( From the movie Strictly Ballroom)
‘First of all it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship that is deep and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. The fact that God can make himself present or can leave us with the sense of his absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw him into an encounter, force him to meet with us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet with him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. We can do that with an image, with the imagination or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person. A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom. If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual freedom, you will see that God could complain a good deal more about us than him. We complain that he does not make himself present for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer: ‘I’m sorry. I’m busy …’ So there is the situation in which we have no right to complain because we are a great deal more absent than he is.’*
The author explains later that it may well be a courtesy from God that he does not always present himself to us when we wish to because it could be embarrassing and even devastating. So he allows us time to prepare for the visit, as it were, in the same way that we ourselves might delay visiting a friend if we are aware that it might be ‘too hard’.
*Excerpt quoted from Anthony Bloom’s classic, School for Prayer
Horses have much to teach us about ourselves.
By the time Lomitas was a three year old he was a dangerous nuisance on the race track and had been banned from the sport world-wide. But in 1991 Monty Roberts was called in to help. As soon as he saw the magnificent chestnut colt, he blurted out, ‘Gorgeous!’ And later, as he began work with the horse, he remembers thinking out-loud, ‘I am in the presence of greatness. I had better do my work with diligence, patience and competence.’
Fortunately for Lomitas, Roberts understood one of the golden rules of freedom and empowerment—especially as applied to those who have been hurt. So, whenever the horse wanted to take control, Monty respected that and gave him more freedom instead of less, and rather than forcing him to cooperate, he would turn his back and allow Lomitas to do whatever he liked. Lomitas responded by coming in closer. Soon he was running after Monty with his nose right on his shoulder. The rest is a magnificent piece of history—including Lomitas being honoured as Germany’s horse of the year—which can be read in The Real Horse Whisperer by Monty Roberts. There is also a well presented eulogy to Lomitas (including some famous race replays) by Monty Roberts at the following site: http://www.montyroberts.com/horses/lomitas/
Perhaps we should give Sam Harris the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he is only being satirical, which he is of course, but he is also betraying something else about his stage of world view development. The above statement is classic behaviour for someone in Stage Three of Fowler’s Faith Development16 categories, where reality is experienced via the lens of a kind of naïve realism in the genre of the Russian cosmonaut who got out into orbit and said that he did not see God out there. In one way Harris is doing the Christian world a favour by speaking on the same level as Christian adults who are living in the stark black and white of Fowler’s Stage Three. But what of a faith that is living in Stage Five, which it is much more ready and open to God’s ‘mystery, unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity’17?
That conversation can be pursued at some other time. For now we will consider the absurdities of this Stage Three Type Atheism, which is actually damaging the faith of numbers of adults who have stubbornly refused to see what is happening and hold on for dear life to their own embarrassingly immature Stage Three faith. As a good friend once said, ‘When Sunday school christianity meets university atheism, truth becomes a casualty.’ Although I would add that the atheism here is also Sunday School level.
If you look back over the last 14.6 billion years, by the (supposedly ironic, but actually shallow) logic of Sam Harris, God is an environmental destroyer, a slayer of beautiful old dinosaurs, a star killer and even a murderer of human beings, and oh yeah… I forgot, he performs ‘abortions’. The difference of course is that God is also the ultimate owner of each of these and is perfectly within his rights to extinguish not just the babies but all of us right now—for these collections of atoms called ‘you’ and ‘me’ are only held in existence by his grace. One of the great offences felt by a materialist, secular world is the issue of ownership and authority. If anything drives this coca cola culture wild with rage it is the idea that they in fact have no real intrinsic rights of their own. We were not consulted about whether we would be born and about the script that would be prepared for us. We have no right to even exist and this universe itself is an unnecessary indulgence by a God who is a free, personal spirit, infinite, beyond change and unlimited by time and space. It’s not that God is everywhere, he is the everywhere itself and there cannot be anything beyond or apart from this Great Spirit who sees and knows all things past, present and future—and who even loves us if we will allow him to and not just sulk about this fiction called ‘our rights’.
God! How embarrassing we must look to the the animals, the trees and the stars. And back on Sam’s point again … the Owner is well within their rights to not just send in and take out swathes of dinosaurs, comets and humanoid creatures, but to also prescribe the way that human beings treat the trees and birds and each another, for we are not God.
