Continuing some musings about prayer, here is another of my categories of prayer:
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…
Warning: this bloggage contains idealism, optimism and challenge.
I grew up in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was real. The peace of the world existed in a tension that was known as MAD – mutually assured destruction. In other words, we would not blow up another country because we knew that they would blow us up in return – the missiles passing each other in their deadly trajectories. It was also an era when acts of terrorism were commonplace – mostly in Northern Ireland but sometimes on the UK mainland too.
We now live in an era when there is a new threat of nuclear attack as smaller countries acquire the technology to split the atom destructively. We also live in an era where acts of terrorism are commonplace – fuelled by a hideous distortion of Islamic ideology.
It seems to me that MAD and terrorism are two aspects of the same worldview: the threat and reality of death and destruction are the ultimate ways of exercising power, influence and control over someone else. They are ways of establishing or enforcing control in a situation. Those who have the power maintain it with the threat or reality of death and destruction and those who feel powerless seek to regain power and control through the threat or reality of bringing death and destruction to those who have the power.
Part of me wants to scream, “Have we learned nothing in 50 years?”
And I fear that the silent response will speak louder than words.
Why is it that some nations, people groups and ideologies are seeking to regain or establish power and control? Put simply (and I know it’s more complex than this) it must be that they feel powerless or lack control. So if we are to resolve these issues how are we going to do it?
You could rain death and destruction down on those who are threatening it – remove them from the planet and you remove the threat. Except that the threat will always re-emerge because there will always be others who feel so powerless and lacking in control and influence over their own lives that they see no alternative. That is the current policy operated by the powerful.
You could seek to force those who are threatening death and destruction to desist by making their existence intolerable through the imposition of sanctions of different sorts. But the danger is that if they are not starved into submission they may be starved into even more desperate acts in order to try to survive.
You could seek to negotiate peace with those who are seeking or threatening to disrupt it. This only works if all sides want peace and are willing to negotiate. It necessitates a recognition that peace through compromise is more desirable than the current situation. Peace that lasts cannot be coerced or imposed because otherwise resentment will fester and emerge later on in violent antipathy.
It seems to me that the approaches that have been taken in the 50 years I have lived on this spinning globe have not secured lasting peace. United Nations resolutions have not changed anything. Economics has not changed anything. Ideology has not changed anything – capitalism may have gained the ascendancy but it actually only benefits the wealthy and powerful so is likely in the long term to exacerbate the problem. Religion has not changed anything – different sides have claimed moral and religious justifications for their actions but nobody has been proved right. Technology has not changed the status quo.
So what would work? I think we need a global response to a global problem. That problem is inequality: inequality of wealth, power, influence, lifestyle, resource consumption, technology and so much more. And what we need is a global outpouring of grace. By this I mean that those with power become willing to ‘lose face’ and seek to improve the circumstances for those who are power-less. It will cost a lot in many different ways, and the cost will primarily be paid by those who have the power, wealth and so on. They are the ones who will be giving things up for the benefit of those who have less as it means a substantial redistribution of wealth, power and influence.
It also carries with it a lot of risks: the risk that those who are seeking to wreak death and destruction on others will simply take what is offered and continue their deadly path; the risk that those who have used aggression or its threat to make their point will claim victory and it could encourage others to try the same thing; the risk that the citizens of the powerful nations will see it as weakness and not re-elect those that we in power who acted that way… many more besides.
It’s actually something that God intends. In the Bible we read of the concept of Jubilee. It was to be a year (once every 50 years) in which debts are written off, land is restored to its original owners, those who have been exploited are released, and everyone acts in the best interests of everyone rather than motivated by greedy self-interest. The problem is that those who had the power and wealth found it too difficult to let go of it so it was never (to our knowledge) put into practice.
Is this achievable? Not by our own efforts because greedy self-interest will always overpower grace and love. Look at what happened to Jesus!
But it is achievable if we get radical. ‘Radical’ as a word has its origins in the concept of ‘going back to the root’. What we need is not a new politics, economics or ideology. What we need is a radical renewal of our relationship with God. Jesus described what he had come to do in the form of announcing a year of Jubilee in our relationship with God: a change of heart and renewed relationship with our Creator is the only way we can begin to see his world transformed and the only way we can see the sort of change that is needed that will affect the hearts and minds in such a way that we will be willing to risk all for the benefit of all. It’s only possible when we allow him to get to work on us by his Spirit to change our hearts and minds and we live in a grace-rich environment.
Am I an idealist? Maybe. Am I unrealistic? Maybe. But it can start with me and you. How about it?
Great news. I’m pleased to be able to announce an incredible Black Friday deal. You won’t be able to find a better one!
You can get a fresh start in life, forgiveness for the past, a relationship with God, a helper who is always with you, live life in all its fullness, a global family of billions, the sting of death drawn so you can experience eternity in God’s presence, and a promise that it won’t be easy.
