praying mysteriously

The following bloggage began as a ‘Thought for the week’ I shared with the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association.

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Ephesians 6:18)

I don’t know about you, but I still find prayer to be a deep mystery. We know that God wants us to pray, that Jesus gave us a pattern for praying, and that the Spirit helps us to pray (including interpreting our deepest groans when we can’t find the words). But why does God want us to pray, and how can our prayers make a difference to the Sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the Universe?
 
There’s no easy answer to this – prayer is a mystery, and a complex one at that. There’s no way I will give a comprehensive answer in this email. But here are a few things that we already know:
 
We know that part of it is because it’s one of the ways in which we express and enhance our relationship with God: our prayers are part of the way in which we communicate with ‘Our Father in heaven’.
 
We know that part of it is that prayers change us – when we pray ‘thy will be done’ not ‘my will be done’ we open ourselves up to the possibility that our attitude and action may be different because we have prayed with an open heart and an open mind.
 
We know that part of it is about us investing ourselves in God’s kingdom purposes (‘Thy kingdom come’) and lifting our eyes up from the things of life that vex, distract and consume us so that we can see and get involved in what God is doing.
 
We know that part of it is about restoring our relationship with God, other people and his creation as we pray for and offer forgiveness.
 
We know that part of it is about reaffirming our dependence on God for all that we need and (the corollary of this) restating our willingness to surrender control of our life and our dependence on our own resources and ingenuity.
 
All of that, and so much more, is true. But I still wonder why prayers make a difference to God. Are they like power cells that recharge his ability to act? No! He is all-powerful. Does he need them to motivate him to act? No! He says, “Before they call I will answer…” (Isaiah 65:24). I have pondered why prayers are so precious to God and why he responds to them throughout my whole faith journey. And I think that part of the answer lies in “Our Father…”
 
Perhaps because he is Our Father God graciously chooses to involve us in his work in the same way that a parent makes room for a child to help with chores because they enjoy doing things with their child (even though they might be able to it quicker and better on their own); perhaps he gracious chooses to respond to our praying in the same way that a parent will respond to a child’s request – seeking to give them the best; perhaps he graciously chooses to cherish and value our prayers in the same way that a parent cherishes and proudly displays a child’s naïve artwork on the fridge.
Whatever you think of my answers, there is no doubt that prayer is further evidence of God’s grace – it is not a right, it’s a privilege. So let’s pray…

Be blessed, be a blessing

Paul’s first letter to the Confusions

[This is an extract of a letter that was recently found down the back of a sofa and which I have ‘translated’. Its authenticity has yet to be established.]

To the Christians in Confusia

Gravy and peas to you all. [The exact translation of this sentence is unclear].

I’m writing to you because it has come to my attention that there’s a lot of misunderstanding among you about some things I’ve written to other churches and some of the things Jesus said. So let’s ignore what I said about churches being a temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body of Christ. And ignore what Jesus said about being salt and light. Those have clearly not resonated with you. Here’s a new metaphor for you.

You are the fortress of God. You should pull up the drawbridge and prepare for a siege. Get ready to lob lots of steaming [the precise translation of the next word is uncertain] from behind your high walls at the people who come into range. Expect some retaliation from them but don’t worry: that should just confirm to you that you’re doing church right.

Occasionally you should organise raiding parties to go out into the surrounding area and see who you can capture. Once you’ve dragged them back inside the walls of your castle make sure you indoctrinate them well.

When going on raids put on your armour, sit on high horses and denounce anyone you meet from up on your high horses. Don’t forget to disinfect thoroughly at the end of the raid and measure your success by the amount of negative feedback you generated: the more the better.

It’s a good idea to create your own language so that people outside won’t understand you. If they don’t know what you’re saying you can’t be blamed if they misunderstand you.

Even though some of you may have to live or work outside the walls of the fortress on no account should those people try to engage with the people around them on their own. Safety in numbers! Don’t let anyone know you belong to the fortress.

If some of the more misguided of you feel that you really ought to be engaged with the wider community then focus your efforts on being nice people rather than actually talking to them about how much God loves them and who Jesus is. Polish your Spiritual armour (see the letter I wrote to the Ephesians for more about that) and work on the basis that people will want to join the fortress because of how shiny you are. Keep the sword of the Spirit well-hidden when outside.

In conclusion, my dear Confusions, keep your defences up and your heads down. That way you won’t be bothered too much by the people around you.

Yours entirely ironically

Paul.

lamenting

Recent events have led to a heart-breaking hashtag trending on the internet: #metoo. Women around the world are using this to speak out about the misogynistic or abusive treatment they have received at the hands of men. It has taken the immense courage of the women who have made allegations against such a high profile and powerful person as Harvey Weinstein to break down the floodgates of fear and empower and en-courage others to speak out in this way.

Sadly we know that this scandalous treatment of women is nothing new – we even find it in the Bible with the rape of Tamar and the unfair treatment of the unnamed woman dragged before Jesus with a baying crowd ready to stone her for allegedly being caught in the act of adultery while the man was not similarly accused. This is not how God created men and women: we were made for complementary relationships not exploitative ones. We were created to act out of love not lust. God’s law speaks of (and Jesus enacts) the responsibility to protect not exploit, to raise up the fallen not trample on them, and the responsibility to use power to help the most vulnerable not gratify yourself.

