wrestlemania

Image result for wrestling ring

This is another part in my ongoing series looking at different types of praying. Today I want to explore what it means to wrestle with God. Let me start by saying that I don’t mean we should be trying to get him in a headlock and force him into submission. Nor am I alluding to the event recorded in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestled with a stranger, possibly even an incarnation of God himself. There’s so much that I would want to explore and unpack in that encounter that it would take several bloggages on their own.

What I want to consider today is that in the Bible many of the prayers that are recorded seem to involve wrestling: wrestling with conscience; wrestling with submitting to what God wants; wrestling with circumstances and so on. There aren’t many (any?) occasions when prayers are reduced only to the ‘shopping list’ style of praying that I mentioned earlier in the series.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, where we are invited to ask God to supply our physical and spiritual needs, we are previously urged to pray that God’s will is done and that his Kingdom prevails… and that may involve us in some wrestling if it’s not what we have in mind, or involves a greater cost to us than we are willing to pay.

The prime example is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the hours just before he was arrested, put on trial and crucified he wrestled with God. He knew what lay ahead and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 NIV)

Having gone back to his friends and found them asleep he want back again an prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42 NIV)

This looks like wrestling with God to me. The first prayer was emphatic – I really don’t want to do it, but I will submit to your will. The second has a subtle difference that suggests that Jesus knew there wasn’t another way, but hoped there might still be one, yet he was willing to do what his Father wanted. In being completely honest with God and wrestling with what he was experiencing and what he believed his Father wanted Jesus was able to be changed by his praying.

Let’s bring it to the present day. What if someone has done something that has hurt you deeply and you do not feel able to forgive them? You know that the Bible says you should, but you can’t get past the hurt. What do you do? Wallow in guilt that you can’t do what the Bible says (compounding the sense of hopelessness) or wrestle with God about it? The wrestling might look something like this (over a period of time).

“God, I know you want me to forgive, but I just can’t. You’re going to have to help me here. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, but I just can’t, help me to want to forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive but I just can’t. Help me to let go of the hurt. ”

” God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive and I will – one day. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive and I will – soon. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I do forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt.”

Did you notice that often the wrestling results in us changing, rather than God? The wrestling is real because we are being honest with God. If we are not being honest with God the wrestling is as fake as the wrestling that used to be on Saturday afternoon TV in the UK.

But if we are honest, God is able, by his Spirit (and sometimes with the help of a wise friend, pastor or counsellor) to help us. In Colossians 4:12 a chap called Epaphras is described as ‘always wrestling in prayer’. If you want more reflections on this read the excellent bloggage by my friend and collegue Graeme.

Be blessed, be a blessing

sorry

Image result for sorry board game

When I was a child I used to play a board game called Sorry. It is a version of the classic Ludo where you had to get your counters around the board (by way of dice throws) and back to your home before anyone else. The apology part of the game was that if you landed on a square occupied by one of your opponents’ counters you could send that counter back to the start, and you were meant to say ‘sorry’. My recollection is that I was not sorry at all and was actually rather pleased when I was able to do that to someone else’s counter – my ‘sorry’ was not at all heartfelt. Of course I was less happy when it happened to me.

I wonder whether there are times when our ‘sorry’ prayers are perhaps less heartfelt than they could be. I think we can judge this by using a repeatometer. The repeatometer measures how often and how soon after we have prayed for forgiveness we repeat the thought, action, words or attitude that led us to seek forgiveness in the first place. The higher the frequency and the sooner the ‘offence’ the less heartfelt the apology is. It’s not an exact science (but then it doesn’t exist in reality anyway) but it may be a useful rule of thumb. Of course it may also be that we have got into a cycle of habitual behaviour that we are finding difficult to break and we may need to get some help with that.

I wonder too whether we sometimes use ‘sorry’ prayers as a way of ‘clearing the cobwebs’ so that the things we are sorry about don’t accumulate too much. I am reminded of the story of a woman who, in church prayer meetings, would always pray that God would clear out the cobwebs in our life. One day a young person could not resist it and blurted out, “No, Lord! Kill the spiders!”

