Posts Tagged ‘despair’

Desolation and despair

June 4, 2016

Pentecost 3 – 2016

Luke 7:11-18

Marian Free


In the name of God, who shines light in the darkness, turns despair to hope and raises the dead to life. Amen.

There are a number of images from recent times that are seared into the minds of many of us. For example, think of the desolate picture of an emaciated child who is sitting on his haunches with his head in his hands and beside him is a buzzard just waiting for the child to die. Another picture that has haunted the world in recent times is the heart-wrenching image of young Aylan, the Syrian refugee washed up like flotsam on a lonely beach. Both children were victims of conflicts in which they had no part. Both pictures are confronting images of despair and desolation in a world in which selfishness, greed and a desire for power leads to suffering for the innocent.

I’m not sure that any of us can begin to imagine what it must be like to be a parent in a country devastated by drought or war. We cannot conceive how it must feel to know that we are unable to feed or care for our children. It is impossible to really understand what it must be like to live with the fear that hunger or disease might kill us first and leave our children alone and unprotected in a harsh and uncompromising world. Nor can we envisage the sorts of horrors that lead parents to risk their lives and the lives of their children on dangerous journeys across sea and land.

Few of us will ever know the despair and desolation that characterizes the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Thankfully we will probably never know what it is like to live in on the rubbish tips of Manilla, or to live in constant fear of Isis or Boko Haran. We will not have to live with the constant fear that haunts the slums in countless countries throughout the world. An accident of birth has ensured that we are by and large protected from some of the horrors that are the daily experiences of so many.

Despair and desolation are at the heart of today’s story. It is only in the last century, that women who had no father, husband or son to support them have not faced a life of destitution and isolation. What was true in the memory of some of us was no less true in the first century. A woman without a man in her life was entirely dependent on the charity of others.

In today’s story, Jesus is confronted with a widow who had only one son and now he is dead. She may have had many daughters, but they were no protection against the harshness of the world. If married, they would have been absorbed into their husband’s families. If still at home, they would have been a drain on whatever resources the widow still had.

We know only the bare details of the story. Jesus, for reasons unknown has travelled to Nain. There he observes a funeral procession. Even though the widow is a stranger and the funeral is in full swing Jesus finds himself unable to remain distant and aloof. He “sees[1]” the widow and has compassion on her (and her situation). He interrupts the proceedings and orders the woman not to weep. It is an extraordinary situation. Without invitation, Jesus steps into the woman’s grief and desolation and without being asked he restores the son to life and the child to his mother.

Can you imagine someone entering a church or a chapel at a crematorium and halting the proceedings while at the same time ordering the bereaved not to cry? They would almost certainly have been evicted from the building for being disrespectful and for adding to the family’s distress. This would be equally true in the first century – interrupting a funeral procession and appearing to make light of the widow’s grief would have been social suicide, demonstrating a lack of respect and a failure to understand the gravity of what is going on.

Jesus interrupts anyway. It is almost as if he is compelled to help. He cannot bear to see so much present and potential suffering – especially when he can do something to stop it. Two lives have come to an end – that of the son but also that of the mother. Jesus brings life and hope. He gives a future to the widow and life to her child.

Mass media has made us aware of the enormity of suffering in the world. It is easy to be overwhelmed, to turn off, to feel that there is nothing that we can do to really make a difference. Some issues are so complex that we are at a loss as to how to help we are afraid to interfere in case we make things worse. When suffering does not directly touch our lives, it can be easy to stand aloof – to blame the victim for not doing one thing or another, or for taking a risk that from the comfort of our arm chairs we deem to be to dangerous or unnecessary.

Jesus could not stand apart. While he could not and did not provide hope for every widow in Israel and while he could not and did not heal every Israelite who was suffering from demon possession, disease or infirmity, Jesus did what he could when he could.

You and I cannot, collectively or individually, bring an end to the suffering in the world. We cannot house all the homeless, protect the vulnerable from harm or find a cure for dementia or for cancer. That does not mean that we should do nothing. As followers of Jesus we need to find ways to bring life and hope into situations of desolation and despair. Where we can, we need to disrupt, interrupt the things that are going on around us. By our actions and our words, we need to say that so much suffering should not be the norm.