Our problem is in actually admitting that ancestors who were around for maybe a couple of million years—but did not have iPods—might actually have something to tell us. In ancient times the concept of taboo was one of the first ideas that human language tried to express. There were no social scientists there trying to engineer it. It pushed itself to the surface of human consciousness the way a bud pushes out of the stem of a plant as a natural expression of what it is to be a plant. The experience of the taboo is a natural expression of what it is to be human. W.F Albright says that this concept, which was first expressed in the ancient word ‘herem’28 referred to something that was so terrifying you went to great lengths to avoid it, but at the same time so beautiful you longed to be close to it. It was about all relationships—human to human, human to animal, human to god, human to plant and earth and so on—and had potential for great harm or great joy.
We stereotype goodness one dimensionally as all about Santa Claus and babies, but it has teeth and claws and a stripy tail as well. How else would the, ‘demons believe and tremble?’29 It is passionate, violent and beautiful as well as kind. Ancient cultures discovered from terrifying experience that there is a fearful and captivating mystery out there, that on the one hand loves us almost obsessively, talking as if we are its much sought after princess; but on the other hand seems careless of soft human flesh and sensitive nerve endings.
The collective memory of societies warns us about this through fairy stories and through what CS Lewis describes as the Tao (moral law code). These writings are sometimes just dreadful examples of politically corrupted texts for the use of tyrants, but not uncommonly they read more like the experimental log books of great men and women passing on treasured knowledge gleaned from thousands of years of expensive and sometimes astonishingly beautiful experiences.
They are impregnated with the raw experience of ecstasy, joy, murder and rape. They are the voice of the universe and its maker, and are well summarised by the words of three people: Elizabeth Barrett-Browning who said, ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. Those who see take off their shoes while the rest sit around and eat black berries’; Solomon, who said, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’; and Jeremiah, who said, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.’ In other words, ‘Cultivate and enjoy the pure goodness and absolute delights of heaven that fill your body and this earth; fear the Lord; and face the fact of a desperate evil that lurks inside you.’
Our ancestors had their blind spots and hypocrisies—like any age. But when you read some of their writings, you realise that we have our own blind spots, which, as CS Lewis said, ‘have everyone running around with sandbags when a fire is coming and everyone running around with fire extinguishers when there is a flood coming’. Lewis went further to say that the ‘important issues in society are not the one being debated but the ones being assumed’.
Our problem of course is in faithfully translating what God is actually telling us, admitting where we are unsure, and acknowledging where nothing has been said—and we have a poor record at that, even with one another. Yes, the atheists do ‘bold and brazen’ with joy! and it looks like so much fun … for a while. But the atheist world needs to know that it has a long history of bloody solutions. Even Vladimir Lenin (towards the end of his life) said that what Russia really needed was ten St. Francis of Assissi’s. The entire Soviet experiment tells us that it’s dangerous to be ignorant of or to laugh at what are often derided as fairy stories—but then it is also dangerous to laugh at ‘real fairy stories’.
And there are so many such stories, all telling the same sad tale of proud and bold ‘new thinkers’ inspiring us to cast caution to the wind and ignore the warnings from the old prophets. The goddess wisdom in the old testament could have been speaking to the Soviet empire, the British Empire, and our modern secular empire when she gave one of the most disturbing warnings in the Old Testament: ‘Wisdom shouts in the streets for a hearing, she calls out to crowds along main street and to the judges in their courts and to everyone in the land. “How long will you go on being fools? How long will you scoff at wisdom and fight the facts? Come here and listen to me. I have called you so often but still you won’t come. I have pleaded but all in vain. For you have spurned my counsel and rebuke. Mock me will you? I’ll mock you! When a storm of terror surrounds you, I’ll laugh. And when you are engulfed by anguish and distress, I will not answer your cry for help. Though you search for me ever so diligently you will not find me. You must eat the bitter fruit of having your own way and experience the full measure of the pathway you have chosen. Your own complacency will kill you.” *
Interestingly, it was this passage that John Newton’s mother made him memorise as a boy. Then one night, years later, when he was a hard drinking slave trader—in the middle of a ship-wrecking storm on the Atlantic ocean—it came back to him and broke his pride. From there he called out to God and met the lover of all souls. Many who read this will know the rest of the story and the song he wrote called ‘Amazing Grace’.
I think I get the sentiment of one who has felt disgust at the pathetic and fearful superstition we sometimes see in the behaviour of a religious zealot, but just because a lunatic believes the world is round that does not mean it isn’t. And personally I am not convinced that nothingness could be as profound or even scary as has been claimed. Aristotle is reputed to have said, ‘Nothing is what rocks dream of.’ There may well be those who get so scared of nothing that they invent all this after-life stuff, but in my experience ‘nothingness’ seems like a magnificent relief, a great dream and hope of the human wanting the freedom to do whatever they like. As Huxley said, ‘I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning and without any difficulty was able to find satisfying reasons for this assumption … For myself the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation: sexual and political.’
