St Stephen's

December 13th, 1992


How many of you know the initials O.D.T.A.A. and what they stand for?

O.D.T.A.A. stands for "One Damned Thing After Another". Even if you didn't know that, I'm sure you've experienced the feeling many times.

If the children are particularly awful over breakfast and getting themselves ready for school; when there's one letter in the post telling you that your telephone account is overdue and another that the overdraft at the Bank is over the limit; when in your haste to get a cornflakes packet out of the cupboard you knock down the honeypot which shatters all over the kitchen floor - at which precise moment your eldest shouts from the landing that she can't find her school jumper; and then the telephone rings.

I could go on elaborating details but you've probably recognized the feeling which is called One Damn Thing After Another or O.D.T.A.A. for short

But what makes it all worse is that if you are a Christian who believes in the faith, there is the idea that we somehow oughtn't to feel like this, that such feelings are unworthy of those who have set their sights on the target of "glorifying God and enjoying Him for ever".

If that's the way you sometimes feel then perhaps I can help you. Or if I am the wrong person there's almost certainly someone who can. Not because I can stop honeypots breaking or brats losing their pullover or even the feeling of O.D.T.A.A. itself. That's something which happens to everyone from time to time and there is no reason for believing that Jesus himself was not subject to it. There are times, we can be sure, when living side by side with the twelve apostles who were always having arguments with each other about things like who should be the chief, was as bad as living in any family of sulky teenagers.

There were other times when his fellow-men deliberately misunderstood or misrepresented what he was telling them; and those times when living a hand-to-mouth existence meant that Jesus and his friends didn't know where the next square meal was coming from; and in the background there hung the shadow of the cross which looked like putting paid to everything he tried to build up during his earthly ministry.

Jesus, then, shared in all our earthly feelings of pain and frustration as well as the good feelings of pleasure and fulfilment. The difference between our experience and his is that unlike us he was sinless and therefore never felt guilty about such feelings.

Nor I believe should we feel guilty if only we handle them correctly - because feelings in themselves have no moral dimension. If the temperature's below zero you're no better or worse a person for feeling cold. What does matter morally is what you do about it. If you put an overcoat on, or light the fire or give yourself a hot drink then you're being good and doing the right thing; if on the other hand you do nothing and go on shivering or still worse go about complaining and making a present of your bad feelings to everyone else and taking it out on them, then you're being bad and doing the wrong thing.

Of course if you got something on your conscience then you're never going to feel perfectly well until it's been put right. So many people have done one or two or half a dozen things in their lives of which they are heartily ashamed and yet have never really felt that they faced up to and been forgiven for them. It's worth reminding ourselves again of those words from the Book of Common Prayer:

"...if there be any of you who cannot quiet his own conscience herein but require with further comfort or counsel let him come to me or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word and open his grief; that by the Ministry of God's holy word he may receive the benefit of absolution".

One of the good things which comes as a by-product of an O.D.T.A.A. day is the opportunity it provides for self-examination and repentance. Of course the broken honeypot and the mislaid jumper probably have nothing to do with the matter that was on your conscience - that was something which took place maybe weeks or months or even years ago. But just as the pain in the head or a sore throat may give us warning of a virus which is attacking our whole system not just our head or throat, so too an O.D.T.A.A. day can remind us, like nothing else can, of something we've done or failed to do, or which is crying out to be put right.

But what if our conscience is clear? O.D.T.A.A. days arent always the direct result of having done something wrong.

Well there are two practical steps which we can take. The first is to remind ourselves that in God's grace we are the receivers of One Blessed Thing After Another. Go back to your Prayer Book and read from it the prayer called the General Thanksgiving :

We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life but above all... for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.

In the background of everything we are, everything we do, everything we experience, is the infinite love and benevolence of God towards us. The trouble is that most Christians take this for granted or are even unaware or forgetful of it - which is why in part the O.D.T.A.A. days overwhelm us with grief. Set against the goodness which we regularly receive from God's hands the bad things are a tiny minority in number. So the second useful exercise we can do when struck down by an O.D.T.A.A. day is to:

Count your blessings
Name them one by one
And it will surprise you
What the Lord has done.

Now that still leaves the actual experiences of O.D.T.A.A. themselves, and I don't want to make light of them or say they don't matter: "He jests at scars that never felt a wound."

But it's possible I believe with a little practice to put these experiences to positive use. That is by the process called "offering them up."

Most people say that they find the business of praying for other people difficult. Intercession (that's what the process of praying for others is called) seems to be somehow a bit of a cop-out shall we say. Why should anything as simple and uncostly be expected have any effect on the welfare of others?

Well it may sometimes be a good idea to be reminded of the vastness of God's mercy and the almost complete insignificance of our own efforts towards the working-out of his will.

But if we take it too far we may begin to feel useless or too insignificant and we may simply stop bothering and feel like telling God to get on with it. Our prayer would then consist of the words "O God bless everybody, always and everywhere for Christ's sake Amen." and we should effectively have done all our lifetime's praying in ten seconds flat!

But suppose instead we were to tag each of our sufferings, each of the One Damn Thing After Another on to a particular person for all we wanted to pray. Then it couldn't be said that our prayer was costing us nothing. As St Paul taught his followers we would be "making up what is lacking in Christ's suffering for his body the Church's sake".

For every suffering - a smashed honeypot the lost pullover the telephone bill can, if patiently endured, and properly faced is in some small measure redemptive. That is to say it can be used by God in connection with a prayer for others to work for him in the process of redemption.

Earlier on I said that we shouldn't make a present of our sufferings to other people or by grousing and complaining and generally being unsociable.

Now I'm saying precisely the opposite. We should make a present of our sufferings to the people in our prayers for them.

Do you see the difference? The first attitude looks upon suffering as an outrage being done to us. "Why should I have to go through all this?" and uses it to take it out on other people.

The second way in looks upon our sufferings as an opportunity to identify ourselves with the sufferings of our Saviour and in the process to use them for the benefit of those who need or deserve our prayers.

By tacking our sufferings onto the name of some fellow-sufferers we can, I believe, transform the negative of One Damn thing After Another into One Blessed Thing After Another.

Don't mishear me. It takes a bit of practice and for all I know, I may have an O.D.T.A.A. day tomorrow and forget myself all the fine words I said this morning and fail to practise what I preach.

But that doesn't alter the fact that the process does work. Offering our sufferings to God tagged with the name of someone whose sufferings we wish to share is a most wonderful way of bringing good out of evil, a blessing out of a curse.

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