prayer and the absence of god

13 09 2016

How do we pray when we don’t feel like praying anymore? Why should we pray when we feel like we are hurling our words down an empty well, and all we hear are the echoes of our own sadness?

Stop praying? Give up? Pray something different?

God sometimes answers prayer in a straightforward way. We ask for something, he says yes, and we get what we asked for. Happy days.

God sometimes does not answer prayer in a straightforward way. Like we say to God please can I have £20 and he says yellow, and we walk off looking confused.

prayer-and-the-absence-of-god

Part of the problem is the way we talk about prayer.

Answered?

We talk about prayer being answered. Put this in a different context and see how strange it sounds. When did you last have a chat with your friend? Did they answer? Have you spent time with your family recently? Brilliant, did they answer?

Prayer is much more profound than answers. That type of prayer treats God like a divine Siri and church like a subscription to Amazon Prime – put your order in, wait for it to arrive. Grumble at any delay or delivery charges.

But then life happens, and no matter how much we can deny it, we know God does not operate like this.

But it was never like that.

A truth: God is.

Whether he gives us what we want or not, he is. He is above our mood swings, our doubts – we do not destroy God by not believing in him, or being angry with him.

Another truth: God wants us to talk to him.

Prayer is the word we give to the thing we do with our family and friends – conversation, hanging out, spending time, getting to know. The way that you can get to know how your friends and family will think, that is what we can do with God. he knows us, and we can know him, begin to think as he does.

Which is not something we do so that we can get what we want fro him when things go wrong, like sucking up to your boss so you get a promotion or the best desk or the shift you want.

But what about the times when we are angry and disappointed and he does not save the people around us from illness or despair or death? Yes, they are tough. Those are the times we wish we could build up credits with God, and cash them in for good health.

There is no cashing in. But it is ok to be angry.

I know despair, I know anger. I know the feeling of deep sadness that only the death of a loved one can bring, like constantly falling from a great height and never landing.

Where is God then? In the valley of the shadow of death he is with us. I firmly believe that.

Most of the time.

Giving us strength, hope, raising us from despair. But not always saving us from it.

Does that help you? Does it help you if your son is diagnosed with cancer, or a friend commits suicide? Or if life is just rubbish?

Maybe it helps to know you are not alone in feeling that God is absent. Maybe it helps to be given permission to be angry.

The Bible is full of lament, that pouring out of grief and anger and questions that happen when life goes wrong. In fact, if you want a metaphor, a picture, for how you might feel sometimes, see Lamentations. The clue is in the name.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones…
He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked…
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help…
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust… (from Lam 3)

God is. And we pray.

Not just for what we want, but to know the heart of God.
Not because we want God to micromanage our lives.
Not because we believe we have a divine right to health, wealth and happiness.
But because God is.

Jesus calls us to persistent prayer. Yet knowing that the purposes of God – and of life – are greater than the well-being of my life or yours. Which can be hard to hear in these times of selfie-sticks, instant gratification, same-day delivery and the importance of my personal happiness.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (from Lam 3)

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sparring partner

21 04 2016

you are my rock
my fortress, we sing
my sparring partner more like
the opposing team defender
I tussle with
and wrestle to the ground
when the ref isn’t looking

89282752_huth2_epa

you are my invisible friend
the madness in my otherwise sane world
you are not my all
not always
but you are in all I  do
interfering
stirring up
bringing the fairy at the bottom of the garden
into my otherwise rational world

I do not love you as I know love to be
Yet I know you
I endure you
I revere you
I resist you
I rest in you
I serve you
I fight against you
sometimes I even trust you
sometimes I suppose I even love you

but I am tired
tired of defending you
when you don’t defend yourself
tired of hoping for the storm to still
yet finding you asleep
so be my rock if you will
be my fortress if you can
until then we will spar and tussle
and wrestle
and hope

© 2016 Kevin Lewis


Poetry can go to places normal prose simply cannot. Or does not. This poem is how I feel sometimes. Not all the time. But sometimes. The metaphors in our songs tend to be unfalteringly positive, robust, sometimes almost sycophantic. The Psalms can be much more earthy. I like earthy. There is a strength in not being strong, a faith in challenging faith, an honesty in being honest. You’re right, it’s not comfortable.  





what’s the point in praying for Iraq?

