WISDOM AND FOLLY
I like to take a romp through the local hospital every week if I can. I am given a list of those who have declared themselves Anglican and attempt to visit them all, usually about thirty people.
My aim is to dispense good humour and wit, as a pleasing proxy for the God I so much delight in. My stock response to those who have the sensitivity to excuse their poor performance as churchgoers to my amiable self is, “The God we worship is not so small as to stoop to counting how many times we go to church. If he was he would not be God.”
This is my style in hospital visiting, and I enjoy the task. In my younger and more outrageous days as a parish priest in Ararat my wife was informed by one of the doctor’s wives that some of the nurses liked to follow behind me, simply to delight in the merry prattle I talked.
To tease or trick people into appreciating God, even only if camouflaged in humour, adds a level of ironic humour to my good humour. “Laugh with me,” I think to myself, “and you are momentarily a member of the Kingdom of God, whether you recognise the fact or not, and so are all the more likely to be blessed.”
Brought up short
Occasionally I am brought up short though. A week or so ago I entered a single ward where there was a fellow in his early forties in bed. He was talking happily enough to a nurse attending to him, His wife was sitting beside him. My good humoured pleasantries were returned in kind, but something made me probe a little, and I ended up sitting down and talking with them both for three quarters of an hour.
He was fast approaching the end of his life. All treatment for cancer had failed, it had spread everywhere and he had but a few months left to live. They were blessed by five children, the last of them only ten years old. All of them, parents and children I was told, had discarded God as of no use in such a situation. Why? Because he hadn’t delivered the cure they had fervently asked him for.
Pop goes the weasel
How painful it is to encounter so frequently so pitifully inadequate a concept of God! The God of so many religiously illiterate materialists is Old Mrs Hubbard with a full cupboard. If the goodies are not forthcoming she is abandoned. It is first year Sunday School faith. “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam” instead of Bach’s “B-Minor Mass’, “Bananas in Pyjamas” instead of “Four Corners”.
The prevalence of such a concept of God is more the Church’s fault than anyone else’s, for you still hear such nonsense preached, sometimes even in Anglican churches. I have a theory as to why. Real tragedy in our society today is relatively rare. Most people die at a reasonable age. Perhaps as many as eighty five percent of folk never experience true disaster. This means that a primitive, goodies-dispensing God is fairly easy for a simpleton preacher to justify to the majority of unreflective folk. Their good fortune, he can maintain, is the result of God’s favour to the decent and well behaved. Why not? It is comforting to think so. Even a good number of the remaining fifteen percent who do encounter real tragedy in their lives might well be brought to accept that they deserve their tragedy (after all we are all sinners). If that fails, then there is always a convenient devil to blame, able to outwit God when he’s not looking.
Rewards and punishments
But nonsense it all is. God has no favourites, nor is the Christian faith about earning his favour. Rather, at its heart lies innocent suffering undergone and transcended, not innocent suffering waived or bypassed. Its cross is to be shouldered and borne, not leaned upon as a crutch. We are punished by our sins, not for them by God. We are rewarded by our virtues not for them. God’s love, like that of the best of parents, is indiscriminate, all inclusive, unconditional, knows no favourites.
There are remarkable healings on record, but they are the exception not the rule, and they are all incidental to acceptance and joy and gratitude, not to our merit, or to elbowing God’s ribs to persuade him to tweak nature’s laws.
In prayer we do not ask that natural laws be bypassed, we ask only for the “possible”. That is, that God’s grace abounding in his Church and world be allowed, not least by those immediately involved and concerned, to flow into a particular situation to realise and make actual the very best, often unimaginably the best, that is possible. That is all, but it is enough.
What sweet sense it all makes. We are wise not to be a fool of a Christian. We are a fool not be a wise one.