My dog thinks that I ’m the antichrist. His name is Arnie (named after Arnold Schwarzennegger;it seemed like a good idea at the time). He has a chocolate box face that melts most hearts, the straggly, floppy ears gifted to all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and he views me with the affection that one might feel for a serial killer. So why this sniff of disdain, this haughty silent rejection that cats are expert in but dogs emulate quite well? After all, I ’ve taken him for at least ten walks in the last five years (don ’t alert the RSPCA –we lash him to a treadmill every morning. Not really). And I am occasionally the one who opens the huge sack of beef scented rabbit droppings that constitutes his food supply. Still he hates me.
I thought about taking him to a dog psychiatrist, but I can’t figure out how that works. What do you say to a dog with possible psychological problems?
“So, tell me, how long have you been feeling like a dog?” Anyway, I ’ve managed to work out why I am so low in Arnie’s pecking – or barking – order without the assistance of a canine clinician. It’s all about negative expectation. He has instinctively established that a telling off is inevitable when I’m around. I’m always the one who tells him to get down when he jumps up at the legs of our guests when they come into our home. It seems to me that one should be able to visit friends without having a furry black snout shoved into your groin. So I tell him off. He obediently desists, and then settles himself down on the feet of the now seated guest, as if to say “I don ’t know you at all, but I really like you. But as for him …” If dogs could spit, mine would.
And so, whenever I call his name, he gets up and walks woodenly to his basket. It doesn’t matter if I make demented grandpa cooing noises, click my fingers in welcome, or purse my lips in a friendly whistle. Arnie hears my voice, and has convinced himself that the sound of it is an overture for a telling off. Off he goes, my warmest offer of fuss and affection rejected again.
Forgive the parabolic illustration from the friendship (or lack of same) betwixt my dog and I, but I want to use it to provide a backdrop for our look at a few more myths about prayer. The issue, once again, is that of negative expectation. Some of us don’t bother to even try to spend time with God, because we’re convinced that the possibility that He might say something to us probably means that we’re going to get a good telling off. Surely the One who is ablaze in awesome holiness couldn’t say anything other than “could do better?”. Prayer inevitably becomes a chore, because it is viewed as a frosty chat with a snooty headmaster who is bound to mark our test papers with his lurid red pen, and scrawl a huge “F” all over our lives.
There are plenty of people who think that God is a never pleased taskmaster. It’s reported that John Cleese recently confessed that he ’d love to be an evangelical Christian, but he couldn’t pass the exam. But this is the gospel reversed. Yes, God can be hugely demanding. But He is also the one who, while pointing out the weaknesses of, say, the seven churches in the book of Revelation, was also able to commend them with a hearty “well done!”.
Some of them had worked hard, pursued truth, and stayed faithful in suffering. And the risen Jesus congratulated them for it.
If we’re ever going to get into prayer, we must first realize that an encounter with God does not necessarily mean that it ’s another bad news, get in your basket type of meeting. Can we believe for the possibility of heaven’s congratulation and affection, the promise of the One who calls Himself Love? With that as a backdrop, let’s explore some more of the myths that emerge when negative expectation fogs our thinking.
Myth 6: We don’t have any authority anyway
I am often amazed when God apparently responds to one of my prayers, as if it is almost an unnatural thing to see my praying as a cause that contributed to an actual effect. My brother in law, who was a staunch and somewhat rabid atheist for many years, finally decided to become a follower of Jesus while at Cambridge University; he continues to be a faithful disciple today. I remember well the evening that Christopher telephoned to tell us that he was now a new man; I rushed, mouth wide open, to share what I thought was stunning news with our then young children. They were pleased, but not at all surprised. ‘Why the big shock Dad? We’ve been praying for Chris for years, haven’t we? Didn’t you think it was going to happen, then?”. I quickly affirmed that of course I had always been faithful in prayerful hope, and crossed my fingers behind my back as I said so.
In wanting to rightly avoid the vending machine blab-it and grab-it formulaic approach to prayer (more of that later), we can so focus on the mystery of unanswered prayer that we lose sight of the possibility that we might actually get some answers. We anticipate heaven’s silence more than its’ whisper or occasional shout.
In his gospel, Matthew uses the term “Father in heaven” 20 times, and not just because he wants us to know that God is no localised deity. Matthew is giving us wide screen vision, banishing our dwarfed godlets with the revelation that we have a Father whose authority stretches across the heavens and the earth. And this truth is far more than abstract theology, but reaches down into our Monday morning praying. It means that we have authority to participate in the unfolding drama of history making as we partner with God through our praying. Surely there is a hellish marketing campaign to convince us that our praying is impotent and vain. But we are those who are privileged to say, “Your name be hallowed.” God’s name is holy, and won’t become more holy because of our praying, but we can ask that that holy name of God will be hallowed on the earth. We are blessed with the authority to say, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done”, which are words that are not just about the second coming, but about what’s going on today. The fullness and consummation of kingdom reign will be found in the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime we are able to call for the Kingdom of God to break out today; through a smile in the office, a moment of kindness at the school gate, a comment that brings light into darkness in the college corridor, the Kingdom relentlessly ripples outward.
Myth 7: God is only interested in our “spiritual” lives
Many of us persist in the the dualistic idea –no, heresy - that Bible reading, prayer and endless hymn singing is keenly watched by God with avid interest, but our reading of a novel, playing a round of golf or making love with one’s spouse all register far less on the spiritual Richter scale.
