Tag Archives: God

Uncertainty, Lostness and Thomas Merton

Cover of "Thoughts In Solitude"

A prayer by Thomas Merton (Thoughts in Solitude), whose words, you will understand, resonate  with me somewhat.  Above all, God is gracious in our lostness. He doesn’t wait for us to return; he comes to find us and journeys with us.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


Filed under Meditation & Prayer, Prayers and Meditations

Your prayers worked. Are you sure?

“Your prayers worked,” Jen said to me last week, the day after I had prayed for her to be free from pain.

I thought long and hard about that.  Do prayers “work”?  And when there is no answer (or not the one we were hoping for), do we say, “Your prayers didn’t work”?

Does prayer “work” and “not work”?

Let us begin by recognising that we are not going to get to a definitive answer in this brief comment, at least not one that will satisfy everyone.  Prayer is too vast a subject for definitive answers at the best of times.  Our answers would also depend on what we meant by “prayer” and by “work”. 

When we define prayer narrowly in terms of specific prayer requests, we have to admit that prayer often doesn’t “work”.  The specific thing we ask for often does not happen the way we ask for it to happen.  Even Jesus experienced prayer like that.  Mark tells us that he could not perform any miracles in Nazareth, because the people lacked faith (Mark 6:5-6).  Matthew (13:58) prefers not be quite as absolute, and says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there.  Mind you, Mark does grudgingly admit that Jesus did manage to heal “a few sick people”. Either way, specific prayers were not answered.  Had the people concerned been asked, they would have said, “No, your prayers didn’t work.”

Of course, we tend to say that prayers are always answered, but that sometimes the answer is, “No,” or “Not now.”  And that is also true, although such a catch-all answer drives the sceptic mad.  And one can sympathise.  Such an answer relies on faith, and our trust in a loving and active God.  What the sceptic wants is definitive proof, or at least statistically acceptable proof: out of 100 prayers, so many were answered as desired, and so many weren’t, which will prove things one way or another.

God, however, isn’t interested in statistics; he is concerned only with relationships.  And to understand prayer we have to understand it in the context of our relationship with God (and with each other).  The story of the Bible from beginning to end, Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s relationship with his creation, and his pursuit of that relationship.  God is not portrayed in scripture as a careless creator, throwing stars into space and sitting back to enjoy the show.  He is Creator, but he has a specific goal in mind, and that goal is relationship, however you want to define it. 

More than anything else prayer is about relationship.  What does it mean when we pray fervently for a friend’s healing?  First of all, we are acknowledging our relation-ship with God, and we are approaching him as Father.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father….”  He is not a shopkeeper we go to with a list in order to buy things we need; he is Father. He is our father, and our friend’s father, and it is in acknowledging both those relationships that we approach him in prayer. 

When we pray for our friend’s healing we are praying for something that God also holds dear, and in our praying we are drawing closer to our friend and closer to God.  We are taking time from our busy day and focusing for a moment or two on our friend and on the father of us both.  In perhaps a very small way, we are growing those relationships that are both God’s gift and God’s desire.  At that level, does prayer “work”?  Absolutely, even when the “answer” is not what we had hoped for or expected.

When we pray for healing and wholeness, for reconciliation, for peace, we are praying for those things that God himself wants for his creation.  And we can pray deeply, and fervently, and often, because as we pray we are drawing closer to our Father.  As we draw closer, we develop a greater understanding of what God wants to do, and (be warned) what he wants us to do.

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Filed under Community, Meditation & Prayer

Higgs boson and the death of God

Visual Higgs Boson

Visual Higgs Boson (Photo credit: Michael J. Linden)

So the shy Higgs boson has been found hiding beneath the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland.  Or something has been found that looks and acts the way we think the Higgs boson would, had we ever been able to coax it into the light before.

And a columnist in our local newspaper, Michael Worsnip, has got his gander up, and his newly found atheistic knickers in a knot, excitedly telling the world that this, at last, is the death of God.  Well he will have to join a rather long and distinguished queue, behind such luminaries as Nietzsche, the original “death of God” movement, Stephen Hawking, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, although to be fair, the latter never believed God was alive in the first place.

