Hearing wrongly from God

Just set your mind on it

Here’s another commissioned piece written for newish Christians in a Singapore-based magazine, an which is now a chapter in my new collection ‘The Sandwich‘ (yet to be published).

Thanks to Luckylife11 at Pixabay

(2007)

Hearing wrongly from God is easy and you hardly need any advice on it at all. Never mind that he is the Almighty and you are a half-pint. Never mind that he is bright-eyed with revelation, holding together the universe with his understanding, eager to breathe gentle words into your heart. You can hide from him, really you can.

Most people can be up and running, misunderstanding God consistently, in a matter of a few minutes. It’s harder for children, of course. But anyone from teenage years upwards can master one of the few simple techniques that I’m going to tell you about. With regular practice, these become as easy as breathing. Don’t believe the sceptics: you — yes, you — can insulate yourself totally against the Burning One, freeing yourself to worship what you truly love: your Blessed Self.

Here’s how you do it.

Thanks to Sponchia at Pixabay

1 Never surrender

This is the key to the whole thing. Remember Churchill’s advice to the boys of his old school during the Second World War: ‘Gentlemen! Never give up! Never give up! Never, never, never give up!’ Don’t yield an inch. Resist God and he will, eventually, shuffle off and go bothering someone else. He won’t strive with you for ever. There is an end to it.

Of course, God is quite a subtle foe in these matters. He will try to sneak in. We live with yearnings and aches: to love; to share our lives with others; to know the mysterious Essence beyond ourselves. A sunset, a face, a smile, they can seem like windows to heaven. They are not. Get a grip. Don’t yearn. Don’t be thankful. Don’t seek God (have some sense!). Don’t think. Take yourself in hand. Fulfil some pressing bodily need, put the TV on, gorge on some chocolate, go shopping, do something earthly to shake off these heavenly yearnings. You’ll soon be fine again.

Or sometimes God tries to speak when you’re going through a hard time. Really, he has no scruples. In tough times — he knows and you know — that you are inclined to panic. Grown men have been known to pray in toilets. Our advice remains the same. Remember Churchill, and never give up. In times of trouble say to yourself, ‘at least I’m not tempted to try religion! I’m not a weakling! I can handle this!’ You can fend God off pretty well with this sort of routine.

It is a basic rule: those who humble themselves, who strip themselves of vain arguments, who wait in silence for him, who surrender themselves absolutely and finally to his will: it’s those he goes for. The rest of us are pretty safe. Keep fighting and there’s always hope for you.

2 Be holistic

Of course, even if he can’t get at your heart right away, God will still try to influence you. He does it by subverting your ideas of goodness. But don’t worry, it’s easily prevented.

You want to be a good person, of course. God wants you to be a good person too  — there’s the danger.

The way to avoid any possible trap here is to maintain a steady focus. You don’t want to be just any sort of good person. You want to be a good person on your own terms. You want to mix and match God’s ideas about goodness with your own. Ours is a consumer society and so this a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

For example, keep an eye on trends. You want to be good, but not poor, austere, sacrificial, wholehearted. You want to be holistically good: admired by all, certainly, breaking hearts with the sheer wonderfulness of your nature, having girls sighing in their rooms at the thought of your intrinsic nobility, but you also want to be sexy, stylish, funny, rich and fulfilled. James Bond good. A rough diamond. Hot, not cold. Buttoned down, not buttoned-up. So mix up all your desires indiscriminately with whatever you fancy you may be hearing from God and you’ll be just fine. He won’t get a word in at all.

3 Accept no feedback

A patient, humble, teachable spirit is a dangerous thing.

Our minds are neural networks. They get things right only after much feedback and reinforcement: that’s as true for hearing from God as it is in learning how to write your name neatly. You try, you show it to an adult, they praise you and correct you gently, and finally, after hundreds of iterations, you get it right.

So it is with Hearing From God. People who hear consistently from God mull things over. Impressions waft into their minds, they pray over them, compare them with scripture, think them through, ask trusted advisers, wait on God for more revelation. They keep bringing a thing to God until it somehow holds together, the neural network is programmed with the right pattern, and a quiet peace settles on their hearts.

Knowing this, you can quickly see how you can mishear God almost 100% of the time. Be impulsive. Follow your gut. Then, be stubborn. Snatch at things. Cultivate prejudices. Don’t ask advice. Only allow your Bible study to reinforce what you already know. Think the same way you always have. Follow your tribe. Be unteachable: after all, you already know all you need to know. Don’t give houseroom to uncertainty, perplexity, ambiguity, hesitancy, diffidence. Tell yourself, ‘tentative’ or ‘provisional’ or ‘subject to revision’ is just another way of saying ‘weak’.

I hope that’s all clear. To sum up: if you want to keep your life clear of God’s kindly revelation:

Be proud!

Strain after all the good things in life!

Be wise in your own eyes!

And you’ll be just fine.

Healing: finding the gold in the straw

Having unexpectedly emerged alive from a four-week-long coma–in 2013–and with our church having held a 36-hour prayer vigil for us at the most critical point, and having had some kind of disability all my life, I’ve thought at lot about healing. This is another piece from my forthcoming book called (maybe) ‘The Sandwich.’ Like the others in the collection, it was commissioned by a Singaporean magazine and intended for newcomiers to the Christian faith.

Sandwiches
Luckylife11 on Pixabay

(2015)

How do we know when to stop asking and simply accept? What’s the difference between surrender and giving up hope?

We are treading on a tender spot here. Because we all know people who have been struck down inside a good healthy life.  Some dreadful disease snaffles them and everything inside of us cries out, ‘No! This is wrong.’ So we pray for healing.

