God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

autumn autumn leaves branches danger

Photo by David Whittaker on Pexels.com

The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.

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On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.

On fire

All photos from Charles Mercer

Some experiences have a habit of stripping my intellectual and spiritual pretensions away. Inescapably seared into my consciousness is the day as a young child I was watching a tense game of cricket and as the bowler approached the wicket I mouthed two simple and hope-filled words at the television: bowl him.

He did. He bowled him. You and I know that my words had nothing to do with what happened, but that doesn’t stop a little part of me thinking that it did; especially when I’m watching an event as a 40-something adult and my team need some inspiration. Bowl himScore. Save. Miss. I’ve mouthed or uttered or shouted all of these and more at the crucial moments in more recent years. I don’t really believe it, of course … but there I go, regressing to childhood innocence once again, offering my incantations to the implacable gods of sport, hoping they’ll remember mercy and act on my behalf.

Photo: Charles MercerI live in Cape Town, which recently experienced an especially severe summer fire. It bears repeating that the professional fire services acted with immense bravery and professionalism; they were ordinary people doing something amazing. So too did individuals faced with trying to save property, businesses or lives.

For some ordinary people this was a devastating experience despite the best efforts of those tasked to help. The natural local plant fynbos was the primary fuel of the fire, aided and abetted by alien plants which only made things worse. (Actually for fynbos, fire is a renewing and life-giving thing, but that’s another post.)

Wild fires like these do something to us as we watch. Personally we were unaffected; however friends were evacuated, and we’ve heard stories of others getting stuck in to rescue a farm or a house. It does something strange to our prayers and our faith and our view of God. The raw, seemingly unstoppable power we see laid bare takes us back to the basics. God, stop the fire. Save us. Send rain. We, with all our sophistication and theology and ideas and science are reduced to begging an invisible being to do something with a visible crisis. We have no power; someone must, though. Photo: Charles Mercer

Now we know that God is a perfect Father, so this stripping away is a good thing if it pushes us into a more childlike honesty with God. Dad, stop the fire please. Please. Pllllleeease.

 We all need to be a bit more like that and a little less reliant on our intellectualisation. However He’s a perfect Father who not only knows best but who exists in and over a complex world, and who does so whilst maintaining an attitude of grace towards His children. Search the Bible and you’ll see no one formula, set of words or system that’s going to get His attention and get Him to work in the way in which we want Him. We all know it’s not that simple; but that doesn’t stop us thinking that if we just pray like this or this hard or this long or with these words that we’ll get the healing/provision/direction/rain we need.

That’s the thing with grace, though. It means we already have his attention, his best intentions, his perfect focus. We don’t need to do or say anything; but like any father He’s desperate to hear from us. Do my words have any effect? I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen inexplicable things happen when we pray and I’ve also seen nothing happen when we pray. So if the fire or other crisis strips us back to a kind of Baal-like set of incantations and lever-pulling before an almighty slot machine then we’ve got a problem. We’ve allowed a most basic thing – fire, an elemental force – to rob of us intimacy and closeness and turn us into helpless subjects of a disapproving and distant taskmaster.

Dad, we need it stop.

I know, He says. Does He stop it, or does it just stop? Does He send the rain, or is it just weather?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t.

But how good is it to hear I know when we breathe out our most fervent and desperate prayers?

It hurts. 

I know.

I need a friend. 

I know.

I need rain. 

I know. 

I need to pay a bill. 

I know.

It does something to us deeper than solving a problem; it tells us we are not and never will be alone, unheard or unloved. It doesn’t solve everything; and some days it will be soul-deep frustrating. Instead of getting the right answer every time, we will get a friend, a father. Which lasts much longer.

Photo: Charles Mercer