11 08 2014

What’s the point in praying for Iraq? This is part 1 of a question I was asked the other day. It is a very good one. It is not a new one, but it is a very pertinent one. Part 2 of the question was even tougher. Referring to the horrific story told by Canon Andrew White (‘Vicar of Baghdad’) of a Christian child (he had baptised) being cut in half, my friend asked, surely the child’s parents had prayed. That didn’t work. What difference will our prayers make? Ouch. Fair point. 

My first response is to do with my bowels. And Jesus’ bowels too actually. Bear with me. When I hear these terrible stories I am moved with compassion – far deeper than that actually, a pain inside – which is described in the New Testament, when Jesus felt compassion, with the word splagchnizomai. It literally means ‘to be moved in one’s bowels’. The bowels were the seat of feeling. It’s that depth of pain in your gut. That, addressed to God, is prayer. 

#wearen

Does that achieve anything, though? Or does it just salve our consciences, feeling a bit more active than clicktivism of changing our Facebook photo or signing a petition? Well, to feel is to live, so to feel deep compassion – literally meaning ‘with suffering’ – is to know you’re alive. So yes, it matters; and yes, getting together to lament and pray matters. But that’s still about us.

Here’s two thoughts about the difference prayer makes. First, the practical; second, the spiritual.  The practical is like this: if my neighbours house is burning down and they are stuck inside, and I realise I cannot help, what do I do? Go and make a cup of tea, draw the curtains and watch TV? No. I do what I can. I call the Fire Brigade. Fetch blankets. Make tea for others. I might buy my neighbours smoke alarms.  But if I never looked out my window, I would never know there was a fire. Imagine how my neighbours would feel then. Prayer is looking out the window and feeling. 

The spiritual (this is a false dichotomy, by the way) is this: there is a spiritual war for people’s hearts. I know that sounds a bit hard-core weird. No, I don’t know how it works. But there is such a thing as evil, it does take hold of people. It has in the militia of the IS. Prayer is our weapon against that. Again, I don’t know how. 

BBC News

So prayer is about actively standing in solidarity with those who suffer; it is about actively shaking ourselves out of a comfortable malaise, seeing where the world is burning and how we can help; and it is us actively taking our part in the spiritual battle of good vs evil. All of which can actually change the world as it changes us, as the more we pray, the more the Holy Spirit can work in us. But we don’t do it for that. We do it for those we pray for.

So, does prayer ‘achieve’ anything? Is there a point? It is not a slot machine, a magic formula, or a psychic communication;  but neither is it a waste of time or should ever be dull. And it may just be more significant than we realise.

If you are able to give financially, Andrew White’s Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East are one of few organisations still active in Iraq. For more about religious persecution see my post The Awkward Silence About Religious Persecution and this article in the Independent.       





a prayer for rebellion against us

9 08 2014

What’s your 20 year prayer? Because when we pray for young people, that’s what we’re praying. What do you wish people had prayed for you when you were 5? 10? 15? At our annual vision day for Sutton Schoolswork, we were invited to look ahead and pray for the future, and see where God led our thoughts. My prayers got quite big.  And even have a theme song.

My prayer is that this generation of young people will rebel against mine. That they will see our lazy, vacuous and self-interested society for what it is and they will rise up against it. I pray that they will be so filled with the Spirit they will not be able to control themselves from standing up against the lies we have peddled. And yes, we have peddled them, if only by our inaction. 

Where are you values? they will ask. You think that because you have abandoned religion your values are neutral and therefore better everyone else’s. But they come from inside yourself, where there is a greed and insecurity and the human tendency to self-preservation at all costs, and you wonder why your world has gone to hell.

You’ve sold us a lie that my self worth comes from my stuff. That my achievements are worth more than your love. That humans beings are consumers, not communities. That if we turn a blind eye to suffering it does not exist. That laziness leads to poverty and hard work to accumulation of trinkets and shiny stuff.

In a world more connected than ever you have cut yourselves off from any sense of duty, sacrifice and self-giving. You lie to protect your own interests and you do not hold each other to account. You have not shown us love.  

We refuse to follow you.

And when they say this, I pray that we, us, me – that we will not spend all our time defending the castles we have built for the sake of our pride or fear of change, but that we will allow them to challenge us, to change us; that we will see the world with the fresh and radical eyes of youth, and in doing so may be able to offer something to their struggle to recover our world from us. 