Worse (in a sense), we know that God is a healing God. In the person of Christ he walked on the earth and did not view suffering with a Roman stoicism or a Jewish shrug. He wept over it, climbed into the problems, and healed. The lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised are signs of his Kingdom. These are the gifts he scatters as he walks among us. Jesus our King is full of compassion, fully engaged, and mighty to heal and save. Sin, evil, suffering, demons, death: he detests them all and went to the cross to purge all of them out of his lovely Universe.

We all know what is coming next: yet so many are not healed. I would be very surprised if in the circle of people you know and care about, there are not some for whom you are praying but who are not getting better. Others stay sick and in pain for a long time. What do we do? How do we pray?

*

I joined a community choir recently. I am a musical illiterate, but I am learning that some songs include a key-change. You are singing along happily enough, you think you’re getting the hang of this, but then the composer introduces a key-change and often it takes the song to a whole new level. For example, the South African National Anthem includes five languages and a key change, because Nelson Mandela wanted to incorporate both the African National Congress anthem and the old white South Africa anthem, and five of South Africa’s eleven languages, into one song. It makes the total experience a powerful statement of unity in a divided land. Without the key-change, it only would be half a song.

As we pray on for the unhealed, we must listen for God’s key-change. Most of us who fall sick only want one thing: to get back to how we were. But with very many sicknesses and afflictions there is no going back. There is only going forward. Hence the need for the key-change. We just want to go home, but God is changing the landscape around us. In his terrible love, God is taking the evil and forging something good in us. This is why I suggest we let God lift our juvenile, confused, panicking prayers to another level. Of course it is not our prayers he is taking to another level: it is we ourselves. Then the song will be complete in us.

Here are some of the elements, so it seems to me, of God’s key-change.

  1. Mystery. In the gospels Jesus walked through a large collection of sick people at the pool of Bethesda and healed just one person (John 5:2-9). He stood in a cemetery full of dead people and called just Lazarus back to life (John 11:38-44). He must have seen a number of funeral processions but he interrupted only one, that of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15). Why should some be singled out for instant healing and others not? It does not seem fair, nor can we explain why. It is a mystery. Mystery is like a cloud passing between us and the certainty of the living, loving Christ. We know the Lord is still there, but for the moment all we can see is the cloud.
  2. Eternity. I guarantee you have nothing wrong with you that the resurrection will not put right. When a person passes from this land of the dying to the land of the living with peace on their face, bags packed, ready for eternity, surely that’s a healing, that’s the great healing, even if for us who are left it is a separation and loss. And even if the timing feels all wrong. So real, full healing is guaranteed for all who come to Christ, in eternity.
  3. The present moment. Sometimes in our panic and fear we forget the importance of the present moment. Yes, let us ask God that a person’s dreadful illness is totally healed. But let us not forget the now. ‘God’, we can pray, ‘turn their anxiety into peace today. Make their soul happy today. Set a table for them in the midst of their enemies today.’ In my limited experience of these things, a visit, a word, something, can make your heart almost burst with joy, even if you are lying paralysed in bed and connected up to quite a lot of tubes. People might argue that that’s not the same as a proper healing. I am not so sure. It certainly feels pretty good at the time.  
  4. Seeing what the Father is doing. Someone once told me, prayer is not forcing God’s arm; it is taking what is offered in his hand. Somehow we need to walk with the Holy Spirit through the winding paths of prayer and let him guide our prayers so that as we pray, we feel full of peace and confidence. If we feel led to pray for a glorious sunset to a good life, so be it. If it means praying the person with ulcers will feel secure in God so that he doesn’t have to be a workaholic, that’s fine too. I’m not a fan at all of sharing these insights with the patient; they have enough to cope with. I would suggest asking for God’s leading, but then keeping the leading for your own domestic use.
  5. A meeting. Some scriptures teach that everyone who came to Christ for healing was healed. See Mark 6:36, for example: ‘wherever he went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed those who were ill in the market-places. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’ I believe these scriptures. Yet many today do not experience instant physical healing. How do we square this circle? Here’s how it works for me. I believe that everyone I might pray for can and should meet God. When the person meets God, in a sense, I can leave the two of them to it. The healing has begun. What goes on between them—instant healing; a long process of healing; abundant life amid continuing physical infirmity; healing fulfilled in eternity; or anything else—is between that person and God. Meeting God is the first and main thing. The core of healing is not getting physically better for a season until something else strikes us down. It’s meeting Jesus. I think I can pray for any sick person that they will meet Christ, they will touch the edge of his robe, and the healing will begin. I use that prayer a lot and I really like it.
  6. The glory. Hospitals, and let us be honest, sometimes a group of pray-ers, can make the patient feel like little more than a useless lump of meat. The sick person themself can start to believe that. But a sick person is not someone who has been suddenly shunted from a fruitful life to a non-fruitful one. He or she is not out of work, certainly not out of God’s work. They may not be on the path they would choose, but they are still on a path. They can glorify God. In the Old Testament Joseph named one of his children ‘Ephraim’ which apparently sounds like the Hebrew for ‘twice fruitful’ and he explained why. It was because ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering’ (Genesis 41:52). That’s a mighty prayer to pray for a sick person. ‘God make her fruitful in the land of her suffering.’ This is not a get-out if physical healing doesn’t happen. It is about people meeting God–Almighty God, that one, the Almighty one–and not emerging unshaken.

Back to the question we were set: How do we know when to stop asking and simply accept? What’s the difference between surrender and giving up hope?

I think I’m arguing that there’s a third option between simply praying for physical healing and simply surrendering the person to God.  I’ve called it God’s key-change, and it’s praying that respects mystery and eternity, treasures the present moment, tries to listen to God, believes that healing starts when people meet Christ, and asks for fruitfulness even in their place of suffering.

It’s worth a try.