I have felt deeply moved about this and have not been sure what to do with the range of emotions that I have been feeling until I thought about lamenting. I think that this is one of the times where the Biblical concept of lament is called for – whether you use the words of laments such as Psalm 102 or create your own. A lament is not simply a cry of woe, it’s an honest cry to God against injustice, oppression, violence and evil. It’s a heartfelt and defiant call to the Lord and into the world that despite the circumstances faith is not extinguished and that good will prevail over evil despite how things appear. It’s an invocation for God to do something. It’s a reminder that this is not how God intended things to be and they will not always be this way. It’s a call to action to see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

So this week I lament:

I lament for those who are victims. Many friends of mine (both women and men) have posted #metoo this week to say that they have suffered abuse. I cannot begin to understand the pain and hurt that they have carried with them caused by others whose treatment of them was degrading, dehumanising and disgusting but I lament for them.

I lament at the scale of the scandal but the sheer numbers are cold and heartless: each one is a story of someone made in God’s image but treated as less than that.

I lament that we live in a world where those who are victims feel so intimidated, afraid or ashamed that they have not been able to speak out until now (and many more won’t have even felt able to use the hashtag). I lament for the silent and voiceless.

I lament that men have done this and that we have built a patriarchal society that not only allows this to happen but has seemed as impregnable as the walls of Jericho – may God use the movement of his people to break it down.

I lament that it is not how God intended us to be with one another. I lament at the distortion of God’s creation that we were created to love one another not exploit and abuse one another.

I lament and ask that God might use this moment to not only unearth and expose the evil but also to restore the dignity, honour and self-worth that has been stolen from those who are victims.

I lament and ask that God might use this moment to restore his Kingdom values in his world so that we see one another as he sees us and that we love one another as he loves us. I lament and resolve to play my part in that movement for change.

Will you join me?

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

(This bloggage was previously shared as a Thought for the Week with Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association)

Once upon a time there was a man who owned a radio-controlled sailing boat. It was a beautiful boat that was a model of an early America’s Cup 6 metre yacht, and it had been built by one of the man’s friends. The boat was 5 feet long and with the mast and sail was over 6 feet tall.

The man loved the sleek, graceful lines of the boat. He loved how the British Racing Green hull merged with the blue keel, separated by a white stripe. He loved the feel of the wooden deck and how all of the fittings on the boat were miniature replicas of the real thing.

He loved the fact that there were limited controls for the boat. He could control the direction by turning the rudder and he could control the speed by tightening or loosening the sails. But everything else was at the mercy of the wind and tides. There was no engine. The man enjoyed watching how a small movement on the radio control sticks caused the rudder to twitch or the lines on the boat to move.

The man was really happy with his boat.

But he was also anxious about his boat. What if when he sailed it the batteries ran out and he was unable to communicate with it any longer? What if it capsized in the middle of a lake? What if it got stuck on an underwater obstruction? What if it hit something and sank?

All of these anxieties would build up in the man’s mind and he would be afraid to take the boat sailing.

But sometimes instead of the anxieties he would remember how beautiful the boat looked as it sailed gracefully across a lake. He would remember the calming sound of the water lapping against the hull as the boat glided through it. He would remember the joy of being able to sail the boat into the wind, across the wind and ahead of the wind. He would remember how happy it all made him feel.

And then the man would pack his boat into his car and go off to sail it. The anxieties might still surface but the joy and relaxation he got from seeing the boat doing what it was built to do was far greater. And when he got to share that with his friends the experience was multiplied.

What holds you back from doing what you are made to do? Are you holding someone else back?

Be blessed, be a blessing

used to disappointment

A long time ago I was at a conference and started chatting with someone I hadn’t met before. We asked each other about our interests and I let slip that I support Ipswich Town Football Club. Without missing a beat my companion said, “Oh, you must be used to disappointment.”

And yes… there have been many disappointments in the 40 years since I started supporting them. (There have been a few highs too). Supporting a club like Ipswich is nothing like supporting a team like Arsenal or Manchester United. Last year that had what was termed a bad season. I think most Ipswich Town fans would love a bad season like that!

This morning I am pondering afresh that sentence from my companion at that conference: ‘You must be used to disappointment.’ I don’t know if we ever get used to disappointment. By definition it is a sense of sadness or regret when what we were hoping for or expecting didn’t happen. If we are not expecting it to happen we won’t be disappointed. I think that’s how pessimism starts. But getting used to disappointment is not a semantic exercise, it’s a painful experience.

Disappointment is a melancholy word. In it we hear the faint echoes of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. It leaves a taste of bitter traces of emptiness and maybe even hurt. We experience the pit-of-the-stomach falling emotions and distressed hopefulness.

Each disappointment that we experience costs us: we pay a penalty charge of sorrow; a little bit of our optimism is taxed; and time and energy that we have invested feels wasted. Sometimes we carry deep disappointment with us as a wound in our soul that can be opened up afresh when we least expect it.

So what can we do? Very few of us are hyper-optimists who can see a silver lining in every cloud. (And it seems to me that being such a person must be emotionally draining as well – being so upbeat must be difficult). I think this is where community helps. We are created to be social beings. We have the ability to communicate with others.

Simply being with someone can communicate care and concern.

Hugs communicate that they are not alone.

Listening well can be a real blessing to someone who simply needs to unload how they are feeling.

Reflecting back to someone what they have said can help them to interpret and own what they are feeling.

And if we can’t be present physically don’t underestimate the value of a card, email, text message, phone call…

These are just a few examples of how we can communicate what someone really needs at times of disappointment: unconditional love. Whatever has happened has not changed the fact that we love them. It’s what God offers us when we feel disappointed in ourselves.

I don’t think we ever get used to disappointment, but we can be used to help other people cope with it.

Be blessed, be a blessing