This is why young people are important. They will be in charge of everything in 20 years. They are the present and they are the future. Pray for them. And begin to prepare to let go of your castles and trinkets. Invite God to set a fire down in your soul that you can’t contain and can’t control. Do that, and everything becomes that much more scary exciting. And maybe more godly.  

On 6th September I will be running the Man vs Mountain race to raise money for Sutton Schoolswork. This is a gruelling 20 mile race over Snowdon, including abseiling and water obstacles just for extra fun. If you are willing and able to give, please do so through the website. Thank you. 





things jesus didn’t say #6 | handle

9 05 2014

“I won’t give you more than you can handle.” It sounds Jesus-y. How many times have I found myself saying it, to encourage somebody who is struggling, whilst at the same time thinking that sometimes he really does give us more than we can handle. 

thingsjesusdidntsay6handle

Stephen, stoned. Peter, crucified upside-down. Those are just the early ones. You just have to go on the Open Doors website to see the fate of Christians across the world today. Does that mean they did not or are not following God’s will? If he doesn’t give us more than we can manage, surely they must be? I look at my own life, and the decisions that we believe God has called us to make that have nearly broken us. If following Jesus is reduced to a positive lifestyle choice, it is not a good one. 

It’s too easy a cliche to bring out that God won’t give us more than we can handle. The key verse usually (mis)quoted is 1 Corinthians 10.13, 

And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.

This verse is about temptation, not suffering. Suffering is here in Romans 5.3-5

3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. 

Sometimes God gives us more than we can handle. That is a hard truth. So if your church tells you that he doesn’t, and that he will always give you the resources to carry out his calling; and that if he doesn’t then you must have misheard him… it’s not that simple. We don’t believe in a God who leaves us in the lurch. But we do believe in a God who will lead his followers to their death. Is that the same thing?

It is certainly a challenge to the temptation of the middle-class Christianity that says following Jesus will enhance your life and make everything go swimmingly. That is a danger especially at the charismatic end, and it is up to us to be aware of it. Sometimes we are called to plain old hard graft which prayer ministry will not ‘solve’; sometimes following Jesus will break us, or take us very near. 

I think that’s why it’s called taking up a cross.  

Can we handle that? 





things jesus didn’t say #4 | harder

9 04 2014

We need to pray harder. How often do we find ourselves saying that? It’s as if, when we don’t get what we want, we think that perhaps if we somehow did it ‘harder’, God will give in. I’m not sure what ‘praying harder’ looks like. Is it like weightlifting? Intense straining with our heads in our hands? Like thinking so hard our heads explode? 

thingsjesusdidntsay4harder

Now, I know it’s not simply that we shouldn’t pray ‘hard’. This is why prayer is complex. Jesus says a lot about prayer, but none of it is a formula that makes it ‘work’, because prayer isn’t about magic incantations that tip a balance or command a force, but prayer is the outworking of a life lived in relationship and conversation with the living God. In Jesus’ most obvious teaching about prayer in Matthew 6, it is in the context of humility, of generosity, of privacy; it is begins with God, and his kingdom, other people, and then ourselves; it involves confession, forgiveness, and recognising Jesus’ authority.

There are times when we need to pray intensely. There are times when we pray continuously. There are times when we need to remember prayer includes listening, and is not something we do just when we want something. But to complicate matters, God may seem to change his mind and act when we pray ‘hard’ – maybe  he wants to know we’re serious. But ultimately it’s not about formulas, and if our prayers aren’t answered as we would like, it’s not simply a case of our failure because we didn’t pray hard enough. Jesus never said that. 

We’re doing the Prayer Course at the moment, which looks at lots of these issues. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to start from.  





in the (dry) river

26 01 2014

Praying when nothing seems to happen. Praying where no-one else prays. Praying when the needs around are like a tidal wave rising before you and you can do nothing but pray.

We are river people. We believe that God’s love flows like rivers. The Bible is full of it.  But following Jesus and doing church – trying to grow church – can sometimes feel like maintaining a dry river bed. Endlessly tending, clearing, weeding. Like Noah, when other people say ‘why are you doing that?’ There is, quite obviously, no water. If we want people to know the love of God, then there are other places where the river already flows. Surely if we are river people, we should go where the river is?

Except that our God is in it for the long haul. We are in it for the long haul. We put our churches where the people are, not where the rivers are. Because we patiently wait for the time the river flows. We prepare. Below is a picture of the source of the River Wandle.  It is dry. It is a dry riverbed. I have often looked at it and wondered why it is still there. 