About the tangle of free will and love, and the weakness of God

One of the nice things about writing to commission is that you have try to think about things that you don’t know much about. Below is another article I wrote for the Singaporean Christian magazine Impact, which probably demonstrates clearly why I don’t get paid as a philosopher. It’s extracted from my forthcoming book The Sandwich.

Luckylife11 on Pixabay

(2020)

Many of the world’s problems are blamed on God giving us ‘free will’. I’m not sure that God would be as heartless as that.

Does God force us to do things? If so, does he bypass us, or squash us to get his way? Does that show a lack of respect? Does it contravene ‘free will’?

Before we go any further, let’s not talk any more about ‘free will’, as if we were all independent actors with plenty of access to information, not influenced by our peers, able to make good choices on our own with our own resources.

I don’t believe it. I’ve yet to meet anyone like that. We peer at life through a soup of prejudice that distorts what we see. We are influenced by the networks of people around us, the tribes we belong to. Once we’ve made up our minds on something, we tend to defend our turf, accepting facts that bolster our view and rejecting the facts that don’t. Arguably our tendency to rebel against the light of God and choose our own dark corner makes us still more half-witted. We humans are dim. We don’t get it. Free choice would be spoilt on us. 

All sorts of things can make us a bit less slow of mind and thick of head. We could listen to others; admit we might be mistaken; test our ideas against evidence or logic. Perhaps when we are younger, and know less, and the world is open to us, our brains are more plastic and we are more open to learning. But still.

Then imagine you are God. OK, it’s probably unimaginable but imagine yourself with perfect knowledge, in perfect light, looking down on these bumbling toilers on earth, blundering, grumbling, bumping into one another. Their bodies are extensively wired to feel pain and you watch their neural systems light up as they injure themselves and each other, and then go back and do it again. To God, it seems, we look ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’, and he has compassion on us (see Matthew 9:36).

I don’t think God’s biggest problem looking down on this scene, if we can so speak, is a lofty analysis of freedom of choice or free will or the rights of humans. It is about how to get stuff done, among these creatures whom you cannot not love and whom you want the best for.

So for example if God arranges for you to meet that girl at that event at that time and she gives you that shy smile and he knows you are that sort of person and she is that sort of person and you then fall in love and create a happy life together, did he force you? Or was he just smart and kind?

Or if he quickens your torpid soul with life, unblocks your ears, restores your spiritual sight, and you see Jesus for the first time not as some historical artefact but as the Living One and a friend and redeemer; if God unwraps your graveclothes and you stand before him blinking in the sunlight, where in all that was your freedom and choice? Something greater than freedom and choice was here.

I was in a coma for a month once and it took my family and the doctors two weeks to wake me up – two weeks of my family talking to me, reading my books to me, of doctors changing the meds. I had no choice in the matter: I was hallucinating about a three-country trip to Africa (which honestly still lingers in the memory though it never happened). In a sense, the love and care of those around me superseded any issues of freedom of choice. They knew I wanted to live again and love again and they fought for me when I couldn’t fight for myself. I wonder if that principle ever crosses God’s mind and ever governs his behaviour?

The Biblical data is fascinating. Jesus, God’s selfie on earth, showed respect and restraint to those around him, often at cost to himself. He wasn’t coercive or controlling. He gave instructions that were disobeyed but he didn’t sulk. ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone,’ he said to the healed leper, ‘but go, show yourself to the priests…’ Get the medical and judicial proof that you are not infectious so you can rejoin your community. ‘Instead [the man] went about freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places’ (Mark 1:45-46). The ex-patient’s folly caused Jesus problems, which Jesus had to manage. At no point did he fell the man with a fiery dart. (‘I told you – go see the priest! Bam!’) Fevers, illnesses, demons, wind and waves all obeyed Christ’s words but people didn’t — and at a certain level the Lord seemed OK with that.

Yet at other times, God appears rather more forceful. Jonah is ordered to Nineveh to preach repentance. Nineveh was Israel’s enemy and God wanted to bring them light. Jonah buys a ticket for the opposite direction. God interrupts the journey with a storm. Jonah is then conveyed by various transport modes back to the shores around Nineveh: first, a short flight (he is thrown into the sea), then a longer trip by sea-creature (carried in the hold). He does not like this, but he does repent. When he finally walks into Nineveh, the repentant preacher preaches repentance and to his great disgust his preaching stops Nineveh being destroyed by God’s wrath. God gets his way. Nineveh turns to the light. But even then (according to the Book of Jonah at least) God is still concerned with Jonah and his continuing grumbles.

God was also quite forceful when he manoeuvred things so that the gospel burst from its Jewish flowerhead and seeded around the world. The book of Acts, chapter 10, tells how the apostle Peter fell into a trance, lost an argument with God, had a timely meeting, made a journey to some pre-prepared Gentiles, preached a short and perhaps tactless sermon, but it was enough for the Gentiles to have their own Pentecost at Cornelius’ place. Along with plenty of other actions God made the light go global – which was a win. Along the way, Peter and others changed their minds about whether non-Jews should get grace: another win. Letting Peter argue had helped.

Consider these various examples. They share a common thread. God appears to have largely got his way. But there is a weakness in God’s strength. Or to put it another way, God’s strength is made perfect through God’s ‘weakness’. What did the storm achieve in Jonah? Repentance. What did the trance and the events at Cornelius’ house achieve in Peter? Repentance, a fresh turning to God and a willingness to believe God for new and greater things. What did Jesus seek from giving people on earth a liberty to obey him or not – a liberty he didn’t give demons, fevers or storms? He provided space for repentance and often people took the offer up.