We need to have the courage to interfere and to challenge the world to follow our lead.


[1] In Luke’s gospel, “seeing” has particular significance. Jesus “sees” the whole person, the whole situation.


Resurrection – the refusal to give evil the last word

March 26, 2016

Easter Day – 2016

Marian Free


Christ is risen! He is risen today! Alleluia!

Jesus Christ is risen today! The strife is o’er the battle done!

Throughout Western Christendom today, songs of triumph will ring out as believers gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In the light of recent events such triumphalism seems like a slap in the face for all those who are grieving the victims of the Brussels attacks; for those who face weeks, if not years of surgery and therapy as a result of their injuries and for those who are left wondering “who or what next?”

How is it possible to make sense of the resurrection in the light of the attacks in Brussels, the Royal Commission into child abuse, the coroner’s investigation into the Sydney siege and the pictures of the millions of refugees who would rather face a dangerous sea voyage or wait desperately at border crossings than live with war or poverty? How can we speak of victory in the face of the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and countless other places where people just like you and I face the daily horrors of war, the gnawing pangs of hunger and that constant knowledge that it is beyond their power to do anything to protect their children?

There are days when it is difficult not to despair, to wonder if the resurrection of Jesus is an ancient fairy tale or an empty gesture. There are times when we can be forgiven for asking whether Jesus’ death and resurrection made any difference at all. It is clear to anyone who looks that the world that Jesus came to save has not changed. Everywhere we look we see poverty, oppression, injustice, discrimination, warfare and terror. Sometimes it seems as though the signs of life are overwhelmed by the ever-present evidence of death.

And yet, in the midst of horror and despair there is often evidence of life – a refusal to give in to fear and to hate, a determination to hold on and a commitment to live more fully than ever before – to demonstrate that darkness cannot extinguish the light.

It is interesting to note, that in the increasingly secular world, it is Christian symbols, symbols of the resurrection to which people turn when tragedy strikes – the light of a candle, the image of the cross, the placing of flowers, the utterance of prayers, the gathering in memory. The world may not have changed, but the resurrection is deeply embedded in our collective memory. Whether they believe in Jesus or not, at times of despair, people turn to images of the resurrection – images of hope for the future, images that remind us that life can be wrought from death. They seek comfort and support in communal ritual action and in the words of Christian hymns and prayers and they lay flowers in remembrance. Unconsciously, even those who claim not to believe will at times of trauma, turn to the story that provides the world with hope.

On Easter Eve, the Paschal Candle is lit from the new fire. In the darkness of the night the flickering flame is a reminder than when death and terror have done their worst, there is still hope, it is a sign that ultimately the darkness cannot overwhelm the light, nor evil triumph over good. The resurrection is at the centre of our faith – the extraordinary truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, so that all might live. As if that were not enough, the resurrection is also a daily reminder, that it is possible to rise above the ugliness and baseness of human nature, that human beings can and do perform extraordinary acts of selflessness, that in the midst of horror we find courage, strength and compassion and that in the presence of evil we refuse to be cowed or to live our lives in fear[1].

In a world that is far from transformed, the resurrection of Jesus gives us confidence that good will triumph over evil, that love will conquer hate and that life will prove to be stronger than death. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of hope, a light in the darkness, a reason to hold on when all seems to be lost.

This is why, even in the midst of despair, we can say with absolute confidence “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”


[1] Within hours of the explosions in Brussels, locals had arrived at the airport volunteering to drive travelers to other cities. When the earthquake struck Christchurch, people mobilized to get food and water to those who were cut off. When the traffic was stuck because of a major accident, a woman bought bottles of water and distributed them. Simple actions, reminders of the goodness of human nature, the willingness to make sacrifices – small or big and of the determination not to let evil or tragedy have the last word.

Identity crisis

August 8, 2015

Pentecost 11 – 2015

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free 

In the name of God, source of all being, giver of all that is good. Amen.