The other edge of the ‘freedom’ sword is that ‘freedom is not a license to do whatever we want but the power to do what is right’23. Such ‘doing’ has come over and over again from the life and words of one who said, ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’ … and even, ‘love your enemies’. Hence: the abolition of institutionalised slavery; the recognition of women’s rights; the abolition of gladiatorial contests; the union movement for the rights of workers. It is no accident that ‘grace’ is so universally recognised as the hallmark of Jesus’ influence.
So rather than the dreams and longings of something happening beyond death being the product of clever social engineering by a cave-man, it would appear that these longings are simply the natural buddings of what is deeply embedded in the human soul and rather than being a reason for scepticism, a reason for wonder and for curiosity.
In my travels I often find myself in conversations with random strangers about this and make it a point of asking them two questions:
#1.’Do you believe that your deepest longings will be fulfilled in this life?’ Most of the time they will say, ‘No.’
#2 ‘So, is it fair to conclude that we were made for another world?’ They will then say something like, ‘Wow, I have never thought about that before,’ or ‘Yes it is fair to conclude that.’ At about this point they will often laugh and even beam a smile of gratitude as they get the spirit of fun and the excitement in these questions. It’s almost as if we have been transported to the moment of the movie ‘Bruce Almighty’ where Bruce (Jim Carey) asks God (Morgan Freeman), ‘Can I ask why?’ and God (to Bruce’s consternation) says, ‘Yes! You can! That’s the fun of it!’
Curiosity, like the cat, keeps coming back to what touches on it’s inconsolable secrets and the more clumsy our efforts to satisfy it, the more it is aroused, which is why all the efforts of Soviet and Red Chinese atheism, for example, merely created a brimming dam of hungry souls who are now flooding back to faith in droves.
There are so many tantalising pieces in this mystery. Questions and clues are everywhere: Not only do we ask, ‘Is there a god?’ but, ‘What kind of God?’; ‘Is this spiritual being already aware that I am on the hunt?’; ‘It it dangerous?’
It was CS Lewis who said, “The pantheist’s god does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. But God himself: alive, the hunter, king and husband; that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when those who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: ‘Was that a real footstep in the hall?’ There comes a moment when those who have been dabbling in religion: ‘Man’s search for God’, suddenly draw back. ‘What if we really found him? We never meant it to come to that. Worse still what if he found us?’”
I believe in God Almighty and in Jesus Messiah his only Son our Lord
Who so loved the world he gave us blue skies
And all those other things that go nowhere
Like a song in an empty house
A river without a boat
And a broken heart as an answer.
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Who played and laughed, wept and slept
Worked late; drank and ate.
Offended preachers who pretended
Fuddled teachers who were leeches
Lawyered lawyers who lawyered
Rocked Romans and Jews on six o’clock news
Had fun under the sun
Performed miracles in coracles.
Was crucified under the enlightenment of Pontius Pilate
Rose from the dead on Day Three of my shopping spree
Ascended into heaven’s leaven
And sits at the right hand of the Father in that house across the road.
And now! … is the song in my empty house
The ripple in my river
The sweetness of the silence
In the broken-hearted faces on my street
Which come to judge and bless the living and the dead.
Peter Volkofsky (Spring 2012)
The worst betrayals happen when someone casts a slur or makes an allegation about you behind your back and no one bothers to defend you or even to go and ask you for your side of the story. Do you do that?
A City Circle train slides to a hissing, creaking stop, momentum hits and passengers grip whatever is close at hand: metal poles, seat rails and even fellow passengers. Pale green doors slither open with a bang and a noisy gaggle of young-ish passengers in brightly coloured t-shirts, short shorts, jeans and a few dreads—surrounding an older, overweight man in a blue benie and brown jacket—wanders out from the belly of the great snake-like machine. Looking lost, they stand on the floor of what is really a brightly lit subterranean chamber plastered with concrete, billboards and stairways. The overall impression allows for the feeling that this might be the foyer of some great world of the underground; a notion reinforced by cold winds blowing straight out of the black, gaping mouths of tunnels at each end of the platform.
A young man in dreads points to a sign on one of the stairways and looks at the portly man who shakes his head and waves the others on. The group hurry for the steps, but he lingers near a tall, brown-haired young woman in a grey business suit who has just taken a seat as if to wait for a train. The two—although at some distance from each other—are having a conversation. An exchange that the man has been hoping to have with her for several weeks.