From our limited perspective, then, it seems that many of God’s actions, and many of what seem like his lack of actions, focus on winning the person as well as winning the day, rather than either philosophical high-mindedness or the need to control. We aren’t told what happened to the healed leper. We don’t know if sometime afterward, perhaps years later, he reflected on Jesus’ treatment of him, the power and the meekness, and turned to the Risen Christ in love and wonder. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t; but he wasn’t short of data, or insight, or opportunity.

What shall we say then? God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and his weakness is stronger than our strength. His patient tread is faster than our hurry. One day, says Ephesians, everything will be brought to complete unity in Christ: the whole created order will be renewed, humanity along with it. When we read that along with the rest of the Bible we are brought to conclude that many, many individual humans will repent and unite their ways with God’s ways, become fully human and (as other passages teach) others will not repent and will finally lose all their footholds in life and love.  Meanwhile we are in the hands of One whose patience achieves more than human impatience; whose grace promotes deeper obedience than human laws. God is not like the government, passing laws and issuing fines. His kindness unclenches our fists and is an ointment to our sore eyes. God’s action among us is still a mystery. But the glimpses tell us he is extraordinary in his character and that shows in the way he uses his power.

‘God’s not fair’

About riding forth for justice on a very small horse. From my forthcoming book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

Sandwiches
Luckylife11 on Pixabay

Here’s another article that I wrote for the Singaporean magazine Impact, aimed at the many thousands in that island nation–where we used to live–who were joining the churches for the first time. I’ve collected my favourites into a forthcoming book that may well be called ‘The Sandwich‘, because it is for those of us squeezed by the sublime one side and by the whole world on the other.

(2016)

Ask anyone with a younger brother. Life is not fair.

We know that no two people are born equally favoured. We aren’t given equal chances along the way. Here’s the tip of the iceberg:

  • Younger brothers don’t get told off; we do.
  • Some people blab on their phone all the time while driving and are never caught. Someone else uses the phone once, with the car stationary, in a family emergency, and has to pay a fine.
  • Babies born in Singapore can expect to live 83 years; others choose parents from Sierra Leone and may only average 50 years.

Worse, in a sense: God, we believe, is fair. Nor does he think justice is merely an aspiration, a campaign promise, something to be put in place when he has sorted out a few other things first. God loves justice (as Isaiah 61:1 says). He does justice: ‘the Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed’ (Psalm 103:6). He commands his people to do justice: ‘You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality … Justice, and only justice, you shall follow’ (Dt 16: 19-20).

God is just; life isn’t. Yet God is all-powerful. So why isn’t life fair? Below are a few thoughts. 

We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity

We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity. It helps to realize this.

Eternity is forever–and it is filled with God and his kindness and fairness.  Evil and suffering are temporary and are perhaps the equivalent of an attack of hiccups in this great grand goodness. In the big picture, all is thriving and bright. So far, so true. But let’s zoom in on the wrinkle.

God is at work in history

God is working in the wrinkle. This is a central Christian teaching, and it is comforting but it doesn’t make our question any easier. A God who set things up and then headed off for the evening, leaving us to it, would at least mean we could understand injustice. But that isn’t an alternative the Bible offers. Instead, the Bible portrays God, like a master chef with hands in the baking bowl, up to his elbows in justice work every day. Here are some things he does:

God brings things to an end in his own time. This current world has mortality built in. People, cultures, empires grow, ripen, rot. Everything passes. This is part of his architecture of history: extremely sad for those we love but rather helpful in the case of evil people and empires. If they lived forever, it would be a nightmare, Genghis Khan or someone would still be in charge. But in an evil world, universal mortality is almost a kind of mercy, certainly a way of capping off evil. ‘In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace’ (Psalm 37: 10-11).

God works on behalf of the needy. I once sat in the recovery area of an eye-surgery ward. People recovering from cataract operations were saying things like ‘I’ll be able to drive again!’ ‘I can read this now! I couldn’t read it before!’

It was just an ordinary day for this ward, but I felt like I’d fallen into a page of the New Testament. The blind see! God works for the needy. Every little thing that is done to relieve human suffering has its first impulse in the heart of God. On average, today, by the measures of extreme poverty, the world is getting better, God’s justice is spreading. Through humans—many of them, his own people—he is putting right what is wrong for the poor.

God works on his own timescale. Here is a very humbling thought. His forbearance is meant to bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4). He is patient with us, not wanting any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) Imagine this! The all-powerful God of love and justice at times lets great suffering happen. He hears the cries of the oppressed and he sits on his hands. Why? Sometimes he judges it good to wait.

I always find it remarkable that the only things that didn’t obey Jesus on earth were humans. At the Master’s command, waves collapsed, demons fled, limbs grew, bread multiplied. But humans? He told them what to do and they did something else. There is something incredible about what God will put up with from humans, what disobedience he will face, what injustice he will sit out, in order to win them finally. God waits, and often gets in hot water for it.

Other times God seems even to let things move too quickly; the person looking for a happy retirement is struck down too soon. We cannot do anything about this beyond seeking God and trusting him. He is good, he loves mercy and hates injustice, but he lingers around or presses forward according to his own internal clock, not ours. There is a saying in the court system: ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ But that is not true in God. He is an eternal being, and so are we.  Mortality is delayed in some and hastened in others; it’s not fair; but it will be; and beyond understanding God we are called to walk with him: protesting perhaps, but also surrendering, trusting, praising.

There is a day coming. Years ago I drove past a horse and carriage on our roads, a rare sight. The horse was being whipped to trot faster. Its eyes were wide, it was foaming at the mouth, and it was shiny with sweat.  Every time I drive on that road I think of that horse. But that was many years ago, and whatever cruelties it suffered are over now. In the same way, we believe there is a day coming when injustice will end for good. The wrinkle has a limit. Peace and justice will be universal. A day is coming.