Then, after 15 years, it rained. And rained. And where the river bed was dry, all of a sudden it flowed. And now it is this:

As we were praying for our area, even before we knew about the arrival of the Wandle, we felt that God was encouraging us to pray even when around us feels like a dry river bed. Because God is at work, underground, maybe far away from us. But the water is coming. And when it comes, we must be ready. The landscape will change.

Like people being motivated to pray for our local area.
Like people discovering and rediscovering faith.
Like finally having enough men to do a men’s curry night.
Like today, when a third of the church congregation were new to us this year. It is still January. Are we ready? 





snail

12 11 2013

Claims to self-importance. So many.
Problem-solving? Done.
Individual. Local. National. Global. 
I am hero. 

Last week. Case in point.

Solving individual.
3 one-to-ones.
Support. Listen. Prayer. Coffee. Bacon.
To connect. Help others connect. Sounding board. Partnership.
Good. 

Solving local.
Launch of Prayer for Sutton. Friday night. Yay.
To link churches. In prayer. Can’t fault.
Saturday: Parish Day of Prayer. Creative prayer stations.
Art. Jigsaws. Space. Worship. God loves St Helier. Yes. He will deliver it.
Powerful prophetic word. Tell.
Good.  

Solving national.
Launch of Christians on the Left.
Guy Fawkes night. In Parliament. Pushing past protestors.
Juxtaposition. Hopelessness. Prophetic optimism.
National politics. Can be changed. Needs to change.
Corridors of power. Prayed for.
Good.   

Solving global.
Feel so small.
Pray for Sri Lanka. Philippines. Leaders. Remembrance Day.
Never forget to never repeat. Tell the children. Tell the children.
The children must know. Told them.
Good. 

Without me the world will end.
Collapse without my wisdom.
Individual. Local. National. Global.
Problem-solving? Done.
I am hero.

Being ironic. Like 10,000 spoons.
Adopting the weight of the world.
I struggle.
My shoulders hurt.
Let go. Jesus says. Again. 

But without me…

Let go. 

Let go. 

But. But.

Grant applications // service plans // unopened post // those who are ill // national debt // breastfeeding // tornadoes // payday loans // christmas rota.

The news. Loads guilt. So many issues. My world. Small. Big. Mixed up. 

Be a snail. Shrink for a bit. No more looking.
Permission to rest.
Slow.

Good. 

 





the prayer Jesus tortoise

1 10 2013

It’s about the whole life. Our faith, that is. When we gather we try to reflect that. A big danger of contemporary church is the X-Factor effect – unless something is an immediate emotional response to something else it’s not valid. So our prayers and worship easily become stereotyped immediate emotional responses to what god has done and a plea to feel more.

We do cry out for emotional response, yes; but what we need is depth. Depth cannot be captured just in immediate emotional response. Because depth is, whether we feel it or not. God is, whether we feel him or not. Prayer is not me thinking about me. Prayer needs to be slower than immediacy. The prayer Jesus tortoise, not the prayer Jesus hared through. tortoiseandhare 

Jesus knew this. They didn’t have the X-Factor but they still had the human tendency to shortcut deep whole-life prayer for an emotional high. Which is why Jesus said its no good publicly keeping the law but being a git. Squashed camels and broken needles. Planks in eyes. Millstones. Tortoises and hares. *

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus said be spontaneous, speak from the heart, liberally use the word “just”, and repeat the same thing in different words so people know you mean it. Haha. 

submitWe know what he said. We call it the Lord’s Prayer, even my phone recognises the title and capitalises it. It can be so familiar. Yet we can miss it’s power. It’s depth. It’s whole-life-ness. 

Try to grasp it. Cut through the rush for emotional immediacy to the whole-life depth of this tiny piece of dynamite. Because if we really meant what we prayed, our lives would be vastly different. 