There’s an element of truth in that story. Sometimes when we say sorry to God we also need to take action (including asking for his Spirit’s help) in dealing with the problem at root cause so that we are less likely to stumble again. That too may need us to get some help or accountability support from someone we trust.

Of course the Bible doesn’t use the word ‘sorry’ much when it comes to our relationship with God, it prefers to use the old fashioned word ‘metanoia’.

What? Well the original New Testament manuscripts were written in Ancient Greek (not King James English) and that is the Greek word that is used to refer to us having a change of heart and mind and a change of direction. We translate it as ‘repentance’ but that’s a word that is not really used today outside of churches. So change of heart and mind and direction is perhaps a more accessible concept for our culture.

You need to change direction when you realise that the way you are headed is not the way you want to go. You need to change your heart and mind when you realise that you are wrong and want to realign yourself with what is right. Put the two together and you get a good summary of what ‘repentance’ is about – realising that we are headed away from God and that our self-centred approach was wrong and deciding to head back to God and to live life the way he recommends. Jesus’ wonderful story of the ‘prodigal son’ is a beautiful example of that (Luke 15). There are elements of contrition, regret and new resolve within the process too, but let’s not overcomplicate things.

To go back to our Sorry board game. A sorry prayer happens when God’s Spirit lands on us and shows us that we need a change of mind and direction and we head back home. (Yes, I know it’s not a perfect illustration but you get the point don’t you?)

The brilliant thing is that God is longing for us to play say sorry and metanoia-ise. He gives us his Spirit to nudge us and help us to realise what’s going on. When our spirit finally resonates at the same frequency as the Spirit of God we realise what we are doing and how that is wrecking our relationship with God, others and even ourselves and we do an about turn. And when we do, he is there waiting to embrace and celebrate and welcome us back. He offers complete forgiveness (although we may have to suffer the human consequences of our actions) and a fresh start and wipes the slate completely clean. How?

That’s what Easter is all about – God does all that is necessary to make our metanoia completely effective. If you want to know more, have a read of my series on the ‘atonement’ that begins here.

Be blessed, be a blessing

shopping list prayers

This bloggage continues my short series looking at different ways of praying. It started last week with ‘buffet‘. I was going to call this ‘Christmas List’ but you’ll hopefully see why I have called this ‘shopping list’ instead.

SHOPPING LIST

When I was a child I would often look at written shopping lists and mark them as if they were spelling tests. Not only that but I would also write things like ‘Could do better’ or ‘See me!’… I bet my Mum loved it! (Her spelling was not as bad as the list above!).

But it’s difficult to resist the temptation to mark shopping list prayers. Are they self-indulgent or are they outward-focused? Are they based on wants or needs? Are they accompanied by any other sort of prayer or is it all about the list? And so on. I want to try to avoid that. I think God loves any sort of prayer, but we can always do better.

What do I mean by ‘shopping list’ (or Christmas list) prayers? I mean the long lists of things we can bring to God for him to sort out / provide / intervene / change / bless and much more. Because he is a gracious and generous God there is the temptation to treat him as if he is a spiritual vending machine where we if we put in the right amount of praying we will get what we want. Remarkably, because he is so gracious and generous, sometimes he does respond to this sort of praying, but that can have the undesired effect of encouraging us to keep going.

Now hear me loud and hear me clearly. God does want us to bring these things to him. He does get involved in our lives at a micro-level and in the world at a macro-level and he does respond to our praying because he loves to interact with us. We might call it ‘interceding’ for others or ‘relying on God’ and those things are good, important and healthy. Do not stop with the shopping lists because of this bloggage.

But there are a few things we can do to improve our praying.