God has entered our pain. In Jesus, God moved himself from the realm of mere academic speculation about fairness and made the argument personal. He has tasted injustice from the inside out. He knows what it is to be sentenced to death by a baying mob, abandoned by a cowardly judge. He knows what it is to be flogged like an animal. God in Jesus is many things, Saviour above all of them, but he is also God’s eloquent way of telling us to ‘shut up already about injustice.’

What do we do about this?

So what do we do about this?

A stream flows through the Universe and we glimpse it in the Bible.

One picture of it is ‘the river of the water of life’ flowing from the temple in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. The same stream appears in the book of Ezekiel, bubbling from the renewed temple, making the salty land sweet. An explanation of it comes from Jesus: ‘ Whoever believes in me … “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”’ (John 7:38) and ‘the water that I will give [you] will become … a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:4).

The stream is God’s mercy. It is intended to flow into us–the Church, the new temple–and then out from us into the world. From us it’s supposed to broaden into a river delta, so that the whole earth is irrigated. I think it is the main part of the answer to the protest, God isn’t fair.

The static question has a dynamic answer

While dry argument has its place, I suspect God isn’t at his happiest debating lesser beings about justice. He’d rather be out there doing it. That has to be our vision too. The words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are interchangeable in the Greek, I understand, so it’s OK to translate Christ’s sayings in the Beatitudes like this:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6)

and

Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:10).

Is God fair? A stream of mercy pours through the heavens. Those who drench themselves in it themselves become sources of mercy and justice. They set the world back on its feet. The static question has a dynamic answer, one that can catch us up in it and occupy all our creativity and energies. Is God fair? ‘There is a river … come behold the works of the Lord’ (Psalm 46: 4,8).

Prayerlessness

All about capturing the moment, and squashing it. From my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich’

About catching the moment

(2018)

Here’s another piece I wrote for the Singaporean magazine for newish Christians and which is destined for my forthcoming book The Sandwich.

Luckylife11 on Pixabay

Prayerlessness requires real effort on our part.

When the Holy Spirit brushes against your soul, you need to brush him off. When you see a need, you should suppress the desire to bring it to God. When you sense a flame rising in your heart for God or eternity, you must douse it.

Practice, of course, helps. With dedication you can coat your heart with a solid shell that resists most holy urges. But even so, if we are Christians, every day we are buffeted by any number of nudges, longings, sorrows, questions and needs that prompt us to go and find God. It’s hard work to dodge them all.

The root cause

I think the reason for our prayerlessness is mostly the same reason that we don’t eat a proper diet, read improving books, make that call to a friend, or learn the piano. It’s that in the moment, we decide to play on our phone or flick through our social networks instead. We say no to prayer when we should be saying yes, or yes to some attractive thing when we should be saying no to it, and the accumulation of thousands of those moments eventually hardens and forms us into what we are and will be: I didn’t learn the piano, I didn’t look after my body, and I’ve just declined my millionth invitation to meet Jesus in prayer.

Should be an improving book here somewhere

Yes, we are urged to pray

Do we need to pray? Er, yes:

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’ (Eph 6:18). ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phil 4:6). ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful‘ (Col 4:2). ‘Pray continually‘ (1 Thess 5:17). ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (I Tim 2:1). ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’ (James 5:16).

Then we notice that Jesus was quite happy to live as a human being, but he did not seem to manage life as a prayerless human being. Sometimes he stayed up late to pray. Sometimes he got up early. Sometimes his disciples just caught him praying. Ministry decisions? He prayed. Healing? Ditto. Feeding thousands? Ditto ditto. Personal crises? In the desert, in the garden, didn’t matter. He called on God. He called on God until he was satisfied. You would say there was something of a pattern there.

What if you’re too busy?

Perhaps you are too busy?

I refuse to believe anyone is too busy to pray. To my way of thinking, the busiest people most of us ever meet are parents with young children. Babies poop, cry, need comfort, get hungry, get mad and never hesitate to get in touch. They tend not to be all that patient either. Parents of such creatures, especially when not helped by others, are busier than a general fighting a war. Show me a young mum doing most of the caring of two small children and I will show you a sleep-deprived zombie who is too busy to finish a sentence, let alone a meal, and for whom a bathroom break is a triumph of battlefield planning.

And yet she has time to pray. When the kid is sleeping, or plugged onto her breast, or being wheeled up and down a corridor in the pit of night, she has time to reach out to God. Her prayers may not be coherent, but that doesn’t matter. Coherence can be overdone. She’s slurping an energy-drink at the spiritual ringside, ready for another round.

Honestly, you’re not too busy to pray.

So what is the cure?

Is there a cure? There is.

First. Understand you can be more fluent in the things of God and prayer. Look around your church. Some people have mastered it. Some people know God and walk with him every day. There are even some people–plenty of people actually—who are quiet and hesitant in social settings, but when they are switched over to prayer-mode they turn confident and eloquent. When they start to pray these people are like an academic walking into a library or an alcoholic opening a bottle of Scotch. They’re home. Heaven is their happy place, even while they keep one foot on earth. You can be a bit more like them.

Second. Understand what happens when you pray and what happens when you don’t. To turn to God in prayer is to access a secret, invisible world where you can pull levers that change things on earth and where you can come face to face with Christ.

Missing out on prayer, on the other hand, means that part of us lies forever fallow. Part of us that could be fruitful, colourful, playful, remains unploughed, unsown, and the butterflies must flutter elsewhere. All of us have areas of our life like that: but our prayer life never needs to be one of them.

More than that, if you don’t pray you’re mostly stuck with earthly solutions to everything. This is not great.

