BENDING GODíS EAR
A Sermon Preached at St Saviourís, St Albanís, Church of England
October 12th 1997
Imogen de la Bere
The part of church life that I hate most is not cleaning the brass in the middle of winter or droning through the alto parts of old hymns at choir practice on a Friday night, when the rest of the world is down at the pub.† The job around the church I hate most is writing the prayers.
Let us pray for the world I write. Let us pray for the people of - and here follows a list of the current trouble spots, including generally about twenty or thirty million people. End of prayer.
How can that be an effective prayer? What is the value in pointing out to God that his people in Papua New Guinea are starving? Presumably God knows that better than we do. The starving people are praying to him for survival, the missionaries and teachers in Papua New Guinea are praying night and day for aid and strength. Their prayers are surely strong enough and relevant enough for God.† Whatís the point in me standing up here and saying Let us pray for the starving people of Papua New Guinea?
A more honest prayer might be Dear Lord, you know perfectly well, rather better than we do, where all the problems are, and you also know what you are going to do with them, so please get on and do it, and let us know when we can help. Thereís precious little we can do to stop people in Rwanda tearing each other to bits. We don't know what God is going to do, we donít know how heís going to do it, and we donít even know, in fact, if heís going to do anything at all.
Sometimes itís tempting to feel that praying isnít going to do much good, isnít going to change Godís mind or interfere with fate. Right now, many Christian parents in Papua New Guinea will be praying fervently that their children donít die, but some children, many children will die. Did God fail to hear the prayers of their parents?†† People huddled in a church in Rwanda know their racial enemies are closing in to slaughter them - surely those people prayed passionately for deliverance? Was God† deaf to those prayers? It would seem so.
And yet we are told the opposite in no uncertain terms in todayís Gospel: We heard this: Jesus told the disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. Even the unjust judge is finally worn down by the widowís constant badgering - how much more therefore will the Father of justice and mercy be prepared to be swayed by constant petition.† Jesus, the story continues,† goes so far as to say Will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night? I promise you God will see justice done to them and done speedily.
†So here we have a clear statement in scripture from Jesus himself that God answers prayers. An unequivocal statement, not just that God hears prayers or takes note of them, but that he answers them, and sees justice done and that banging on about something has its effect on the Almighty. And yet at the same time, we have evidence around us all the time that praying does not save people from misery and death. It would be hard to believe in a God who answers prayers as your children die in your arms, one by one.
The answer to this terrible paradox lies in the way God answers prayer.† God has given up on thunderbolts, even if he ever used them. God doesnít throw up miraculous walls of flame around the people huddled praying in the church to repel the murderers. God doesnít conveniently hand out a miracle every time someone prays for deliverance.† We all think weíd like it if he did. But the implications are absurd and ridiculous. Under this scheme, if I get cancer and pray for deliverance; God promptly cures me. I break my back. I pray and God cures me. I get arthritis and God doesnít think thatís quite bad enough so he leaves me to put up with it. Thatís not fair, I cry, you fixed up the other things, why make me put up with this? When would God ever be able to stop saving us?† If every time a band of bad men went out to rape and kill, God got in their way, what sort of† bizarre Walt Disney sort of world would we be living in? We would be automata, coddled dummies. And weíd still find plenty of things to demand of God. Iíve got a bad cold today Lord and itís the flower festival so please get rid of it, thank you!
But God does answer prayer. Terrible things are brought to an end - after centuries of praying and weeping and longing, the slaves in America went free. The Vietnamese army poured into Cambodia and put an end to the killing fields. The peacekeepers marched into Rwanda and the slaughter was stopped. Little boys born in poverty in England no longer climb up chimneys for a living.
God does answer prayer.† But he uses human beings to do it. We† have to do the work., and sometimes that takes a while. It took years to destroy Hitler and his minions; in the mean time millions died, but at the end the evil was wiped out.† Can anyone believe that God watched millions die without wanting to act? The same God who in the person of his son Jesus experienced the extremity of suffering, who cried at the moment of death, My God My God why have you forsaken me?† This God, this God who was in Jesus, knows what it is to stand naked in the gas chamber. How much he must have longed to sweep the allied soldiers through Europe unopposed and fling open the doors of the death camps.† But human beings must do the work of God on earth. Ordinary soldiers fight battles and politicians sit at tables and do deals. Business people organise relief; ordinary consumers refuse to buy shoes from sweatshops. You write a letter that Amnesty International has suggested† and† a prisoner is freed. This year, Mahlo came from South Africa and spoke to us here, and children and teachers in her school will be given the help they need. This is how God answers prayers. We do it.
So† am I suggesting that petitioning God is simply a way of reminding ourselves what we need to do? Of pricking our own consciences? We pray for Mahlo and that reminds us to put a pound in the jar?† Someone prays for the victims of the famine in Papua New Guinea and someone else hears the prayer and decides to get on the phone to his cousin in Australia who grows rice?† Just that simple? Cause and effect?†† A sort of self-regulating system, in which God does nothing at all except sit in the background and occasionally pat us on the head?
I donít think so. Because if that were so what would be the point of most of these prayers? No-one here has a relative in Australia with a rice farm, so we can safely forget about praying for the famine. For its entire lifetime the people of God, assembled together, have prayed for things outside their direct control. We beseech Thee to have mercy upon all prisoners and captives, all women labouring with childÖ Have all those Christians for all those centuries been barking up the wrong tree?
And what about those exceptional and wonderful people who spend their whole lives in prayer? Religious who pray as their job, not just contemplative prayer, but hours of intercessory prayer? No-one is listening except God. Are they wasting their time?
And what about us - those stabs of prayer we send out when we hear or read of someone in trouble? I see a man lying bleeding in the street. His coat is soaked with blood, but the paramedics are there, the ambulance doors are open.† I do not rush to his aid, but I cry out to God for his safety.†† Should I save my energy,† since I can do nothing material to help?
The answer is this: these are the wrong questions. The questions should be: How can we not cry out to God for our sisters and brothers in need?†† How can we call ourselves human beings and children of God, if we do not bring the pain of the world into the presence of our father, Love himself?†† Sometimes we will be able to act; sometimes we will be able to influence others to act;† sometimes we can do nothing. Not to pray because we are powerless to act is a form of cowardice.
For remember, it is to God that our prayers are addressed, not to each other. To pray for something - a person, a place, a country, peace talks, famine relief - is to see the person, the place, the situation held in the hands of God. Such an act of praying - to see the person or cause held in the hands of God - is the simplest and at the same time the most powerful thing we can do. In fact, it is the only thing we can do. We do not understand what God will do, nor how our prayers will be translated into human action.† We do not understand God, but we may contemplate him.†
And when we try to see those for whom we are praying wrapped in the love of God, intercessory prayer becomes, not a shopping list for Godís attention, but an act of worship.† Because that is the essential nature of prayer: - communion with God. We used to be taught that prayer falls into two kinds - contemplative and intercessory. But the distinction is artificial. Contemplating God and bringing needs before him are part of the same act - you canít ask God for things without coming into his presence, without contemplating his nature and laying yourself open before him.† So the people who mix the prayers of petition in with prayers of adoration are doing it right, and when I sit down to my chore of writing petitions, without any attempt at addressing the nature of God, I am doing it wrong.† Prayers, no matter when or where, are one half of a conversation with God. We donít† ring up a friend and say: hello, itís me here. I need to borrow your lawnmower. Iíll be round at two. and put down the phone.† Nor should we say: Dear God, help the people in Papua New Guinea and pretty soon too.† Amen. To pray for them we hold† the suffering people in the hands of God, and know that he suffers too.†
And we look on God and are silent.