The Almighty is not just on speaking terms with them, but is apparently very chatty, seemingly issuing commands about the minute details of their everyday life. Like the Blues Brothers, they’re on a mission from God. Sometimes they insist that they’ve been told to do bizarre and illogical things, which stifles any discussion or potential disagreement.
Those who insist that God is an extra-terrestrial tweeter can inflict great pain. I remember being in a church service when an enthusiastic lady grabbed a guitar and declared the Lord had given her a song the night before, and now he was instructing her to share it. Eleven unpoetic verses and a chorus that involved some high-pitched shrieking later, the shell-shocked congregation privately concluded that if the Lord had indeed given the lady that song it was probably because he didn’t want it.
I’ve been given more than my fair share of ‘prophecies’ that were utterly incomprehensible, which is awkward when you’re on the receiving end. It’s difficult to know how to respond when a wannabe prophet announces that they have seen a picture of a one-legged Japanese bassoonist who is balancing a bowl of custard on his head, and then enquires, ‘Does this mean anything to you?’ It does indeed mean something: someone should call the NHS helpline immediately.
All of which means that I have tended to veer towards cynicism when people announce that God has told them something, which is an unhelpful overreaction. Healthy scepticism is useful when people announce that they’ve heard the word of the Lord, because we need to test and prove what is offered rather than swallowing it wholesale. But I want to stay open to God speaking to me through others, and be available to those subtle nudges, impressions, hunches and prompts that are sometimes the direct work of the Holy Spirit in me, lest I miss a genuine whisper from heaven. And that might be very bad indeed, as I learned when I met Peter and Riekie.
A bright, joyful couple now living in Spain, Peter and Riekie’s easy smiles and relaxed demeanour could suggest that they’ve had a carefree life, which they have not. During a retreat that I led, Riekie described her childhood as a catalogue of sexual abuse. Her description was stark: ‘Growing up, abuse seemed to follow me.’ And then came the dark day when, home alone,Riekie was raped by a man who had been doing some casual work around their house. Threatening her with a screwdriver, her assailant tied her to a bed and began the awful assault. Riekie’s one-year-old child was in the next room. She feared for the safety of her baby, and said so. The rapist paused his assault to make sure that the child was safe, but then continued the attack.
It was then that the telephone rang. And rang again. And again. It was Peter, who was at work. There was absolutely no reason for him to be calling ? Riekie was supposed to be out collecting the children in the late afternoon school run ? but Peter could not escape a persistent, overwhelming urge to phone home. And so he just kept calling. The rapist, distracted by the constant jangling of the phone, abandoned the assault and made his escape. Other rapes had occurred in the area, some resulting in terrible injuries inflicted by screwdrivers, others in AIDS infection; some victims had been murdered. Riekie wonders what her fate might have been if Peter had not responded to that inner nudge when he did.
The day before the rape, Peter had felt that he should specifically pray that God would protect Riekie from rape: for the 21 years that followed that terrible day, he had wrestled with anger towards God because the attack had happened. And then, during the retreat, it suddenly dawned on him ? he had been the answer to his own prayer.
God doesn’t always speak, intervene or rescue. The telephone doesn’t always ring at the vital moment. Today awful things will happen not only to good people but to God’s people. Peter and Riekie’s story doesn’t guarantee that God will always be the knight in shining armour; no telephone rang during the traumatic episodes in her childhood. But Peter’s obedience to that nudge teaches me this: God speaks. ET is famous for the phrase, ‘phone home’. But if God wants to whisper that or anything else, or give me an inkling, a hint, or a nudge, then I’d like to be someone who has ears to hear, and a readiness to respond.