Third. There are a million possible solutions to the issue of prayerlessness. I suggest they all flow from a single principle. Combatting prayerlessness requires some mixture of discipline and spontaneity. This is the same way we become fluent in other areas of life, such as keeping fit or learning a musical instrument.

We need to build in some regular habits, but we also have to remind ourselves that keeping up the habit is not the aim. Enjoying God and being with him is the aim. It’s like practising the piano. We don’t practise so that we can say ‘I practised’. We practise so that we can make music.

How do we practise prayer? It surely varies with each individual and each season of life. It’s good to find out from other people what does and doesn’t work for them. Then see what works for you. Here’s my list; your friends will have other lists. 

  1. Schedule a regular time- either a part of a day or a number of minutes in the day. You might start small: ten minutes. Then you might get more ambitious. I have a friend who as a young Christian decided to tithe his waking hours. A tithe of sixteen waking hours is 96 minutes. For some years he aimed, and mostly kept, to the plan of either studying his Bible or praying for 96 minutes a day. Things changed, I am told, when he got married; but it was a good discipline for a long time.
  2. If you’re married, get into the habit of praying together every day. My wife and I do this every night. We didn’t always. But it’s a good habit.
  3. Decide that you are going to pray even when the situation is non-optimal. It isn’t perfect to pray in the corridor at work as you walk to the toilet; but it’s not a bad moment to turn over whatever’s on your mind before God.
  4. If you can’t get alone, write or type your prayers. People will think you are just fooling with your phone.
  5. Reclaim your insomnia. Can’t sleep? Pray. Stay in bed if you like. So your mind drifts? Well, steer it back. Non-optimal, half-sleepy prayer is better than no prayer at all, like a sleepy kiss is better than no kiss at all. Stop waiting for everything to be perfect.
  6. Don’t always use words. It’s OK just to be in God’s presence. Sometimes you don’t have words.
  7. Alternatively, it’s OK to speak words if that helps and it’s OK just to pray in your heart if that helps.
  8. Sign up for some regular prayer food. This can help broaden your horizons. I recently started working with the Operation World prayer ministry. They have an app that you can access every day and thus pray for the world over a year. Many groups have similar initiatives.
  9. Try things. Pray through the alphabet – pray for something beginning with A, then something beginning with B, and so on. Pray through the psalms. Use the Lord’s prayer as a set of headings.
  10. Try a total immersion method. If your church has 24-7 prayer room, or prayer event, sign up for an hour and see what happens.

You get the idea.

Bonus material: my scientist friend Ruth Bancewich has also been blogging (and experimenting) on prayer. Here‘s her helpful thoughts.

‘I never knew you’

About not living on fumes: being an extract from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

Luckylife11 on Pixabay

Here’s a new extract from my new book, ‘The Sandwich’, originally written for a magazine in Singapore that is aimed at young adults taking early steps of faith.

(2019)

Two passages in the New Testament record people’s shock when they are shut out of the Kingdom of God at the last day. They can’t believe it. In one passage, people complain, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’ (Luke 13:22-30). In the other, they go even further: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?‘ (Matthew 7:15-23).

I don’t know where you are from,’ Jesus says to those who lived in his neighbourhood. ‘I never knew you’, he says to those who worked spectacular miracles in his name. What does he mean?

In both these examples, things look fine on the surface, but underneath, there’s nothing.

More of the same

Plenty of other places in the Bible talk about situations where people looked good for a time, or even worked miracles in Christ’s name, but shared the same deep lack. They were running on fumes, not on steady supplies of fuel.

  • The parable of the Sower talks about seeds that sprout and quickly grow, but never come to harvest.
  • Judas Iscariot went with the other disciples on preaching tours, healing and driving out demons. He looked just like a proper apostle but was always a thief and was found out in the end.
  • In Ephesus, some Jewish exorcists tried casting out demons in the name of Jesus. It worked until one day they were mauled by a demonized person and barely managed to escape alive.
  • In the Old Testament a prophet for hire named Balaam prophesied accurately about the people of God, but money rather than God owned his heart. The New Testament warns us several times of Christian-era Balaams (see 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11).

Frequently, the Bible warns us against people who look good but are in fact, bad. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matthew 7:15). Beware ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:13). ‘They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their deceptions, while they feast with you’ (2 Peter 2:13).

Knowing and being known

Jesus says to all these surprised people, who looked so good, ‘I never knew you.’ What does he mean? And does he mean us?

  1. It can’t mean that there is anything God doesn’t know about us. He is God. He’s measured our shoe size, counted the hairs on our head, heard every word of our self-talk. He knows when we meant well. He knows when we say we meant well but really didn’t. He knows everything about us and judges it with an utter fairness. Every good point we might want him to consider – he will already have listed it. Everything we’d rather he hadn’t seen – he will have seen that too. We are entirely exposed to him, even if we would wish to cover some bits up.
  2. Yet there is another sort of knowing. If you fell in love with someone from afar, you might over time learn a lot about him or her. Stalkers, who turn this kind of behaviour into criminal obsession, may learn a lot more, all the facts – creepily so. But all that is nothing compared with the knowledge of actually knowing that person as your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s that heart-to-heart knowledge, that relational knowledge, that openness to each other, that Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘I never knew you.’ I never knew you like that.

This personal, heart-to-heart knowing is a two-way thing. Paul puts it like this to the Galatians, ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again? (Galatians 4:8-9). Jesus says simply, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me’ (John 10:14).

Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know.

This opening of the heart to the Other, to God, is what some of us so strenuously avoid. I can go along with the Christian crowd. I can even get involved in all kinds of spiritual fireworks, impressing everyone with the show, just don’t let me face him heart to heart, naked and unarmed. Let me keep busy in his name instead. Or let me just gingerly tread around him and his call, keeping a respectful distance: ‘Oh yes, I know him well, I’m quite familiar with the teaching.’