Jesus taught us to ask for daily bread. Some of the early commentators couldn ’t believe that He would sink to dis- cussing something as ordinary and mun- dane as food,and so early church fathers like Tertullian,Cyprian and Augustine taught that Jesus was referring not to a hearty loaf,but rather “the invisible bread of the word of God.”Why?Well, surely Jesus is more interested in Bible reading than toast,they reasoned. Jerome thought that “daily bread ”was a reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion.Thankfully,the reformers were more down to earth.Calvin argued that spiritualising of “daily bread ”was “exceedingly absurd.”Luther said that “daily bread ”was a symbol for every- thing necessary for the preservation of this life;as he said,daily bread repre- sented “food,a healthy body,good weather,house,home,wife,children, good government and peace.”It ’s rather odd (and telling)that,in compiling his list,Luther put wife and children after good weather,but at least he wasn ’t guilty of chopping up life into sacred and secular boxes.Let ’s face it,if your only topic of conversation with God cen- tres around how much He enjoyed last Sunday ’s hymns,then your prayer life is going to dry up rather quickly ….
Myth 8: We can only come to God when we feel together and whole
There is a mad irony in the idea that we have to come to God strong and whole, and therefore back off from Him; He is the physician offering a clinic for the sick. In His teaching on prayer, Jesus made an opportunity to seek forgiveness a central and pivotal part of the prayer act, encouraging us to ask that our debts might be forgiven. The irony is further compounded by the fact that the more enthusiastic believers are the ones who feel their sinfulness most keenly (their desire to please God is heightened, and their conscience with it), and in their zealous shame they run from the God who gathers the Mephibosheths, those who invited to the party despite being acutely conscious of their emotional and spiritual disabilities.
Grace announces the verdict of God that seems like insanity to our cool, but fundamentally flawed logic. Godfrey Birtil, a gifted worship leader, heard me coin the phrase “outrageous grace” in a teaching session. He went off and wrote a song by the same name, and has been in deep trouble ever since, the recipient of frosty letters and acerbic post-meeting “I just want to say this in love, brother” comments from people who are offended at the word “outrageous” being used in connection with the grace of God. I have encouraged him to stand firm. Grace cannot be measured, metered, or contained any more than we can cup the universe in our hands. It is scandalous, abounding, explosive –and, in a sense, dangerous, in that we can misuse it. Perhaps it takes a forgiven slave owner like Newton to be allowed to us the word “amazing ”.
It is obvious,yet needs to be said; if you are waiting to be whole before you venture into friendship with the healer, you will never pray, banished from the courts of God by yet another pervasive myth.
Myth 9: Prayer should come naturally
Not only am I gifted with a sense of guilt that I don’t pray enough, but even when I do pray that pesky guilt is still snapping at my heels, taunting me even as I do it because I find it difficult. Surely, if I was a more Godly person, I should be able to soar in the presence of God like an eagle effortlessly riding the thermals, rather than feeling like one of those early aviators who built ridiculous aeroplanes whose wings always collapsed on takeoff.
I think we can agree that Paul the apostle did rather well as a Christian – yet he confesses the internal civil wall familiar to all of us: “the things I shouldn’t do, I do. The things I should do, I don’t”. What comes all too naturally to Paul – and for us – is sin. My garden is testimony to the reality that no effort is required to produce Amazon sized weeds that would be described as “bumper” if they were vegetables and would surely win prizes. It was Paul again, perhaps chastened by his own ability to have a life that bore more resemblance to a compost heap than a prize rose display, who encouraged his son in the faith, Timothy, to be disciplined in the faith. The fact that I occasionally would choose to curl up in front of the TV and watch a ten hour documentary about chilblains on the feet of elderly Eskimos rather than pray should not put me off.
Myth 10: Prayer should always follow a similar pattern
Sometimes it isn ’t that prayer is boring – it’s that we are. Refusing to put a toe into an unfamiliar spiritual pool, we stay huddled with our little way of doing things – and get bored stiff. Pete Broadbent, fellow member of the leadership team of Spring Harvest and now Bishop of Willesden, has had a healthy effect on my spiritual life, insisting on introducing me to expressions of devotion that are totally new.
Recently “His Bishopness” as we like to call him, whipped out a cork and a box of matches, announced that it was Ash Wednesday, and proceeded to take us through a natty little exercise that reminded us that we were dust but that God likes dust, and then rubbed burnt cork onto our foreheads to help us not to forget it. It was incredible. And now, courtesy of the Bish, I am using some liturgy designed for morning, afternoon and evening use. Understand that, as a raving flag chewing charismatic, this would, until recent years, have been the equivalent of a Jehovah’s Witness ordering a plateful of black pudding, but it’s been a liberating delight. Keep your marriage alive, they say. Celebrate intimacy in a new, creative way. Get the excitement back. Surely the same is true with the lovemaking that we call prayer?
Your prayers count – for every area of life. Come as you are, knowing that prayer is not a magic formula, but a conversation with a best friend. Don’t be discouraged at its difficulty; soaring into the heavenlies is notoriously difficult when you’ve got a body. And why not experiment with something new for you –light a candle, read an ancient prayer, or if that’s your usual diet, put on a Delirious CD and have a happy little head banging type quiet time – or perhaps we should call it loud time. And while you’re at it, pray for my dog. He’s parked in his basket again, reading about “the mark of the beast” from the book of Revelation, and looking at me rather strangely ….