Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Is There Anybody Out There?

(Preached at St James Church on 30 January 2008)

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18: 1-8) is an obvious encouragement for us to be persistent in prayer. I’m sure you’ve heard a dozen sermons about how important that is – and I know I’ve talked in the past about the different techniques that we can use to help us in what is a vital task. One of the most helpful tips is a mnemonic around the word ‘prayer’ itself: Prayer, Reverence, Adoration, Yearning, Expectation, Requests

But that’s not what I really want to focus on this morning. Instead, I want to move into a realm of honesty about prayer…and to tackle what is sometimes a difficult subject in Christian circles…namely, the uncomfortable feeling that many of us have…the worry that whilst everyone around us seems to be a prayer warrior – storming the gates of heaven on a daily and committed basis – for some us, its just not that simple. Some of us try, we really do try, to reach out to God with our minds and our souls…but we just don’t feel that we are getting through.

And if we are honest, some of us even end up asking “Is there anybody out there?”. Am I hitting a spot for some of you? I know that’s been an experience for me.

What I want to offer this morning is a bit of re-assurance. This sense of emptiness, of blankness – of even wondering whether God is there at all – is a very real, and very normal part of the Christian life. Even Jesus, you will recall, was forced to ask “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that it is not the people who experience such blankness that I worry about – it’s the people who seem to hear God talking in their ear at every turn of the road. Those are the people I worry about!

I think that what frequently happens is that people have had good experiences in the past, maybe in personal prayer, maybe in a church service, maybe at other times. But they now find that they no longer have that kind of experience. God seems to have gone – and that can be very upsetting. But we need to remember, I think, that the way forward is not the way back! God leads us on a journey through life – and wants to reveal himself to us in different, perhaps even deeper ways.

Here’s a suggestion – if you are one of the many people who struggle with prayer. Try taking a day, or just a few hours, in which you do not set out specifically to pray, but do just what you want to do, however totally secular it may seem. Go for a walk, wash the car, visit a friend, read a book. Whatever it is, take your time over it; try to be aware of everything around you; be aware of your own feelings, thoughts and sensations; seek to constantly sharpen your awareness of everything your experience. Look for the insect on the leaf, be aware of the cleanliness of the paintwork, see the smile in the eyes of a friend, experience the deep emotions of the book – and if you do, I shall not be at all surprised if you emerge from the experience with your whole sense of life being enhanced – and a new sense that you have been in touch with something greater than yourself.

You see, I fear that most of the time, we tend to live our lives on auto-pilot, half asleep. If we take time, and make the effort, like the persistent widow, to look for God in all the situations of life…he is there to be found. We may not be able to see God himself – but we may be able to see his activity around us, and in us, and through us. To quote the old proverb: “You cannot see the wind – but you can see its effects”.

I have a suspicion that it is often at those times when God seems most unreal to us in prayer, when we really do wonder whether there is anybody there at all, that we can, ironically, suddenly become most aware of the glory of God – ‘out there’ in the world and in people. When we grasp that – and when we move beyond the moment of crying “My God My God why have you forsaken me” suddenly God can become even more real to us. When we grasp that the life of faith is not primarily about me and my personal connection with God – but about me and other people and the whole planet being caught up with the Lord of the Dance – then, perhaps, we can begin to grasp something of what God really is doing in the world. Sometimes the church has been guilty of over-personalising the ‘God to human’ relationship.

The church can be guilty of pandering to the modern phenomenon of ‘individuality’ – and of failing to teach us that we are called, first and foremost, to be members of the body of Christ – a corporate, community based concept, in which God is found not primarily through individual experiences, but through a shared experience of living together as brothers and sisters – experiencing God with and through each other.

And if, like the persistent widow, we continue to persist in looking for God – we have assurance that he will reveal himself in ever more surprising and exciting ways. “Seek, and ye shall find”. But we need to seek in the right places.