‘Will they be OK?’ she asks as she waves at one of the girls who is now halfway up the stairs.
‘Don’t worry about them,’ he says. ‘It’s me they have to worry about. Now that I am old.’
‘The Falstaff of the group,’ she says coyly and raises an eyebrow.
‘“And now am I,”‘ he says, adopting a theatrical posture and making quotation marks with his fingers. ‘”… if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked.”’
‘Henry the Fifth,’ she laughs and then corrects herself, ‘No … the fourth.’
‘Yes. “Sir John Sack-and-Sugar” in all his glory,’ he says and looks straight across the platform at a wall of rock. ‘We should do the Bard again one day you know. Get all the old crew back, even if some of us are a bit worse for wear.’
‘Speak for yourself old man.’
‘I am … but going back to what you were saying, perseverance will only dig you into a hole.’
‘A fox-hole,’ she says as she lifts her bag off the seat and moves along to make space for him to sit.
He thanks her, sits down and takes his hat off, revealing a shaved but obviously balding head.
‘What’s this?’ She laughs and then adds, ‘the new trendy Gareth?’
‘No “Athena the ever-young”, this is Gareth the ex-youth leader and perennial law student cooperating with reality,’ he says and then goes back to the thread of their conversation. ‘You can’t just push on when there are real questions taking you to places of honesty. You don’t—’
‘Want to be dishonest,’ she finishes the sentence, turns to him and catches his eye. ‘Yeah I get that,’ she adds as she holds his gaze, determined to make some point. ‘But I’ve heard all these questions before: mum and dad, my brother, they use them all the time. You use them.’
‘But they’re good questions,’ he comes back defensively, not sure where this is all going but having a deja Vu moment as her clear face and grey eyes challenge him.
‘No they’re not, they’re “f*#! the world” pills.’
‘What?’ he says and smiles as he remembers her knack for colour in a conversation.
‘Well … they like these questions that “romanticise despair” as my dad says … he did philosophy once. He’s the happy frog in our family.’
‘Yeah, like, there’s a boy staying with them. He ran away from home. Church and all that screwed him up. So dad got him started on his “f*#! the world pills”. Now he’s kind of happy!’
‘But what about you. You don’t have to just go out and get drunk because of a few questions. Doubt is good.’
‘That depends,’ she says, rummages through her bag, takes out a cigarette, lights it and then adds, ‘You once told me, “The easiest pathway through life is to either believe everything or doubt everything because that way you don’t have to think.”’
‘I don’t remember that, but I agree,’ he says.
‘And you know what?’ she says and pauses as she takes a long suck on the cigarette, then lifts her face upwards, opens her mouth and exhales. ‘Right now I’m believing the easy way and I love it cause it drives the old frog mad.’
‘Maybe it’s time I came to see him myself,’ Gareth wonders aloud as a rush of cold air and screaming of brakes announces the arrival of her train.
‘Whatever you like sir,’ she says as they both stand—her towering over him. ‘We’re all watching the footy tonight at dad’s.’
‘Let’s do it then,’ he says and grins outwardly but inwardly a knot is forming in his stomach.
‘Frogs prefer warm water,’ she says, tossing her hair as they step onto the train. ‘But I like it hot!’
‘Could be an interesting night,’ he murmurs and looks out as the train begins to roll into its tunnel.
‘By the way,’ she says as the two of them grip a steel pole—her hand much higher than his. ‘You once told me something else.’
‘If you can’t get them to see sense, then laugh at them!’
Gareth smiles sheepishly.
Prayer is often referred to as a form of warfare, but in our peaceful society, an easier to understand metaphor might be the sporting field: the serious kind. You walk across that chalk line, it’s game-on and you are now a target. But so are they and you quickly learn to enjoy the fact that you are a target, but you do not to wait for them to come to you—the best form of defence is attack. Spectators cheer. You are hit and sometimes carried off. But you never ever give up, because you have one thing in mind. The smell of battle makes you happy.
Over the years you learn to live it and breathe it. You accumulate secret stories and sometimes out of frustration with spectators and friends, you yell at them: ‘Why don’t you get out there yourself?’ In the end the only way to really know what you are talking about—to learn how to play—is to play. ‘What’s the best motivation to pray?’ I once heard someone ask a friend of mine. ‘The best motivation to pray,’ he replied, ‘is to pray.’
