Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why do good people die?

It seemed a good idea a couple of weeks ago when I put my plans for today’s service together. I did it a week in advance because we were going away.

I looked at the calendar and today has an appropriateness for addressing this particular question.

Yesterday was all hallows eve – Halloween – and great to have a Light Party for the children, not to mention our wonderful Come and Sing Messiah!

That makes today, 1st November, All Hallows day, or as it is better known nowadays, All Saints Day. I have to confess it is not a day I mark in the Christian Calendar. But this year it seemed a good idea.

At least, it seemed a good idea then, a fortnight ago … I am not so sure now. After all, it really is one of those big questions that people struggle with, and if I am honest it is a big question I have struggled with too.

Why do good people die?

It’s funny, isn’t it. One thing that we all have in common, one thing we all know will happen, is death. And yet death is one thing that remains something of a taboo subject. It’s not good to talk about it too much, and so we avoid it, talk around it, evade the issue.

And then something untimely happens, something out of the blue, and it happens to the person it should not happen to. Out of time, and in a way that’s just wrong … someone dies. And you feel they shouldn’t have died.

It was lovely returning to Shropshire and visiting the churches we belonged to before moving down here to Cheltenham. It was the first time we had been back just for fun. We had been back to take services a couple of times; we had been back for funerals on two occasions. It was great going back as a family and going to both churches last Sunday morning as a family. It was great going up into the Shropshire hills. Wild and rugged in the wind on the Saturday and Sunday, at their most beautiful in the sun on the Monday. It was great to bump into a family on the Monday afternoon on the top of the hill everyone who lives in Pontesbury thinks of as our hill. Earl’s hill. It felt as if we were at home.

On our first morning we went into Shrewsbury on the Park and Ride, and got talking to a fellow-passenger waiting for the bus, as you do. I felt catapulted right back into the world we were in for those eight years. In the space of five minutes the lady we spoke to spoke of her sadness at the loss of her daughter in a car crash, the loss of her husband at a young age … and the culling of all the livestock on their farm.

It was only a chance conversation at the bus stop.

Her daughter was a good girl, her husband a good farmer, her livestock good cattle

Why, why, why do good people die.

In those eight years it was a question I found myself asking time and again. The countryside is not the idyllic place townspeople imagine: it has its darker side too, not least in loneliness and depression. In those eight years I became involved with more families who had lost a loved one through suicide than in all the rest of my life put together. And they were all ‘good people’. Why do good people die?

I became involved with more families who had lost a loved one in a road accident that in all the rest of my life put together. And they were all ‘good people’. Why do good people die?

People lost it tragically … and losing it went for the gun in the corner of the room – the deaths that followed were deaths that prompted the awful question again, Why do good people die?

We were given a wonderful book that had been published for the millennium – a big, glossy publication. The churches and chapels of Pontesbury Parish. And there was the story of our chapel. And there was a potted biography of me as minister! It was during our time there that we developed a healing ministry.

No sooner was that under way in a wonderful partnership with our GP who was also our Church Secretary, but the awful happened. Ian’s wife, Beryl, was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer and within six months had died.

Unquestionably, a good person.

Why do good people die?

Just before we moved to Shropshire my father died while still in hospital after receiving surgery that we thought would make him better and enable him to enjoy the retirement that had only just begun.

Just after we left Shropshire my mother died when as a pedestrian she was knocked over by someone doing 40 mph within a 30 mph speed limit.

An untimely death and an unnecessary death of two good people … why do good people die?

Let me say straightaway.

I do not have an answer.

Let me offer three reflections and one response..

First, there is no escaping the question: better to let it out in rage than to bottle it up. I find great comfort in the knowledge that even people of the deepest faith find this a troubling question.

Psalm 13 has long been a favourite of mine. It is the cry of despair of one who has asked this question so many times and still hasn’t had a response from God …

How long, O Lord, Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 22 begins with that sense of being forsaken of God that Jesus experiences on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

Within prayer there is space for rage at God. The question must not be bottled up.

When our church secretary and GP’s wife died, Ian Bradley told the story of the experiences he and Beryl had shared from the time they first knew something was wrong to the time of her death and shared it in some very moving Bible studies and in a moving booklet.

Ian did not find it helpful to try to work out an understanding of God that would explain the question. In fact he warns against trying to mould an understanding of God that answers such questions.

Ian speaks movingly of the way both he and Beryl found it helpful to focus beyond themselves on God as he is, as they had discovered him in the Bible, through the church, in hymns that had been their favourites in the faith that had been passed on to him.