And for one day only you can get all of this ABSOLUTELY FREE.
That’s right, it won’t cost you a penny. The price has already been paid (see Good Friday).
Terms and conditions apply – you need to be willing to allow God’s Spirit to change you, admit past failings and turn away from them, acknowledge that your fresh start in life is a gift from God made possible by Jesus and live your life accordingly.
This offer has previously been available at any of God’s outlets (aka churches) on any day of the year at the same price.
In the middle of a period of leave I’m sitting on the sofa at home and relaxing. The TV is off, I am on my own. Just me and my thoughts… and The Thought.
I have been reflecting on the question of prayer. Did God really give us the gift of prayer so we could ask for what we think will make our lives better? Did Jesus teach his disciples to pray for good health, a job, a promotion, or a parking space?
Have we trivialised prayer by turning it into a shopping list?
Jesus taught us to recognise who God is when we pray. He taught us to pray for God’s will. He taught us to rely on God for our needs and to seek forgiveness even as we seek to let go of grudges. He taught us to ask for God’s guidance and the ability to resist temptation: to seek his help to live free of the influence of evil. He told us that we should be thinking about the Kingdom of God and pursuing that.
How different is that to the prayer life of the average Christian in the West?
How different is that to my prayer life?
Please God help me to be less self-centred in my prayers and to seek first your Kingdom.
Why do we think that the ‘virtual’ world of the internet and cyberspace is any less real than the physical world we inhabit? It seems to me that some people believe that because it is less tangible it is somehow less real. Is that why some people post abusive, threatening and menacing statements on social networking websites – because they don’t think they are real? They think they are just messing around.
Is it why, during the riots a few years ago, young people posted messages on social networking websites saying that there was going to be another riot somewhere – they thought it was all a joke.
Is it why some people have made inappropriate comments about others at work on social networking websites, or have criticised their bosses online – it’s not real, it’s virtual?
Is it why some people explore the seedier side of the internet because they think that the images and videos are not real?
Because it’s ‘virtual’ people don’t think about the consequences of their actions.
But the hurt, fear and stress caused is real. The threat perceived is real. The possibility of inciting violence is real. The damage to reputations is real. And so are the consequences. People are prosecuted for making threats online, for defamation online, for inciting riots online, and are sacked for comments made online. The people who are exploited to gratify the desires of others are real. The world may be virtual but the consequences of our actions are real.
I think that’s the same with our relationship with God. Doesn’t it sometimes feel ‘virtual’? We can’t physically see him, we can’t physically touch him. Our relationship with him can seem less real because of that. But simply because we can’t see or touch him does not make him any less real, it doesn’t mean that the relationship is less real, and it doesn’t mean that the consequences of ignoring him are less real.
If we are honest with ourselves there are moments for all of us when it feels like our relationship with God is virtual, intangible, unreal. He seems remote, distant, more of a good idea than a reality. But do our thoughts and feelings invalidate the reality? Are the consequences of the actions of those who think that cyberspace is not real any less real because they don’t think about them? Just because you don’t think God is there, or you can’t feel him, it does not mean that he isn’t. It just means that you need to reconnect. Start by reading a Gospel and see God in flesh and blood interacting with people like us. Jesus is not virtual!
They are staying with her Mum for a few days during the half term holiday. I know it’s silly and irrational but the house feels very different when they are away. Even during the daytime, when Sally and Hannah are at work and school respectively and I’m, the only one here, the house feels more occupied because I know they will be here again soon. And as I move around the house I find evidence that they were here earlier in the day.
It might just be me, but sometimes I feel a bit like that about God: that he has left me on my own. There is silence around me, prayers seem to vanish into the ether, the sense of his presence is replaced by an echoing absence.
But I have learnt not to panic in these times. As Elijah found out in the cave (1 Kings 19) God can be more present in the silence than in the loudest, most vibrant, bounciest worship service. Elijah was feeling abandoned by God, sorry for himself, all alone. But he experienced God in the sound of sheer silence. Interestingly this did not change his perspective on life, he still expressed exactly the same self-pitying abandonment. What had changed was that he had discovered that God was there with him in it.
When I am experiencing divine absence it is not because God has gone anywhere. He is still with me in his absence (if that does not sound too paradoxical). My ability to sense him may be impaired by me sticking my fingers in my spiritual ears (often because I have been distracted from him); or by me being too busy; or by me expecting to sense him in a particular way and that’s not how he wants me to experience him on that occasion. Even when the ‘absence’ is because I am in pain God is closer than I can imagine. He is with me, in me, sharing my pain, feeling the impact, understanding better than I do and later I find that to be true.