But, in spite of Worsnip’s excited claims, this is not the final nail in God’s coffin, nor final proof of the foolishness of the claims of all people of faith.  And I’m glad to see Worsnip include Muslims and Jews in his tirade.  So often they are left out, as if Christians were the only fools.

Over the years, at every turn of the scientist’s screw as it were, there has been a collective grin of triumph from the Worsnips of this world, and a collective gasp of fear from some Christians, both groups thinking, “This means there is no room for God.”  The discovery of gravity meant that there was no room to believe in a God holding us in place.  Well if that’s all you thought God did, I have news for you.  Similarly, Worsnip’s claim is that, because the Higgs boson is the “glue” that holds the universe together, belief in God as the coherent force falls away.  He seems to hope that Christians, Muslims and other foolish believers will do the honourable thing and quietly disband.  In reality, such claims are not a rejection of God, but of some small part of our understanding of what we thought God did.  If God is, then he is by definition, beyond our understanding and beyond our manipulations—and that is a word of caution as much to Christians as to atheists.

There will of course be Christians (I cannot speak for others) whose proverbial knickers will be just as tied up as Worsnip’s.  They will be confirmed in their condemnation of the entire scientific endeavour as a plot to destroy the credibility of belief in God.  Why we want to give scientists such power (which the best of them reject) I do not know.  God’s credibility, and the credibility of our faith, does not depend on the discoveries and interpretations of scientists or of anyone else, just as scientists do not need our permission to proclaim their discoveries. 

Nothing science has discovered disproves the existence of a benevolent (we say, loving) creator.  All they have done is to tell us something of how that creation may have taken place.  Equally, nothing of the Christian faith disproves the methodology scientists are discovering.  The Bible says nothing about the “how” of creation, and science has no handle on the “why”.

I summed it up in an earlier poem:

Quite soon there’ll be no hidden things; Higgs boson will be found,
And closed doors will be opened by this ‘particle of god’.
One question still remains beyond where scientists like to go.
“It’s not important, quite absurd.” But still we want to know.

The question that’s ignored is, Why? What purpose could there be
In you and me, in life and death, and all we do and see?
Some think the universe is fickle, some think it quite benign.
But could there be behind it a creative force, divine?

(You can read the rest of the poem here.)


Filed under Odds & Ends, Science & Religion

Why the West Rules, and why love is more important

I have now finished reading Ian Morris’ book, Why the West Rules — For Now.  At 645 pages it’s a big book, and in more than just length.  I touched on his gloss on Christianity in an earlier post.

Overall his idea is that nothing really makes much difference to the fairly inexorable strides of history.  Morris declares that biology tells us why humans push social development upward; sociology tells us how they do this (or fail to).  In Morris’s view however it is geography that tells us why one region will come out “on top” of another at a particular time.  Therefore (one of his catchphrases) “maps, not chaps,” make all the difference.  One’s physical environment (geography) shapes how social development changes in a given region.  On the other hand, changes in social development will also shape what the physical environment means at any one point.  Morris gives an example: “Living on top of a coalfield meant very little two thousand years ago, but two hundred years ago it began meaning a lot.” 

Because it is “maps not chaps”, Morris is convinced that “great men/women and bungling idiots have never played as big a part in shaping history as they have believed they did.  Rather than changing the course of history…the most chaps could do was to speed up or slow down the deeper process driven by maps.”

I am impressed by the breadth of his scholarship and his invitation to others to use his ideas as a starting point for discussion; although, if the timelines suggested at the end of his book are anything to go by, there isn’t much time for discussion.

What I particularly appreciated about the book was the great overview of history that it gives of both East and West.  I enjoy history, but my reading is limited and fairly focused.  Morris expands one’s view and presents an interesting link among the pieces.

I am not in a position to debate Morris’s theories or his methods but once again it is my faith that is challenged.  It appears that in Morris’s world God is either the invention of human beings, largely for political reasons, or God is indeed the detached clockmaker that seventeenth-century thinkers imagined him to be, “switching on the interlocking gears that made nature run and then stepping back.”

I don’t have the theory to counter such arguments.  What I do have is faith; an experience of God that may defy logic sometimes, and even history; an experience of a God who does indeed interfere in creation and human history.  God’s interventions are not often on the macro scale that would change the nature or overall course of his design.  But God creates, connects and invites.  God loves, covenants and sacrifices.  While the Church may have been (and in many ways may still be) a political institution, it has survived and grows today, not because of politics (or geography) but because of God’s intervention in the lives of individuals and communities. I can’t prove that on the scale of a Morris, but I have experienced it to be true, and countless others have discovered its truth for themselves as well. 