  1. Be less prescriptive. If I am shopping and my shopping list says ‘Cheese’ I have a wide range of possibilities to choose from. If it says, “X brand Danish Blue cheese” the choice is much more limited. Have we decided before we pray what we want the answer to be? I can remember one of our children going through a shopping catalogue before Christmas and circling the items they wanted. That way we knew exactly what they wanted to receive. Again, hear this correctly: there is nothing wrong with saying to God what outcome we would like. But there is a difference between doing that and prescribing to God the only acceptable outcome. That’s vending machine praying. God wants a dialogue rather than a shopping list, so even if we have a desired outcome, why not ask him what he would like to do? That brings me to the second thing we can do…
  2. Whose will is it anyway? In the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we are taught to pray ‘Your (Thy) will be done’. That’s a nuanced difference from the shopping list if it has become ‘My will be done’. If we are asking God what he would like to do, we need to be willing and ready to accept that his will may be different to ours. And recognising who God is and who we are may help us to accept that his desired outcome may be different from ours. Which is likely to be best?
  3. Be willing to be changed. This follows from the previous way of improving our shopping lists. Do we pray to try to change God’s mind or to allow him to change ours? I think he rather likes using our prayers as an opportunity for a conversation with us about the issues we are praying about. But a dialogue surely contains within it the possibility of being shaped by the other person, doesn’t it? The amazing thing about praying to God is that sometimes I find that the first outcome is that I am changed even before anything else happens. And even more amazing is that God accommodates himself to my prayers too. I am not sure he always has just one prescriptive answer to every prayer. Sometimes he gives me a range of choices and all of them are good (such as which songs to sing or who to visit). Doesn’t that sound better than a mere shopping list?
  4. Be ready to be a part of the answer. I have found that when I pray with a shopping list I find that it is more often the case that the answer lies with me than I am willing to admit. In the Bible Jesus’ friends came to him when they were confronted with a mahoosive crowd of hungry people. They had a planned solutions to the problem – send the people away and let them find some food in the surrounding villages. Jesus answered: “You give them something to eat…” If I am praying for someone who is upset part of the answer may be for me to go and comfort that person. If I am praying about injustice part of the answer may be for me to campaign against that injustice. If I am praying about someone who is hungry what should I do…
  5. Be open to receiving a new list. If this praying thing is a conversation then isn’t it possible that God will respond by saying, “Well your list is interesting, but have a look at my priorities and see what you think…” My shopping list may have been rather ‘bland’, may have lacked faith or even been selfish. So seeing God’s list of priorities is worth exploring and you can find them writ large across the pages of the Bible.

Let’s not stop shopping, but let’s be open to being more conversational!

Be blessed, be a blessing

more from the buffet

Continuing some musings about prayer, here is another of my categories of prayer:

Image result for anybody there

is there anybody there PRAYER?

This sort of prayer can be the beginning of a relationship. It is a tentative exploration of whether there is a God and hoped-for responses range from a gentle feeling of reassurance through to a full-on multisensory display of the Almighty’s power. The reality is that it is more likely to result in the former than the latter, although occasionally people have had such a life-changing experience. If it is a fuelled by a genuine hope that God is there he will respond although maybe not in the way that a person expects.

Why doesn’t God give everyone the full-on show? I suspect it is something to do with him not wanting to overwhelm us. The occasions when he does are perhaps occasions when he knows that subconsciously that person is ready and willing for such a display. The rest of the time he gently cultivates the faith expressed and offers an almost imperceptible increase in awareness of who he is over time in order that the individual’s free will and fledgling faith is not stamped on by incontrovertible evidence of his existence that makes it impossible not to believe. God values our freedom to choose him or reject him so highly that he goes out of his way not to overwhelm it.

(By way of an aside, whatever you think God’s Judgment ultimately is perhaps it is nothing more than him honouring the decision we have made about whether we want to be with him or not: he’s not making the decision, we are!)

If you don’t hear him at first, don’t give up. This sort of prayer often requires persistence – not because God is silent but because we are not always well-attuned to his voice because we have not heard it before. We may not notice that he is there in that sense of peace or wellbeing. We may not recognise him in the way that other people speak to us or treat us. We may not sense him in nature around us. We may not find him in the words we read in the Bible. It doesn’t mean he’s not there, it’s just that we have to learn to recognise him (and that process continues throughout our life). We may need the help of a more experienced follower of Jesus to help us.

If so, do find someone – a friend, pastor, Spiritual Director…

More to follow.

Be blessed, be a blessing

buffet

File:Breakfast Buffet (21720094978).jpg

Imagine that you are staying at a hotel. Breakfast is included in the price you are paying and, after a good night’s sleep, you get ready for the day and head down to the restaurant where there is a wonderful breakfast buffet spread across lots of stations. You look at the wonderful variety of food on offer – cereal, many different types of bread and pastries, continental breakfast, fruit, yoghurt, cooked breakfast and more beside. Having looked at everything that is on offer you fill your plate from the delicious array of options and head back to your table. Your companion decides that they will just start with a piece of toast.