But sometimes (and bear with me here) it’s as if God is playing ‘hide and seek’ with me. When children play hide and seek they are in it together, they know they will be reunited, and the game is part of the friendship. Sometimes, it seems to me, God is deliberately hiding from me because he wants me to search for him, to look for him, to grow my desire to be with him. In the absence, in the desire to be with him my awareness of who he is can grow because I realise what I am missing.
If I walked around the house now I would find lots of evidence of the presence of my wife and daughter. I know too that they are coming home soon (and phone calls help). In the searching for God I use other spiritual senses to find him than my default senses (looking in the Bible is where I usually start) and I find him in music, in nature, in science, in other people, in my imagination, in creativity, in serving others, in rituals, in mysteries, in bread and wine… and in so many other ways. When I take the time there is ample evidence that he is still around, that he has not gone anywhere.
God is not absent, I have the sense that he is watching from his hiding place, desperate to be found again, perhaps planning to jump out and shout ‘surprise!’
On Sunday evening at our church we will be having another of our Film Nights. They are relaxed occasions when we gather together and watch a film, with an invitation to reflect on some of the deeper meaning of the film and what it means for our lives.
This Sunday we will be watching The Bucket List. I will endeavour not to give out any spoilers, but the blurb on the back of the DVD case describes it as, “A hilarious and deeply touching tale. The Bucket List charts [Edward and Carter’s] journey across continents, to building a friendship and discovering their own identities.”
The two main stars are Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman and I think it is a lovely, moving film that makes you laugh and consider deep questions. What is it about the arts that they have the capacity to do that to us? Music, even without lyrics, can move us. Poetry can touch deep within. Paintings and sculptures can speak to us in ways that words cannot. Film and theatre can engage us in unexpected ways.
On Saturday I went to the cinema and watched Les Miserables with the two main women in my life (wife and daughter). I had seen it at the theatre in the past and was moved by it, but the film production of it left me with a lump in my throat.
I am sure that wiser and deeper thinkers than me have pondered why the arts can move us, and probably have been awarded PhDs for their troubles. But here’s how I see it. God has made us with emotions as a way of helping us to engage more deeply with him, with each other. with his world and with ourselves. We are moved, we feel joy, we express laughter, we cry because we are created to be affected by all that is around us. It is an essential part of being human. It is part of being created in God’s likeness. It is part of understanding the world in which we live and ourselves within that world.
We respond emotionally to the arts because they meet us on an emotional level that is underpins intellect and cognitive ability. Stories resonate with us. Images remind us. Sounds and melodies stir us more profoundly than knowledge can.
I think that it’s part of us growing emotionally as well: we have a safe place to ‘rehearse’ our emotions so we can know how best to respond to them in other circumstances. It can help us to empathise and sympathise with others.
One of the messages for me in The Bucket List is that there is more to life than we often allow ourselves to experience. In our morning services we are exploring what it means to follow Jesus and live life in all its fullness. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that God wants us to explore what it means to be fully human in a relationship with him: allowing ourselves to be emotionally affected by many different aspects of his world and allowing him to speak to us through them.
Be blessed, be a blessing.
A film crew was on location deep in the middle of Dartmoor. One day a wizened, weather-beaten old man went up to the director and said, “It be gwin ter rain termorrow.”
The next day it rained. A week later, the old man went up to the director and said, “Termorrow there be gwin ter be a hoooge storm.” The next day there was a hailstorm.
“This man is incredible,” said the director. He told his secretary to hire the old man to predict the weather. However, after several successful predictions, the old man didn’t show up for two weeks.
Finally the director sent for him. “I have to shoot a big scene tomorrow,” said the director, “and I’m depending on you. What will the weather be like?”
The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Oi dunno,” he said. “Me radio is broke.”
This will probably be the last bloggage… for a week.
(I can hear a strange noise all of a sudden. It sounds like cheering)
This weekend I am heading down to Devon for a week’s retreat* at the Society of Mary and Martha. It’s a retreat designed for Ministers and is called a ‘12,000 mile service’. The website says that “Guests are free to choose their own pace and activities as the week unfolds. A chance to recharge batteries, take out dents in the bodywork or test the brakes, perhaps?”
I would rather not have any comments about dents in my bodywork, please, and I will be going into hospital in Mid November to get a rechargeable battery fitted, so perhaps what I need to concentrate on is testing the brakes.
The sabbatical leave that I am currently enjoying has been a wonderful experience. I have stopped the busy activity associated with being a Minister and have had the opportunity to rest, relax, refresh, read, refocus and practice my alliteration. One of the things that has come to me afresh is the need to ensure that when the sabbatical time is over I need to make sure that I put regular and frequent time and space in the diary to do those things (perhaps not practicing the alliteration). Once every seven (or in my case nine) years is not sufficient to maintain yourself at peak spiritual condition. That is not only true for Ministers, it’s true for all of us.