Our recent trip to Israel was incredibly rewarding, but also very disturbing. Among other things I was disillusioned by the presence of the Christian church, in particular the partisanship and the competition for the tourist dollar. The major denominations in particular the Catholics and Orthodox, having vied for their piece of the Holy Land, hold on to it for all their worth. I could give you several examples of stories that filled me with despair, but I will limit myself to just one. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem has no fewer than six custodians – the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches as well as the Coptic, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox Churches. The church itself is divided between all six denominations with some shared areas. When we were there the Catholic Franciscans were preparing for Evensong, which they observe before the Russian Orthodox so as to be sure of a free run of the church. Had we stayed longer, we would have observed them scuffling with the Greek Orthodox whose procession was competing for the same space. It left me wondering what the church was really about and whether it really mattered who had the largest slice of the cake.

The experience confirmed something that I already thought – that today’s church, (and dare I say it, yesterday’s church) – has an identity crisis. It seems at times that we no longer really know who we are. We are not so sure of our place in the world or even in our communities. We are uncertain of our role and as a result we have no real direction. I wonder whether, like the church in the Holy Land, we too are concerned to protect and to hold on to what we have and whether we are struggling to preserve the institution of the church as much as we are trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

It used to be so much easier. There was a time when we didn’t have to struggle, a time when everyone knew who we were and what we stood for, a time when we were respected, a time when it was clear that we did some good in the world, a time when we didn’t have to explain or defend ourselves. Sadly today, in the eyes of many, the church is a spent force – at best an anachronism, at worst a laughing stock.

There are now at least two generations of Australians who have had little or no relationship with the church. Ask a class of nine year olds what happened at Easter and you are more likely to be told that Jesus was born (or died) than you are that Jesus rose from the dead.

Not only have we lost our place in the world, we seem to have lost our way. For centuries we were able to be complacent. We could take it for granted that most people knew whom we were and what we were about. Our children (even those who did not attend church) learnt the stories of the faith at school and Christianity provided some sort of moral compass for the world at large. During the colonial era there was a flurry of activity on the mission field as we sought to impose our beliefs on others, but at home we relied on the culture of the day to pass on the faith to others. We took for granted that we were part of the establishment and failed to reflect sufficiently on what it takes to share the good news.

So now we have an identity crisis. Others can now offer what we thought that we had to offer. Many of the services that used to be provided exclusively by the church are now equally the province of secular entities. The government can legislate for good behaviour and can provide social welfare, health care and education and non-government agencies can provide overseas aid. It begs the question: who are we, and what is our role? What do we have to offer that is unique and attractive to today’s world.

This morning’s gospel is in part about identity. Jesus’ listeners cannot get past the fact that Jesus is Joseph’s son. They can see and grasp Jesus’ earthly existence after all they know his mother and his father. Their problem is that they cannot begin to get a handle on his heavenly origins. How can the man whom they see before them have come down from heaven? For them, it is much easier to focus on the material and the physical than to grasp what Jesus is saying – that in his very person heaven has broken into the present, that the barriers the material and the spiritual have been destroyed and that the boundaries between the present and the future have been irrevocably broken for those who are able to comprehend who and what Jesus is.

I wonder sometimes if this is at the heart of our problem – if this is the reason why our churches are no longer full and why people no longer come to us for answers. I wonder if we have found it is easier to focus on the physical and the earthly, on things that can be observed and measured than to point to what cannot be seen and to direct others to realities that are beyond this existence. Yet this is the core of our identity – our understanding that faith in Jesus opens the door to a life beyond this, that for those who have faith the present is radically changed by the in-breaking of God into the world and that we no longer driven by hunger and thirst for something more, because we have found in Jesus all that gives life meaning and value. We do not have rely on the achievements of the past or worry about the uncertainty of the future, because we know that the past no longer has a hold on us and that our future is assured.

While we worry about the survival of the church, there are many in the world who hunger and thirst for meaning, who are looking for relationships that are more than superficial and searching for an assurance that their life has value. It is our responsibility to provide that meaning, our task to reveal the spiritual in the midst of the material and our role to demonstrate in our own lives what it means that the future has broken-in and radically changed our view of the present.

Jesus gave his life, that we might have life. In our turn, we are called to give our lives that others might know what it is like to be truly alive.

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