It puts God first, and us in full submission. We declare trust in him. We confess our weaknesses. We ask for help. We return to worship. When we grasp the depth of what that all means, when we take it as a template not just for Sunday worship but for everyday help with worship, hope, submission, trust, forgiveness, temptation, evil and worship, then our lives will be more rounded and our emotions more grounded in who Jesus is and not in how we feel or think we ought to feel.

worship
Start our prayers with “you are our…” It’s kinda hard. So practice.
hope.
It’s his kingdom. It’s his rules. It’s his hope. He shares it. We share in it.
submission.
His will, not ours. Full submission. Of attitudes, money, family, career. Of freedom. For freedom.
trust.
The first prayer for us. Halfway through. We trust him. Not my strength, my skills, but your grace. For today.
humility.
Not looking inwards and feeling sorry for ourselves, but outwards and saying sorry to others. No special favours. We don’t get to be gits.
temptation.
I am not my urges. We are not enslaved to our senses. We are temples where god dwells.
purity.
Evil exists. We collude. “They” are not the problem, I am. We are. Deliver us.
worship.
We end where we began. Worship.

The prayer Jesus tortoise is slow, but deep. Grasp it, then you can respond with an epic emotional tear-jerking ballad if you want to.

Click here for Blessnet’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.

* It’s possible the tortoise and hare isn’t one of Jesus’ parables, I can’t find the reference. 





luxury

6 11 2012

“A luxury?” she said, flabbergasted.
“Yes, a luxury,” I replied.
Awkward silence.
“What?” I said.
“Of all the things”, she said. “how can that one be a luxury?”

We’ll pause there. The characters are me and the good lady wife. So what are we talking about? A new car perhaps, or a PS3 game? No, it’s work. New clergy dresses or a brand new gilt-edged leather-bound copy of the latest liturgical publication? Nope. Erm, a new laptop? A book by Nick Baines? A parish administrator?

We return to the discussion.

“You think walking round the parish and praying for it is a luxury?”

I see now this seems ridiculous. Keep reading. True story.

 

“Erm, yes I do. In the sense that I would love to do it, but I just can’t.”
“A luxury is an added bonus. Praying for your parish is not an added bonus. It is not a luxury.”
“Ok, I know that”, I said, beginning to backtrack, the frailty of my position becoming clear even as I began to justify it. The words tumbled out. “I want to, I do. Each time I do then God speak to me…”
“That’s your prophetic gifting  being used!” she helpfully interrupted. I was still going…
“…it’s just that I have got rotas to draw up and funeral visits to do and forms from the diocese to fill out and an assembly to prepare and a meeting to plan and I’ve been asked to speak at another church and there’s the light party and memorial service and I need to think about Christmas and there’s hall hire bookings and money to pay in and services to plan…”

She went to make a coffee, watch some Buffy the Vampire Slayer then came back. I was still going.

“… and my office is a mess and I need to visit this person and do the craft for toddler group and I’ve got 58 unread emails and this person is waiting for a response and I’ve got to order new paper and do the notice sheet for Sunday so yes, wandering round the parish praying is a LUXURY OF TIME I DO NOT HAVE!”
Triumphantly I finished, the orchestral fanfare playing a dramatic crescendo in my mind. It turned out to be the ringing in my ears.  

I could tell you what happened next, but I’d have to kill you. Buffy-style. 

I know this is a familiar discussion among the clergy. One of my problems is that I am capable of doing lots of things and holding it all together. What a hero. But one of my spiritual giftings, to a greater or lesser degree, is listening prophetically to God for an area, and for people. What is that? Simply hearing God speak to me as I walk around. Pointing me in this direction, or up that road; sometimes literally leading me up the garden path. In doing this I have fixed gateposts for strangers, cleared dog poo, chatted to hoodies and sometimes just got very cold and disheartened.

This is much harder than holding everything together though. Because it takes time. It takes open communication between me and God. Which despite being a vicar, with an alleged ‘hotline to God’ (no more than anyone else!), is not easy. It is about being not doing, tough for an activist. But this is how God speaks. This is how God chooses to use me. It is not quantifiable, and it is hard to justify to people who don’t get it. Much easier to complete a rota or a tax return or write a witty blog. Despite the best efforts of every other worthwhile (and less worthwhile) job pressing on my time, this is the one that should not go, but is always the first to go.   

“Without it, you can preach, but not prophetically. Without it you can pray, but not prophetically. Without it, you can be a vicar, but not a prophetic one. And if you’re not one of those, you shouldn’t be one at all.”

So today I began to walk again. Past the cheque cashing shop that promises you only pay £125 for every £100 borrowed. Past the Bingo hall that was featured on last night’s Panorama about problem gambling. Past tidy gardens, and messy gardens. Past mums, people with mental health problems and drink problems. Past people off to work at the hospital. This is not a luxury. This is my patch. This is what I do.      








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