In the end I’m not sure that the debate would be all that important.  If God were to intervene at a macro level and point history (and geography) in completely different and unpredictable directions, our calling would remain unchanged.  We are called to live out our faith in the world as we experience it.  For some, like Luther, and Wesley and Desmond Tutu, that means living large, and challenging the status quo, but for all of us it means God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Whether God raises nations out of obscurity to overwhelm the status quo at various times or the changes occur simply as a result of how he made the world in the beginning, makes little or no difference to that calling.   Ultimately God demonstrated in Jesus that his love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.  If that is true then God’s love for us and our love for others are certainly more important than the political, sociological or geographical changes our world endures from time to time. 

Our bible reading this morning was Psalm 8, and perhaps there lies the truth for us to ponder:

1 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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Filed under Books & Movies, Community

The Scandal of God’s Love: Is Our God Too Soft?

James Tissot's John and the Pharisees

Perhaps we have; the question is often asked, “How could a God of love allow…?”  But I think it’s more likely that the scientific world view makes the idea of an afterlife comprising the extremes of a restful heaven and a fiery hell less certain and less obvious to the modern mind.

I’m also not sure that fear of hell was indeed what drove people to John the Baptist.  In any case  we need to remember two things.  First, not everyone felt driven; not everyone flocked to John or to Jesus.  The majority (probably) continued on their merry way, convinced that their future was secured through their own religious observances–much as people who are on the fringes of our churches today probably believe.

We must also remember that not everyone, even within the Jewish faith, believed in an afterlife.  The Sadducees comprised a significant body in Jesus’ day which did not believe in a resurrection whether to heaven or to hell (forgive me for this: that’s why, some have suggested, that they were sad you see).

We should also acknowledge that fear of God’s wrath was not the primary focus of Jesus.  He emphasised it to the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day precisely because of the fear and legal prescriptions with which they oppressed ordinary people.  The image Jesus used more often (both in his teaching and his actions) was of a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd for a lost sheep, and, most memorable of all, a father for his lost son.  Matthew and Luke associate Jesus with Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”

(see Luke 4:18-19; 7:22; and Matthew 11:4-5)

The message of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4) also focused on the coming Kingdom, as did that of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15).  The message about escaping “the wrath of God that is to come” was addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7).  John’s was a ministry of preparation, a call to get ready, to prepare the way. And if one goes back to Isaiah 61, it is a message rooted not in fear but in joy and delight.  It was a welcoming of the king who would take them from the hell of exile into a rebuilt Jerusalem.

I often suspect that our problem with the Gospel, and its portrayal of a loving God, is that the idea of God’s love really appalls us.  Surely God doesn’t love that much: so extravagantly, with so much abandon? Phillip Yancey suggests as much in his book, What’s so amazing about Grace?.

The parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful story. We especially love to tell it to those who are ready to repent and to turn back to the Father, but who are afraid of his wrath.  But the scandal of the story is that the father ran to his son and threw his arms around him in welcome and love before he heard (and brushed aside) the son’s confession. The scandal of the cross is that God loves sinners; not just sinners who are about to repent, but sinners.  And Jesus died in the hope that the worst of us might be brought to the Father.  The horror (for me) of his death was that it happened in the midst of a scornful, doubting world and a group of fearful followers who still didn’t understand.  What if they missed it? What if they failed to be ignited?

The scandal goes right back to Abraham when God chose to work in and through frail humans to achieve his purposes for the world.  We still struggle with that scandal.  God cannot possibly have left himself so vulnerable.  Yet that vulnerability is at the heart of the Christmas story.  The Omnipotent Father has become the intimate Immanuel, and the Spirit of God chooses to work in and through us, in whom his power is made perfect in weakness.

I would suggest that the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house who wept at Jesus feet was overwhelmed not by fear of hell and the wrath of God, but by the love of God she saw in Jesus.  That seems to be how Jesus saw it.

What about you?  How do you see it?


Filed under Grace and Law, Worship & Preaching