Ian draws a distinction between a prayer of thanksgiving in which you give thanks for things that have happened, for gifts of God and blessings, and a prayer of praise in which you focus on God in his reality, in his mystery and above all in his love. He and Beryl valued the power of praise to take you out of yourself and to focus you on the reality of God, in all his mystery and in all his love.

The Psalmist does not move in either of those psalms to an understanding of God, but rather to praise of God in spite of the circumstances he finds himself in.

After four bleak verses of Psalm 13 the Psalmist finds no answer to his questions, but puts his trust in God …

But I trusted in your steadfast love;

My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

Because he has dealt bountifully with me.

This whole issue is taken up in the book of Job. Job is a good man who encounters untold suffering. And this begs the question Why?

Friends come with explanations that try to mould an understanding of God that will account for the untold suffering and loss that Job experiences. None satisfies Job. No answer can encapsulate God.

Job then finds himself in the open confronted by the grandeur and majesty of God, and senses that God is greater and far beyond all that is happening to him. The book comes to an end with Job finding no answer, but coming to live with unanswered questions.

My first reflection then is to focus on the reality of God. This is exactly where Jesus begins in that passage from John 14 that we read earlier. Let not your hearts be troubled, he says to his close friends at the Last Supper on the night in which he was betrayed, the night before he was to be crucified. It was as if he was preparing his friends for the following day when they would find themselves asking precisely this question of Jesus, Why do good people die? Why has this good person died?

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God.

This is the first thing to hold on to. Faith in God. It’s not helpful to try to work out some kind of ‘theology of God’ that answers all those raging questions. Instead hold on to believing in the God that has been revealed in Bible in favourite hymns, through the church down through the ages. Keep on believing in God.

But that is easier said than done.

And so I want to move on to the second of my reflections.

Ian called the little booklet he wrote ‘A Journey with Jesus’. He speaks movingly of the way he and Beryl felt they were not alone in the often frightening journey they had to make.

In John 14 Jesus goes on to say,

Do not let your hearts be troubled.

Believe in God, believe also in me.

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.

If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

And if I go and prepare a place for you,

I will come again and will take you to myself.

On the way to the car-park to climb Earl’s Hill we passed a cottage where one of our older members had lived. I well remember visiting her in hospital, when we thought she was dying. Indeed it seemed that she had died. But she pulled through … and subsequently spoke of that sense of walking down a long passageway, a tunnel with a sense of not being alone, but with light drawing her on.

That stuck with me. It meant a lot to Ian and Beryl. The journey to death and what is beyond is a journey we do not make on our own. Friends and family can accompany us so far on the way. But there comes a point when we have to go further. At that point Jesus is with us alongside us accompanying us, leading us home.

I will come again and take you to myself,

so that where I am there you may be also.

The second reflection, then, is that we must hold on not just to believing in God, but to believing in Jesus as the One who comes alongside us and journeys with us through the darkest of times.

And the third reflection again echoes thoughts Ian shared in that booklet.

Ian went on to speak of the importance of that unseen, yet very real presence and strength of God in Christ that is given us in the unseen power of God that is the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in this chapter,

I will not leave you orphaned. I will not leave you all on your own.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, a strength alongside you, an Advocate, A counsellor, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth who abides with you and will be in you.

Living with unanswered questions …

  1. let’s hold on to our believing in God,
  2. let’s recognise we are not alone, we have the presence of Christ with us on the journey
  3. and we have the unseen yet very real strength of the Spirit of God around us and within.

Why do good people die?

The church does not have an answer.

The church does have a response.

We can point people to the reality of God, the God who comes alongside us and walks the journey of life at its worst with us in Jesus Christ, who offers us a strength from beyond ourselves in the unseen, yet very real power of the Holy Spirit.

The response we make is even more important.

For Ian and Beryl it was important that they were not alone. They were part of a Church fellowship.

He writes, “So much of what we received from God could only have been received because we were part of a Christian fellowship – the body of Christ on earth.

“God’s love came to us through the labours of those who baked cakes, dug our garden, tidied the house, and did so many other things. We were not relying on some abstract concept of God’s love, but were experiencing it in a very real and practical way. It was in that atmosphere we were able to know the full joy and peace of God.”

The question remains.

The answer is elusive.

But the response we make makes a world of difference.

Fundamental to our response to this question is not just the faith we share and celebrate this All Saints Day, but also the love we embody through all the pastoral care we share as a church that seeks to be the body of Christ on earth in this place.

How good that this All Saints Day we celebrate our visiting scheme by saying thank you to Joan and Olga for all they have done in co-ordinating our visiting network, and to Phil and Joyce, David and Betty for all the work they are doing, together with all our church visitors and all the church family.

We can become the response to a question that has no answer.

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