Prayer is the open secret of life. Like any other work we do it gives us the dignity of causality. But like the sporting field it’s also riddled with absurdities and so-called ‘heresies’, many of them owned by the strangest of people who—driven by a burning passion to win—attempted some of the most stunning and beautiful things ever seen on the field. And there are similar parallels in prayer, for God has no favourites here, he will not be bullied by your ideas of what is absurd or heretical. What is needed is a heart totally sold on what burns in the heart of this ‘Jesus of the Scars.’ But such a heart comes at a price. What price are you prepared to pay?
You may be the most obedient and sacrificial of us all, but if you refuse to play the wild and beautiful game of prayer, the ship will quietly sail past you in the night and when you are old you will remember your pious theological refusals with bitter regret. For prayer is an ever flowing river and when you dive into it things changes: you change, your environment changes and something shifts in the balance of good and evil because there are things that God cannot do unless you let him do them through you.
Going back to our sporting field analogy; the experience of being in that last five metre zone and seeing the line just there is electrifying and inspires a passionate intentionality in the one who has been there and wants to be there again and again because they know the feeling of scoring. Likewise, the one who lives a life of persistent, faithful prayer acquires a passionate spiritual intentionality, and understands that attack is the best defence. As the months and years go by, those clear moments of astonishing spiritual victory slowly electrify the heart and—rather than looking to build secure little fortresses against the enemy—you want to go back out there again and again because you have seen the darkness defeated so many times. You were there with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and you know what happened, even though you may have been a thousand miles away; or you and your team were inside that five metre zone and you knew for a fact that the ‘push’ and the ‘magic’ came via expectant, persistent prayer.
So … find yourself a personal and intimate ‘prayer field’ somewhere and regularly walk across that chalk line to do battle. Decide that you will not be one who waits for ‘them’ to come to you, but will make a lifestyle of going on the attack in prayer every day. I highly recommend it. And be sure to assert the authority you have from Calvary and from the resurrection. And build it around intercession, for this is not primarily about focussing on your own needs, this is about losing yourself in the deep love of the Father for others and allowing your very soul to be the ‘muscles of Christ’.
It is said that Jesus would often go out early to a lonely place. For the Scottish saints it was a freezing cold mountainside at night where they would wrap themselves in a woollen cloak, lie down and weep as they prayed for every single one of their flock. For St. Brendan it was an ocean beach where he would stand in the shallow water for hours with his hands lifted to the heavens.
So why not give it a try for at least month? Even get a mate to come with you. Many great men and women of faith have made a personal prayer covenant with a friend—but try to keep it a secret between the two of you. Nothing spoils prayer adventures like ‘talking it up’.
Perhaps you could try out some of the routines others have done or maybe you could invent your own ritual: get down on your knees and fast or go and stand in the ocean—plunge into what may feel like childish-arrogance. But remember … this is no Buddhist/ shamanist attempt to manipulate blind and dumb spirit beings with long winded gibberish, this is you—a human being in the flesh—joining in with the unspeakable groans of the Holy Spirit and the high priestly prayers of your resurrected King Jesus who already intercedes for us daily. Remember too that not every ‘voice’ you hear quoting bible verses is from God. The devil quoted scripture to Jesus. So be sure to take with you the sober knowledge of prayer disaster stories; the cold steel of good theology and common sense; the watchfulness of a sentry, the humour of a Chesterton and the honest questions of a community of brothers and sisters.36
One last word. The faith that grows out of a strong life of private prayer is invariably unfettered by pessimism and characterised by an irrepressible (but not naïve) attitude of expectancy because—like an experienced musician—it has acquired an ear for the music of the voice of the Good Shepherd (who is our conductor) and knows the feel and the mood of an approaching crest in a wave, when, if a thing is to be done, you must be ready for the ‘now or never moment’ when power is able to be unleashed through a will that chooses to trust. Then it is finished, and your ‘Yes!’ and ‘Thank you!’ reverberate throughout the realms of the spirit.
Such moments of opportunity often occur while we are in the place of wrestling prayer, but they also float past us in ordinary every day life and and may occur during a cup of tea with a friend in the morning; during a job interview at lunch; while we are laying concrete in the afternoon; or after we go to bed at night. The likelihood of you noticing them will be much higher if you are living out this habit of personal prayer.
It could be that you yourself have made a habit of waiting for ‘them’ to come to you instead of going on the attack. In that case, you may have floated into one of those ‘now or never’ moments by reading this post. So why not make space today to walk for an hour in silence and listen to God? But before you go, pray this prayer: ‘Father in Heaven, please show me if there is an obstacle in my life or a barrier to my mission and ministry that I might have to overcome through an effort of fasting and prayer, occasionally or on a regular basis. If there is nothing like that Lord, then please show me anything else you would like to bring to my attention. Amen.’