dark and come home in the dark and spring’s a long way away and people get the winter blues and more workers get sick in January than in any other month of the year’.

We’re so lucky. January, the way it’s done here, is the perfect, slow start to the year in my book. By February it’s all systems go again and we are plunged into the busyness of another working year. January is the cruisey time to have a holiday and then get the filing and tidying, the preparation and the forward planning done.

Same at home. I had nothing on in the last week of 2010, and most of my mob was away to boot. So I tidied and cleaned and threw out. Areas like the attic and the window seat that I don’t have a hope of tackling in the rush and bustle of a normal working week.

Getting really organised makes me feel happy and relaxed – sad but oh so true.

And, much as I love it, it’s always a relief to get Christmas over for another year. Christmas at our place we willingly do a lot of church. The kids’ pageant at 7pm on Christmas Eve. ‘Midnight Mass’ – not that it’s mass nor is it quite midnight, but the alliteration is irresistible. Carols, candlelight, a hushed air of expectation. Great stuff. And then church again at 9.30 Christmas morning.

We wimped out on the regular Sunday service Boxing Day morning. Our excuse was that we were having 20 people to lunch – another wussing out that I’m sure would not have been acceptable to our grand-mothers, or even mothers.

My folks came on the 25th, my husband’s on the 26th. All pretty relaxed except for the fact that His Nibs, who does the lion’s share of the cooking on these occasions, had a flustered moment with the rubbish bin and came down hard, very hard, on the edge of the kitchen bench resulting in a spectacularly split lip.

Two hours, two fainting episodes and several stitches later, we got back from casualty in time to welcome our first batch of Christmas guests and the show went on.

This was our first Christmas without all the kids at home – a watershed. Skype went a long way toward easing the pain of missing the family members in Paris and Edinburgh, and the world didn’t end because we weren’t all together. Being away from the ones you love is a whole heap easier than it used to be, that’s for sure. Except that you can’t hug them. And I do mind that.

So, that was Christmas at my place. A couple of weeks back at work now and then a fortnight at the beach, armed with sunscreen and library books. Not bad. Not bad at all. With luck, I’ll come back to face the real start of the year – February, raring to go.


Staying over

Managed to get another faith piece in The Age this morning. Here it is - a slightly longer version with one important difference. Towards the end of the article I wrote, 'Theologians will say that God became human to reveal to us more clearly God's character and purposes'. This line was edited as '...God became human to reveal to us more clearly His character and purposes'. I've had this before with the paper, and I always mean to ask them not to do it and always forget... Ah well. Maybe next time I'll write a piece on God not being a boy. Regardless, I'm very happy to be published again in what has been till now a very lean year.


There’s no substitute for staying with people. Visiting their patch, sleeping in their house, sharing their food, being there in the weary nights and grumpy mornings.

It’s the basis for immersion experiences such as overseas trips where school kids live with host families. Staying with people lets you in to their world – almost into their shoes – in a way that nothing else can.

I’ve been reminded vividly of this twice over the past 12 months. The first was visiting our eldest, who has set up house with her partner and is happily carving out her own life.

When she comes back home, it’s still our world, and she is, to some extent, still one of the kids. At her place it’s different. I have a whole new respect for her achievements and choices. She is relaxed and confident as we willingly learn her way of doing things. I always come away feeling I’ve learnt a whole lot more about my first born than when she comes home and dosses down in the attic room for a night.

The second experience was very different. It involved spending the weekend with people we love who are in a bad place – deep in the agony of marital conflict. Several times over those days we wished ourselves back home. We regretted ever coming. Ugly, embarrassing scenes, tension, situations where, no matter how well you know and love the couple, you have no idea whether to stick your oar in or shut up.

Uncomfortable as it was, though, we came away profoundly grateful that we had made the effort to spend time with them on their territory. We felt much closer to them, understanding in a more profound way the issues that divide them, more deeply committed to their health and happiness, whatever the outcome of their partnership.

I reckon this is partly what Christmas is about. At this time of year, Christians in every culture celebrate what we call the incarnation – God becoming an ordinary human being.

Theologians will say that God became human to reveal to us more clearly God’s character and purposes. Would it be blasphemy to suggest that through Jesus’ life, God now better understands what makes us tick? Is more deeply aware of the complexities and anguish of human life?  More lovingly engaged with humanity and the whole creation? More committed to this world and all its creatures than ever?

According to the Christian story, God in Jesus from Nazareth became an ordinary person. He cried, became weary and angry and fed up, laughed and told stories and loved people and stood up to power and corruption and was painfully killed.

In Jesus, the God who, we believe, somehow created the universe, has been to our place, slept over, in the most involved way possible – by becoming one of us.