Thoughts and Prayers

Another day, another disaster, another act of public violence and Twitter confusion, another outpouring of sympathy and compassion. Throughout all this, one phrase gets repeated, echoing around social media to the point of cliché.

I understand why. I’ve heard terrible news and felt the need to say something, anything, aware of my powerlessness but needing to speak. Somehow silence seems inhuman, erasing, and so I offer up my thoughts and prayers, along with thousands of others. And all too often it ends at that, at least until the next disaster, the next outburst of senseless violence.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers – I probably don’t give enough time to either. Sometimes all you can do is hand things over to God, because our power only stretches so far. Having the humility to accept that is a good thing.

But prayer is meant to change us, isn’t it? Let’so not be so arrogant as to suggest that communicating with the Divine will allow us to walk away without being transformed. We pray about situations, and we think about situations, and God will break through our platitudes and prejudices, until He transforms how we speak, how we spend, how we act, how we vote, how we serve, how we Tweet, how we love.

People get cynical when they see so many of us talking about thoughts and prayers. Part of that is scepticism, but part of it is, I think, the fact that we say these things every time but nothing changes; there’should always another disaster that could have been mitigated; always another act of violence that could have been avoided.

We want God to materialise and personally fix things, but sometimes he expects us to be the answer to some of those prayers. We speak with him, we follow Jesus, we embrace the Spirit and that’ll have an impact. And bad things will still happen, but at least we won’t paint God as an impotent deity on a cloud through our refusal to let him change us.

We see what happens through our prayers: people open up their places of worship to serve as shelter and support, they cook meals and collect toys and go out and fill shopping trollies full of toiletries and clothes. They weep when the words have run out and mourn with those who mourn, because the cumulative effect of all those prayers is Jesus shining through.

Thoughts and prayers are important only insofar as they are real. If we’re passionate about them, if we use them to let God get into our bones, then maybe our Tweets will mean more. Maybe, one day, we’ll be changed.

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Powers and Principalities (Ephesians 6:12)

swordIt’s quiet tonight; the kids are in bed, my wife’s out with friends. The lights are dim, the TV is silent, so in the quiet, let me whisper this confession: I believe we’re in a spiritual battle.

This isn’t something I talk about often. The idea is there, but it’s not something I readily admit in public. It sounds strange to contemporary ears, the whole notion of a spiritual conflict feels at odds with a modern world of electricity and atoms and seismic geopolitics. And yet these are strange times in which we live, and the Church faces threats from all corners, and people are suffering and dying, making all this literally a matter of life and death.

I don’t altogether know what to do with this. But we’re heading into dark waters where the very nature of truth is is being eroded, where the humanity of others is constantly being challenged, where Swastikas are enjoying a comeback. And that means combating the spiritual darkness behind all that. Used to be that spiritual warfare remained the territory of Pentecostals and Prayer Warriors; now we all need to get into the fight.

That’s where I get nervous. Because all of this is rooted in prayer and my prayer life can be lacking to say the least. But this has to change, because the first person who needs to be delivered from the Powers and Principalities is me.

Because I don’t love my enemies. I give in to despair and anger more than I should. I demonise people even though I know that people are not demons. I want others to changer,  desperatEly,  but I’m less willing to change myself.

That’s why this whole thing is so insidious, the classic distraction trick of looking over there so you don’t realise what’should going on  right here. That’s where the praying needs to start – with my own heart. Get inoculated before even pretending to help someone else.

But our battles still have to be bigger than that. There are forces out there, forces of greed, forces of hatred, forces of idolatry, a lust for power. They must be fought, but on the right battlefield, prayer alongside protest and always starting with the war in my own heart. 

I confess this now, in the dark and the quiet; may I remember it in the daytime and the noise. And may I stand and fight, and in the process be transformed. 

Praying for the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

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Over 200 schoolgirls have been kidnapped in Nigeria, with the militant group Boko Haram claiming responsibility. Girls wanting an education is clearly wrong, they say, particularly if it’s western education, and so they will be sold, as wives, for $12 each.

I’m British, so that $12 comes out at ¬£7. Which is nothing short of an obscenity. Life is cheap, the saying goes, but it’s still a crime – a sin – that young girls can be traded for less than a round at Starbucks, that they can be abandoned to their fate by governmental heel-dragging, by a media that seems only slightly more than indifferent.