But that’s just the first visit to the buffet.

After you have finished you head back with an empty plate and indulge again from the wide selection and come back to your table. Your companion also returns from the buffet.

With another piece of toast.

You do this several times and each time your companion only has a piece of toast. Eventually you ask why they are only choosing toast from the wide range of food on offer.

Your companion thinks about it for a moment and then says, “It’s what I am used to.”

How do you feel?

Is our approach to prayer like your companion’s approach to the breakfast buffet? Do we limit ourselves to what we are used to? Is there more on offer for us to experience? Absolutely and there are some excellent books on prayer that these bloggages can never hope to emulate – God on Mute by Pete Greig and The Message of Prayer by Tim Chester are two that I have read and value.

I am going to look at prayer in the following categories over the next few bloggages: today it’s 999. Subsequent bloggages will look at prayer categories such as: is there anybody there?; Christmas list; sorry, wrestlemania; lament; praise; gratitude; chattitude; and listening

You could say they are are the official nukelearfishing prayer categorisations, but before you go diving in please note that there is nothing wrong with any of these. If I appear critical it’s only if that’s the toast we eat every time and we don’t expand our diet. What I am seeking to encourage is a much wider breadth of engagement with the whole variety of ways of praying. I am also hopefully not so arrogant that I expect to make this an all-inclusive list but hopefully it might encourage you to try some new items from the buffet…

999 (or 911 in USA)

Some people pray in a moment of crisis or when they feel out of their depth trying to invoke the help of a higher power to get them out of trouble rather like calling 999 to request the assistance of one of the emergency services.

These prayers can sometimes be freestanding or can sometimes be linked to a promise / bribe – ‘If you will help me then I will…’ – and can be generated by self-interest or self-preservation which is a motive that can lead to amnesia if the prayer is answered positively and the promise / bribe is forgotten.

Linked to these are prayers offered on behalf of someone else who is in peril. This can also be linked to a bribe / promise and the commitment to those is similar to above. This more altruistic approach to praying is nonetheless still relatively limited in scope and expectation beyond an immediate resolution of the problem.

Acceptable answers to these first 2 categories of prayer may often be limited to fulfilling the request in the desired manner and any deviation from that answer can be seen as evidence that the prayer was not answered or that the higher power was unwilling / unable to assist or does not exist at all. This un-nuanced approach to answers to prayer is to be expected when prayer is seen more as a call to an emergency service than the lifeblood of a relationship.

There is nothing wrong with praying in these circumstances but it’s a shame if the mustard seed of faith expressed here is not cultivated when the moment passes. They are moments of engaging with the Almighty and can be gateways towards faith, but if our expectations are limited to getting what we want the faith expressed may not be much more than the faith expressed when we put money into a vending machine and hope to get what we asked for. It’s a shallow faith and if it is not deepened is likely to lead to an abandonment of that faith at the first sign of disappointment.

Be blessed, be a blessing

sailing grace

If you’re more than an infrequent visitor here you will know that I own a 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. Sorry, that should read I own a model 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. There is a small (or should I say large) difference.

My yacht (I call her Charis because it means ‘Grace’ although she doesn’t have the name on her hull) is still big by model yacht standards. When fully rigged she is about 7′ (just over 2 metres) from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast and she is about 5′ long (about 1.5 metres).

In case you don’t know about these things the only controls I have are for the rudder (which way to go) and how far to let out the sails (which controls speed and helps balance the boat in the wind). Sailing Charis by radio control is usually incredibly relaxing. She glides through the water and is incredibly responsive to the gentlest touches of the controls.

When I am sailing her I am trying to see how close I can sail to the wind, how cleanly I can go around a buoy in the lake, how fast I can make her go, and enjoying the sound of the waves lapping against her hull as she serenely slides past me.

But the other day I took Charis to one of my usual sailing lakes and I was unsure about whether even to take her out of the boot of my car. The weather forecast had said that the wind would be gentle, but it was much stronger than the forecast had said. In the end because I had driven for 25 minutes to get there I decided to give it a go. Perhaps the wind would be gentler down on the water.

