When I planned this post, I was simply going to review a book by one of my favourite authors, Philip Yancey. I had never heard of Anders Behring Breivik. Nor did I know that by the time I came to write the post, a four-year-old girl from our church would be lying in intensive care after seven hours of brain surgery.
The book, What Good is God?, is a collection of talks Yancey has given in places undergoing extreme suffering like those two situations I have referred to above. He spoke at Virginia Tech just days after a lone gunman had killed 32 students. A talk planned in Mumbai, India had to be hastily rearranged when terrorists unleashed a marathon of horror, killing more than 150 people in a series of bombing and shooting attacks across the city.
What is refreshing about Yancey’s writing is his refusal to turn away from the hard questions of faith. His books have titles like Church: Why Bother? and Disappointment with God. He is not afraid to be highly critical of the Bible college where he studied as a teenager; neither does he hesitate to say that he does not have all the answers. This kind of humility is uncommon.
At the same time, he does not shrink from challenging his audiences to trust ‘a God who can redeem what now seems irredeemable’ (chapter 1). This challenge came sharply into focus when I met with other members of our church to pray for the family whose seaside holiday has turned into a long bedside vigil for their little daughter.
The meeting had been arranged hastily of course. We heard the news by text, or on Facebook. People arrived in tears, in shock, scooping up children or leaving their workplaces for an early lunch break. Our co-pastor, who has three young children of his own and is moving house on Friday, had already driven a couple of hundred miles so he could stand alongside the family, sharing their harrowing wait at a distant hospital.
‘Where is God when it hurts?’ Yancey asks the survivors of the Virginia tech massacre, supplying the answer ‘Where God’s people are. Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and now on earth the Messiah takes form in the shape of the Church.’
The Church comes in for a lot of flak and often that is justified. But what most people don’t see is the local church in action. My father in law died recently; my mother has been suffering from a mystery illness for weeks. In both cases, their churches have been alongside, offering emotional and practical support, providing a strength that is in short supply elsewhere.
Of course not all local churches do the job they should. Indeed, Yancey spends one chapter of his book explaining why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous often do it better. But yesterday, when I looked at the pictures of Breivik’s victims, most of them around the same age as my own kids, I was thankful to have a place I can go when life gets too hard for easy answers.