Or by expressions of religion that promote dogma and politics over compassion and love for individuals. It hasn’t been long since the Evangelical Right withdrew sponsorship for 10,000 children because World Vision tried to change its policy towards gay employees. When religion is all about power, it’s the powerless that gets trampled on; kidnapped children become statistics, brief and fading news items (even today, BBC reports on the BBC website were viewed less than a preview of the Eurovision Song Contest). It’s fundamentally dehumanising.

But humanity finds ways to fight back. Social media is being used to raise awareness of the situation; protests have been mobilised across the world. I encourage everyone reading this to keep the story in the public eye and to follow @bringgirlsback on Twitter; it may not feel like much, but we don’t have the authority to deploy special forces and sometimes we win by keeping stories alive.

And for the pray-ers out there, the blog ‘A Church for Starving Artists’ is asking readers to commit to selecting and praying for one of the girls until they’re released – a list of names is at that link, and I’d encourage you to visit.

I chose Saratu Emmanuel; her surname means ‘God with us’ and I think that’s important, why prayer is important – the need to respond as God would truly have us respond, not with some diseased parody of holiness and conviction; to pray and talk and shout until lost children are safely home.

Prayer and the Art of Whack-a-Mole Games

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(This post was inspired by an interview with 24-7 Prayer founder Pete Greig conducted by the Nomad podcast. Well worth checking out.)

I struggle with prayer.

There, I’ve said it. I know I’m not saying anything too taboo, but all the same I think it’s a view that’s fairly common among Christians, a view that’s often accompanied by a sense of guilt or inadequacy. If you asked me who I most admire in church, it’s the people who have been dedicated to prayer for years, who have prayer in their bones. I guess for a lot of churches, the prayer meeting is sparsely attended, kept going by the perseverance of a handful of people who are absolutely committed to corporate prayer. These people need to be celebrated, although I suspect they’d disagree.

Me? I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I find prayer difficult. I can muster together the words when I need to, but often when praying it’s easy to get frustrated or distracted or to fall asleep. Except for one sort of prayer.

Now don’t get me wrong, petition is important. We absolutely should pray for other people. If we don’t, we’re not doing what God wants us to do. Praying for others, praying for ourselves when there’s a problem, isn’t the problem.

No, the problem is how we perceive that sometimes. Heck, it’s how I treat prayer far too often: like some great big cosmic Whack-a-Mole game. Problems pop up, like illness or conflict or lack of money, and we ask God to whack those moles. And sometimes the moles don’t get whacked, so we get annoyed with God, because let’s face it, if God’s omnipotent he should be able to score 100% on the Whack-a-Mole game of life.

Embarrassing, isn’t it?

Here’s what challenged me on this: in the interview mentioned earlier, Pete Greig raises the question that, if God walked and talked with Adam and Eve before the Fall, what did they talk about?

I mean, there was no pain, no suffering, no death, no poverty, the whole situation was blessed… What did they find to talk about?

Could it be that petition is only a part of prayer, and that prayer as a whole should be a way of building a relationship with God, regardless of our needs and irrespective of how many moles get whacked?

Yeah, yeah. I know I’m not saying anything original or profound. But saying and doing are two different things. And maybe it’s worth noting that God walking and talking with Adam and Eve is only really inferred – the one reference we get to it in Genesis is the moment it all goes wrong. I guess the Fall affects our prayer life, and the consequences of that Fall can too often become the only focus of our prayers – “Lord, make things better.” And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of petition, but I’m becoming more and more aware that my prayer life needs to be bigger than that, that if Christ’s death and resurrection heals the rift between us and God, then prayer should be about building a relationship, not a supply chain.

Easier said than done. Like I said earlier, I close my eyes to pray and suddenly I go to sleep, or start singing CBeebies theme songs in my head. And while I need to work on my discipline and my approach to prayer, there’s only do much I can do in my own strength. It’s interesting that most of the profound, moving moments of prayer I’ve experienced in my life have been when I’ve shut up, opened my heart and given God room to work. More often than not, those moments have happened by accident rather than design.

And so I’ll continue to petition God: heck, reading the news I need to petition God more. But that’s only a facet of prayer. And I know my pitiful prayer life has to be bigger and more expansive and I don’t quite know how that can happen, but I suspect it goes back to asking something, something simple yet profound, something that acknowledges I can’t do this alone.

“Lord, help me to pray.”