This is such a huge theme of the Bible. Adam hides behind a tree, not a brilliant strategy when the one looking for you is All-Seeing.  ‘These people worship me with their mouths but their hearts are far from me’ says Isaiah, quoted later by Jesus, and identifying a later group of Adams sheltering behind a tree of religiosity (Mark 7:6).

Here I am!’ Jesus says to the smug and all-knowing Christians of Laodicea. ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20 NIVUK). Don’t hold me at a distance, cool and sardonic and flip. Face me. Meet me.

Knowing is trusting is following

This heart-to-heart knowing, this relational knowledge, is bound up with trusting. If you are emerging from your hiding place, laying down your weapons, taking off your headphones, and facing God defenceless, argument-less and alone, then necessarily you are trusting him to deal with you kindly and well.

Necessarily you are also committing yourself to do what he says. So another way of looking at ‘knowing’ is ‘trusting and obeying’. This is God’s ‘firm foundation’: ‘But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”, and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity”’ (2 Timothy 2:19).

It is a surrender. That is why it is so simple and so terrible. It is why (I think) the biggest barrier between anyone knowing God and being known by him is not ignorance but pride. God can take a humble person a long way even if they have just a few sandwiches in their mental lunchbox; a proud genius with all the world’s information on a smartphone will still be blundering in the dark. Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know. But when you surrender, when you trust and follow, knowing him and being known, there is healing for your wounds, rest for your tired bones, comfort for your sorrows, forgiveness for your rebellions and stubbornness, energy for your serving, and quietness and happiness and glory.

Holy heroism

Being a chapter from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

Yes, I took August off, and a bit of September, which is the advantage of writing a blog called ‘slowmission.’ As a new(ish) born grandad of a two-year-old and a five-month-old I had things to do in August, mostly involving lying still in a dark room.

I used the lockdown to write two little books. One has been brewed from all the blog articles I’ve done and I hope to say more about that soon. The other I want to share over the coming weeks. This title might end up being The Sandwich, because it explores the way Christian believers are sandwiched between the promises of God and the world we all know, where you stub your toe, lose your keys, and worry.

The Sandwich, if indeed we end up calling it that, started life as a series of columns I wrote for a magazine in Singapore. This magazine was aimed at the many young adults who were finding faith in God for the first time. Here’s a chapter.

On heroes

About how you just can’t get them or be them

(2006)

You just can’t get the heroes these days. In previous eras of church history, the world seemed to be full of clean-limbed individuals who lived hard-working and praiseworthy lives while preaching the gospel, shutting the mouths of lions and being sawn in two, often all at once.

Today we live in a world where even the best of us are seen as badly flawed.  And even those squeaky-clean saints of former years have been re-graded. No decent biography or obituary is complete these days without a listing, tactful or otherwise, of a few of the subject’s faults and misdemeanours.

Like a photo culled from the web and then enlarged, heroes don’t seem to have that fine-grained resolution that means their lives look good on billboards.

To take just one example, the pioneering founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, fearless fighter for the poor and needy, once got so mad with his children that he took a gun and shot the family dog. When he realized how upset they were, he had it stuffed and brought back into the house.  Then he got mad again because they didn’t thank him. He was one of many leaders down to the present time who were perhaps better pioneers than they were parents. How many children of Christian heroes could tell stories of tyranny? Plenty.

It was also said of Booth that orders he gave were to be obeyed without question. However, if anyone tried to give orders to him, he was free to ignore them because he must obey God and not men. This is a handy tip for team-working that I expect you to file for later use.

It’s better this way

Yet even in this cynical age, we Christians can still fall into the beguiling trap of hero worship. This is how it seems to work. We go along in the Christian life like Goldilocks, finding some things too hot for us, and other things too cold; some things too wild, other things too tame. Then we stumble upon someone who just seems to have everything just right. We like what they say or write. Or we like their churches, or their leadership. It’s such a relief to find them. These people seem to embody just what we aspire to in Christian living. What heroes they are. We start collecting recordings of their talks and buying their books.

The apostle Paul found plenty of hero-worship when he listened to a report about the church he planted in Corinth. Some people thought he, Paul, was everything you could wish for in an apostle. Others preferred the eloquent and powerful speaker Apollos. Still others spoke fondly of Peter, who of course had worked with Jesus for three years, was presumably a fund of colourful stories, and of whom Jesus had said, ‘on this rock I will build my church.’

Paul wouldn’t have any of it. I think he found hero-worship, at its root, a sign of not-being-properly-grown-up. He told the Corinthians, we are all your servants.

So two things: your hero isn’t perfect, and he will let you down. And those other guys who you already know aren’t perfect, and who you think don’t quite get it right, maybe they have things to say into your life after all. By extension this is true of denominations and movements too. All kinds of Christian writers on the bookshelf can bless you. Bible-Presbyterians and charismatics can both feed your soul. In my view.

You’re the ones in charge of your lives, concludes Paul. Don’t follow people or movements blindly or totally. Weigh things. Take responsibility. Be your own person before God.

That’s a sample of what Paul was always saying to new Christians, of course: don’t be faddish, don’t be blown off course, don’t be a slave to the latest trends, be deeply rooted in God for yourself.

Remember their faith

There is another side to this, though. Let’s not be hero-worshippers. But let’s not cut everyone and everything down to our puny size either.

When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wanted to stiffen the spines of the people he was writing to he reminded them of the saints of the past. He didn’t claim they were perfect, or that we should model our lives on theirs exactly. He didn’t set them forth as an example of how it should be done, in the good old days, when saints were real saints. But he did say, ‘consider their faith’.  

They weren’t perfect, but they stuck it out. They failed, their hearts failed sometimes, it was difficult – the Bible is full of their failings — but they stuck it out.