The wind had been flapping the sails vigorously as I rigged the boat and I was still uneasy as I applied the finishing touches. I checked the boat slowly, making sure that I had everything ‘ship shape’ before picking her up and lowering her gently into the water.

Then, with a gentle shove from me, she slid off from the side of the lake and the wind caught her sails.

And she shot off! The wind was no calmer at the lakeside and Charis heeled over alarmingly as a gust caught her. I had to be very attentive on the controls and either correct with the rudder or let the sails out if she looked like she was going too far over.

Sailing downwind was not too bad as the sails were out fully and the boat was being driven down the lake. But tacking back up the lake was nerve-wracking with the strength of the wind and then sudden stronger gusts that threatened to capsize the boat.

Instead of finding the experience relaxing or exhilirating I found it stressful and could feel myself tensing up. After 5 minutes I decided to call it quits and brought the boat back to the side of the lake, picked her up out of the water and put her back on her stand to de-rig her.

I was disappointed – the experience had not been what I had hoped for. I was annoyed with myself- had I been more experienced I might have been able to cope more, but there was also the question about whether I should have listened to my first instinct and not taken the boat out of the boot.

Reflecting on that experience just now I wondered about coping in stormy seas. I know it wasn’t a stormy sea, but for the scale of boat I have and my level of experience it was too much. We can find ourselves in situations like that. Sometimes it’s because of a decision we have made, sometimes it’s because of circumstances outside our control.

So what do we do? Give up, pack up and go home? (That’s not always possible). Persevere and hope to survive? (Not enjoyable).

I reckon what I should have done is get someone who knew what they were doing to come and help me. Instead of working to the limits of my own experience and confidence I could have drawn on the experience and confidence of someone else*.

One of the blessings of being part of church is that there are usually people there who have experience of life beyond your own. There are people willing to accompany you on life’s journey. Sometimes they will just be there for you as you sail in the rough weather and whisper words of encouragement. Other times they may be able to help you out by temporarily taking the controls or telling you what you could do. And even just knowing that you are part of a supportive community is really a blessing: I have literally just received a text message from a Christian friend asking how I am doing!

Of course it’s not just churches that can offer this sort of thing. We find it in families and in friendships and other organisations and I hope you have that sort of support somewhere. But churches ought to be groups of people who do this instinctively. I would even suggest that if we don’t find it in a church that purports to be a free sample of Jesus (who told us that loving one another is right up there as a priority for life) then there’s something wrong.

Because life isn’t always plain sailing… be blessed, be a blessing

*I did wonder about doing this as there is a model shop in the town where I was sailing but I was unsure whether anyone would have helped from there. Perhaps I should have joined a model sailing club.

what Jesus forgot to say

Jesus face-planted as he realised what he forgot to say

I’ve been wondering recently whether Jesus forgot to say a few things. Did he stop too soon when he was saying the amazing things he was saying? I am only asking because, from what I can observe, it looks like we have worked out what he forgot to say…

I wonder, for example, when he was talking about taming the tongue he forgot to include the exception that you can be as offensive and insulting as you like on social media if you disagree with someone.

When he said that to be great you should consider yourself the servant of all, should he have gone on to say that this does not apply if you are in charge?

When he spoke of the Spirit of truth guiding us into all truth did he omit the bit about saying that it was alright to ignore truth if it was politically expedient?

When he said that we should not judge other people perhaps he forgot to say that it was okay to be judgmental if you are sufficiently sure that you are right.

When he said that we should take the plank out of our own eye before sorting out the speck of dust in someone else’s eye, did he neglect to mention that it’s okay to ignore the plank if you think other people haven’t noticed it, or to deny the plank’s existence if they do?

When he criticised religious people for neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness did he forget to say that it’s okay to do it if the people affected were not born in your country?

When he was questioned about whether it was right to pay taxes and he said, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” did he forget to say that it was okay not to pay tax if you could find a good loophole?

And when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God wholeheartedly and the second is to love your neighbour as yourself is it correct that he forgot to say, “So long as they agree with you”?

Just wondering.

Be blessed, be a blessing.