For some people Sundays are those moments in their week. (Often less so for Ministers because it can be our busiest day). But can we honestly say that our relationship with God is going to be at its deepest and most amazing with just an hour a week spent focusing on him? Can we even think that this will be the case if we give him fifteen minutes every day as we do our daily Bible reading?
I have friends with whom I have not spoken or corresponded for months / years. It’s wonderful when we do catch up, but I can’t say that there is any depth to those relationships. Not when you compare them to the relationships I have with my wife and my children with whom I share so much more of my life. They get to see the good and the bad. They get to share the laughter and the tears. They experience the joy and the pain.
That may seem very obvious, but that does not make it any less true. If we confine our relationship with God to special moments in our day then we are short-changing him and ourselves. We are treating him like a hamster that we take out of its cage once a day to play with and enjoy and then put back to allow them to get on with running around in his little wheel while we run around in ours. God deserves and wants so much more than that for us.
I have sometimes felt that being a Minister is a bit like being a hamster running in a wheel. You run as fast as your little legs can carry you but if you are not careful and you don’t keep up the wheel will keep on turning and you will be spun around madly. That’s true for all of us, not just Ministers, which is why God designed a sabbatical for each one of us. It’s his commandment (not recommendation) to rest, recreate and relax for one day in seven (sabbath). The idea was not that we dedicate one day a week to being with God, but that we take one day a week to be refreshed. (If you feel like a hamster in a wheel, watch this video and enjoy the ride – perhaps there’s a team ministry analogy here?).
So how? Well I am sure I have blogged about this before, but I find it helps to associate different activities with him. When I wash at a sink and look in the mirror in front of me I try to remember that it’s a moment to reflect on whether I need God to cleanse and forgive me for anything. In my car I will sometimes put a CD of worship music on and sing my lungs out as I drive around. Regular time reading the Bible is essential: but don’t short-change yourself by limiting yourself to a quick burst in the morning.
But above all, have a dialogue with Jesus. The twelve disciples had that privilege as they travelled around first century Israel with him, but we have that privilege too – he is with us by his Spirit. Ask him about what you are doing, or going to be doing. Ask him to speak to you through it or through someone whom you will meet. Tell him how you’re feeling. When something makes you laugh, thank Jesus for the joy. When something makes you weep, thank him that he is there with you and ask that you will sense his presence (through others or more directly through peace within). Whatever you do has a Jesus-related dimension and as you involve him in your daily life more and more you will find that he feels closer (even though he has never been away).
Be blessed, be a blessing.
*retreat = running away, in case you wonder what the bloggage title has to do with the bloggerel here. Actually it’s often more tactical than that, but I had in mind the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Arthur and his knights beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught of their foes.
Last night’s Deep Thought at our church was fascinating. ‘Deep Thought’ is the name for an open discussion group where we consider big questions of life, the Universe and everything. It is named after the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that was designed to answer that question and came up with the answer… I won’t spoil it for you by giving the answer, but I know some of you shouted it at the screen at that moment!
We were considering why it isn’t easier to find God. Most people in this country have declared themselves to be Christian (according the the latest census data) but seem to keep God at arm’s length or further away: only involving him when things go wrong and they need a helping hand. The vast majority of people who walk past our church each day probably don’t give God a second thought.
The discussion meandered gently through how we discover God in other people, within ourselves, in tough times, in unexpected places, in nature, even in the Bible (irony alert), and in scientific discovery! Actually he’s not quiet at all, and if you look honestly and openly you can find him!
But he seems to keep his distance as well. There are no big signs in the sky that declare that God made this. There are no lightning bolts from the sky when people ask if there is a God. And it struck me again this morning that Jesus seemed to spend a lot of his time telling people who had correctly identified him as the Son of God to be quiet and not tell anyone!
Why the distance? We felt that it is because God gives us free will and if he made himself too obvious that would override our freedom. He has to give us space and the opportunity to disbelieve in order for our choice to be absolutely our choice. Yet we also felt that God is poised at the edge of that distance, ready to respond immediately to anyone who starts to move towards him. The distance is no greater than it needs to be.
We commented on how many people had turned to praying for Fabrice Muamba. Quite what they will do with this new-found faith in God who hears prayer as he continues his almost miraculous recovery I am not sure. I suspect that for many people it will be a return to normal. But perhaps one or two will have edged closer to God as a result and will find him – in people, in experiences, in the Bible, wherever they look. Perhaps they will find him in us if we are free samples of Jesus.
Be blessed, be a blessing.
Apparently true story about finding in unexpected places:
A German “tourist” supposedly on a golf holiday, showed up at customs with his golf bag. While making idle chatter about golf, the customs official realized that the tourist did not know what a handicap is. The customs official asked the tourist to demonstrate his swing, which he did – backwards!
A substantial amount of narcotics was found in the golf bag.