Paul says the same to Timothy, almost his last written words: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings …’ (2 Tim 3: 10-11)

And then he says,

Continue in what you have learned.’ Stick it out like I did. Do better than me, learn from my mistakes, do things differently, but stick it out. Keep the faith.

It comes to this

In summary, then, how do we treat Christian heroes? Well, don’t build your life on them. Take what they have to give. And remember their faith.

You wouldn’t want to do things exactly the way William Booth did. He got a lot wrong. But the poor lined the streets for his funeral. His children followed him into ministry. The organization he founded still bears fruit generations later. He kept the faith. A (flawed) hero. Just like you.

The basics of good health

‘The one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.’

I am one of those who has enjoyed the pandemic journalism of Private Eye’s ‘MD’ who being both a practising doctor and a human being can understand and communicate stuff that journos (who often lack the right number of degrees) and politicians (who might be a bit detached from the truth) may not be so hot on. In pandemic-world, I think, journos and politicians are both talking about face-covering while actually attempting to cover something else, and I don’t mean the story.

So. MD (real name Phil Hammond apparently) on health in this week’s Eye (I mean the week I am writing this blog, which is about two weeks behind you reading it. I don’t blame you for this. It’s hard to ask readers to read stuff that hasn’t been published yet.)

The basic ingredients of health are well-known, well-evidenced and fairly easily remembered using the mnemonic CLANGERS, as in: Connect; Learn; (be) Active; Notice; Give back; Eat well; Relax; Sleep.

Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiousity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep — collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug. The privileged can do them every day, even in lockdown. If we all managed them, we would barely need the NHS. But if you’re living with debt, discrimination, depression, domestic abuse, drug addiction, dementia, etc, they are much harder to achieve.

The focus on prevention, helping others and lifestyle medicine is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than medicating for diabetes and depression. Indeed it’s the one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.

MD has put some of his wisdom into a cheery YouTube video just here:

And if you are a regular reader of MD you can parenthetically notice that writers are often different in person than they are on paper, often gentler, as here.

The new creation prayer

A hymn and a prayer

Image by Devanath from Pixabay

Here’s what I learnt this week. It came from reading the ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Greek in Luke 11. You can strip it down as follows – the first three requests setting the framework, the next three filling in the human-level detail.

Setting the framework
‘sanctified’ – set apart as holybe your name
‘let come’your kingdom
‘let be done’your will
The human-level detail
‘give us the needful bread’daily rations
‘forgive us’like we forgive those who owe us
‘lead us not’ into fiery trial; ‘deliver us from evil’Fatherly company in a rough world

And then later on in the same teaching session, Luke has Jesus talk about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).

This all reminds me of ways you can dismantle Genesis 1. That passage on creation starts with the Holy Spirit brooding over primeaval chaos. And then has two lots of three, as follows:

Setting the framework
Day 1Light and darkness; day and night
Day 2Sky (or heaven) and earth
Day 3Land and sea; trees and grass
The human-level detail
Day 4Sun and moon as light and calendar markers – measuring our days
Day 5Animals and birds everywhere
Day 6Men and women as subregents of the animals; ‘cattle’ as a thing; vegetation for food

Genesis 1 is a picture of God ordering the primeval chaos, making it fit for humans, and then settling in to work with them — this settling in is God’s ‘rest’ of day 7.

The prayer that Jesus taught in Luke 11 has resonances with Genesis 1: first, setting a framework of God’s rule; then promoting God’s rule at a human level. Genesis 1 is a hymn of creation; Luke 11 is a prayer of new creation. Both end with God and people either in a harmonious creation or building towards a harmonious new creation. Both are universal and both are personal. This comparison may be rather contrived; but it is fun to see the two passages in dialogue.

Perichoresis for beginners

A lesson on self-isolation from the Cappadocian Fathers

I am reading a book called Trinity by Roger Forster. Forster, bearded, successful early, kinda trendy, around forever, is the evangelical equivalent of Richard Branson. A little bit anyway.

Forster points out so helpfully that the classical Greek view of God–thanks Aristotle–was that because he was perfect, he couldn’t change.1 Being the Uncaused Cause, on that analysis, made you like a classic sculpture: a perfect 10, but made of marble.

Forster–whose learning is impressive even if he veers around a little like a car with a puncture–compares this cold Greek slab with the God of the Cappadocian Fathers. They joined a fourth-century theological ruck alongside Athanasius, pushing back the Arian heresy and making sure a trinitarian God was a mark of orthodox Christianity. Forster writes: ‘The doctrine of the the trinity is truly important because God is personal, He is communal, He is loving, He is altruistic – and He is all of those things forever and ever.’2

It so happens the Cappadocian Fathers were themselves a trinity: Basil of Cesarea; his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa; and their big friend Gregory Nazianzus.

They were an example of inspired and super-smart Christians fighting the mighty Greeks on their home ground–a battle which, a thousand years later, people we now know as scientists had also to do: people like the devout Johannes Kepler, who freed natural science from its Grecian obsession with the perfectly circular.

The Cappadocian Fathers saw the Trinity as a kind of dance: as Forster says, ‘where the partners move around one another, each giving way to the other and then changing the direction, or changing the lead, but each one always in perfect symphony and synchrony.’3. Their word for this was perichoresis, which is a word I look forward to you using when you next see a dance routine.

It is a lovely picture though: God interdependent in his self-sufficiency. No wonder, then, that the creation that sprang out of the divine bosom, if we believe it, was itself a perichoresis of mutual service and supply. We breathe out; plants breathe in. Male and female he created them. We are one body, with many members. Perichoresis is everywhere. Which is why human thriving is not centred on achieving alone but on belonging and contributing.