October 20th, 2016
I was sitting on the patio of Trinity Hall recently. The evening was warm, the establishment in between rush hours, which allowed for something of a brief solitude there as dusk drifted in.
On the table before me, a book I brought along thinking I might peruse it in the scant minutes I had before heading off to meet my wife at another location.
And then all of a sudden, another patron approaches. He asks if I’m a writer (was it the book? my pensive look?), and if he might pull up a chair to chat.
It had been a while since I’d had a complete stranger approach and strike up a conversation. But despite my original plan to sit a few moments alone I welcomed the opportunity.
The conversation quickly turned to what men typically talk about: occupation. I mentioned I was a pastor, which not uncommonly provokes the same look one might get if disclosing one’s work as an enbalmer. But he showed no signs of discomfort and instead seemed almost tickled to find someone like me. (Truth be told, I think my new acquaintance had partaken perhaps just enough of Trinity Hall’s beer list to render him if not three sheets to the wind, at least two.)
Now a man in his 60s, a corporate lawyer who’d made a robust living and seen two children grown and established, he shared how he’d studied the bible earlier in his youth. (When I later mentioned John’s Gospel he recited 1:1 to perfection.) But there with a pastor sitting amicably with him, he conceded his bewilderment at the state of the world. Why, in his words, did God create all these religions? Why the unceasing incidence of murder, often in the name of religion? Why the general state of unrest and brokenness endemic to all things?
My somewhat tipsy interlocutor could not deny the existence of a deity–his rhetorically uttered “why is there anything?” was his clearest evidence of something more than material forces underlying the fabric of all things. But he couldn’t get his head around everything else that suggested something more like chaos as the governing principle of the universe.
Recognizing that I was not talking to someone in complete command of their faculties, but not wishing to simply let his questions sit there, I conceded how this shipwrecked world might leave one to deduce more an absence than a Presence. But I also lightly offered a counterpoint that much of what he lamented had less to do with divine negligence than human heinousness.
This was no moment for a debate of the souls. It was at best an opportunity to forge a new relationship–one, I hope, might have subsequent encounters. (I’m sending him a book and an invitation to another sit-down.) But even in his compromised condition, he encapsulated what stands as the greatest challenge to faith: the incomprehensible suffering all around.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, took up the same question recently–in a more serious setting and with a discussant perhaps more interested in hearing than pontificating:
Archbishop Welby demonstrates the wisdom that knows the limitations of what answers we might provide to that important question. But he does not shy from offering what consolation we may find in Scripture–and, expectedly, from the one storyline most focused on the subject: Job.
Job will be our guide this Sunday in coming to that conundrum of incomprehensible suffering. We’ll let his story offer what it intends for those who would walk by faith in a world well furnished to steal it.
But I also want to let Job’s story introduce you to this man’s story. His name is John Hull. He died last year at the age of 80. An independent film about his life has already come to the screen, which should tell you of the kind of story his life tells.
Job, John Hull, and of course Jesus all have something to tell us, and show us, about what it means to trust when your life is defined by an incomprehensible suffering. Let’s listen to Job and talk afterwards.
We opened our temporary Reformation Bookstore last Sunday. Unfortunately, we failed to set out the order form. (How’s that for customer service!) We’ll have the order form at the book table this Sunday. Or if you’d like to make your order online, you can do so here. Orders will be taken through Sunday, October 30th.
Meanwhile, our friends over at Prufrock contributed an update to the city of Wittenburg (now Lutherstadt Wittenburg) where the Reformation accelerated at an unprecedented pace. After decades of neglect, the city has undergone a civic renovation in anticipation of the anniversary of its historical ascendancy.
And for those who prefer precision in our language, Diarmaid MacCulloch clarifies the meaning of the word “Protestant.” (HT: Alan Jacobs)
The word ‘Protestant’ … originally related to a specific occasion, in 1529, when at the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet (imperial assembly) held in the city of Speyer, the group of princes and cities who supported the programmes of reformation promoted by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli found themselves in a voting minority: to keep their solidarity, they issued a ‘Protestatio’, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared. The label ‘Protestant’ thereafter was part of German or imperial politics for decades, and did not have a wider reference than that…. It is therefore problematic to use ‘Protestant’ as a simple description for sympathizers with reform in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the reader will find that often in this book I use a different word, ‘evangelical’. That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium.
— The Reformation: A History
And in case you missed it, there were memorable images aplenty at our Fall Pot
luck (Providence) last Sunday. Two worth concluding our Backstory this week: David Raikes’ remarkable near-miss, and Dave Farah’s admirable swing (with apologies for the focus!)