Does prayer change things?

9 04 2011

I’ve been troubled over the last few days – ever since I read the sentence in Jonah 3:10 “God changed his mind.” 

It reminded me of a Charles Schulz Peanuts cartoon.  Linus is kneeling by his bed with his hands together, not in traditional “prayer pose” but together pointing downwards.  Lucy is standing watching him as he says, “I think I’ve made a new theological discovery….If you pray with your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you ask for.”

There are mysteries here.

So, “Does prayer change things?”  (By this I don’t just mean does it change things for me – ie do I “feel better”, am I more “spiritually connected” as a result?)

I’m going to have a go at thinking this through.  (My guide through this tricky topic is Don Carson – A call to spiritual reformation chapter 9.)

There are two big truths taught in the Bible and I need to grasp how to hold them together.  It’s another example of tension.

  1. God is King, he wears the crown and calls the shots.
  2. We are responsible creatures – we choose, believe, obey and there is moral significance in our choices.

If only the first proposition is true, we would reduce God to Fate, so we need to hold the two ideas together – God is transcendent: he exists beyond all time and space and is King of his universe.  Yet he is personal in his dealings with you and me: he presents himself as a loving Father.  It may be difficult (it is!) to understand how both can be true at the same time, but just because it is difficult does not make them untrue.

So what about prayer?

The biblical truth that God is King is never a disincentive to pray for people in the Bible or for me either.  Jesus does say that we shouldn’t babble on thinking that God will hear us for our many words, because he already knows what we need before we ask him; but he also endorses persistence,  telling his disciples stories “to show that they should always pray and never give up”. (Luke 18:1) 

Like I said, there are mysteries here.

“Despite the fact that God’s nature is in many respects profoundly mysterious to us, we shall not go far wrong if we allow the complementary aspects of God’s character to function in our lives…Then we will learn the better how to pray, and why we should pray, and what we should pray for, and how we should ask.”

“Sometimes it is more important to worship such a God than to understand him.” 

Don Carson


Count me in

13 03 2011

During the next couple of weeks time everyone in England will be counted.  There are clear instructions with the census form –

“Everyone should be included in the census – all people, households and overnight visitors.

It is used to help plan and fund services for your community – services like transport, education and health.

Taking part in the census is very important and it’s also compulsory. You could face a fine if you don’t participate or if you supply false information.

Your personal information is protected by law and will be kept confidential for at least 100 years.

So help tomorrow take shape and be part of the 2011 Census.”

Our census takes place every ten years, and prospectively is used for planning and funding purposes; retropectively genealogists interrogate census data for family information.

In the ancient world of King David, there seems to have been a different purpose and when he took the census of his people (2 Samuel 24),  there was a problem.

David doesn’t appear to have been under military threat at this time, but he wants to find out how many fighting men he has.  His military strength has been a dominant feature in his reign and maybe his downfall here is that he is depending on the size of his army, on human power, rather than on God for his kudos.  At any rate, God is displeased with him.

The numbers are returned to him and almost immediately David realises that he has made a big mistake; his conscience is pricked and he is quick to acknowledge that he has been wrong.  I admire that.    He doesn’t get defensive, or blame someone else.  He holds his hands up and asks for forgiveness.  

What counts for David more than anything is his relationship with his God, so although he shows his human frailty, he exemplifies the importance of keeping short accounts, of being honest and of realigning life with God’s way. 

Count me in to that way of living.

Harsh sounds and dainty feet

11 03 2011

Dissonance is a musical term for, well, this (“best” part is 25-35 seconds in – but stick at it; it does resolve).  It may not be the sort of music that you find relaxing, but it is music, and is different from a child palming random notes.

Harsh sounds come in other forms too.  Psychologists talk about cognitive dissonance, a theory developed by Festinger in the 1950s.  This is the uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in your mind at the same time.  The tension increases with the importance of the subject to us, how strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict and our inability to rationalise or explain away the conflict.  An oft quoted example is a smoker who reads (and believes) the warning ‘Smoking Kills’ every time they light up, but still enjoys a cigarette.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting beliefs or actions in order to relieve the tension that we feel. (In the smoking example – I like smoking so I will ignore the health warning;  I’m scared by the health warning so I will give up smoking.)  I’m not a psychologist, but this makes a lot of sense to me – I do not like to feel uncomfortable. 

Of course I would feel differently if I were taking part in funambulism – wouldn’t you?  Here, tension is key.

Funambulist needs tension – photo wikipedia

So why am I off down this wire today?  It’s because I read 2 Samuel 22 and I’m experiencing serious dissonance.  The first part of the chapter is fine – David’s thanks to God for his protection – and there is the beautiful picture of God’s intervention on David’s behalf – “He stooped down from heaven and rescued me…because he delights in me.”  That’s the kind of God I like; I would like him to do that for me. 

But there follow two dissonant sections.  The first is David’s self-righteous boasting and the second a tempestuous description of God’s anger against David’s enemies.  I am uncomfortable with both. 

The Message gives a slant on the mutuality of David’s relationship with God which helps decrease the dissonance of the first part – “When I cleaned up my act, he gave me a fresh start.”  But the enemies…

Is it nonsensical to live with the tension of things I don’t understand?  Is it a cop out to say, “But God knows”?  I don’t think it is.  Faith is a lot like tight rope walking – there is a necessary tension.    All my knowledge is incomplete, all my understanding is blurred, everything points to the fact that I am not God.  I need the tension to keep me from self delusion – God is God; I am not.

One day…all will be revealed.  Until then, anyone for funambulism?

“Christianity is not interested in tempting you to believe contradictory nonsense. It evokes mystery now and then; it does not invoke nonsense.”

D A Carson

1984 and all that

3 03 2011

David Taylor, George Orwell’s biographer, talked about the novel 1984  in Episode 4 of the BBC Programme The Beauty of Books this week. (Catch it on i-Player if you can.)

“One of the great advantages of 1984 in the 61 years of its existence is it always seems so contemporary. Whatever was going on in the world an echo could be struck in Orwell’s novel.” Publishers too have played their part in keeping the book contemporary.  The graphic is a selection of the covers that have appeared over the years.

I’m interested in this idea of remaining contemporary.  How do words published in 1954 maintain their voice today?  There’s an added fascination for me because 1954 was the year I was born and so I’m asking myself about my story too.  What’s my life about… today?

My Bible readings have taken me back to 2 Samuel – to David – the battles and the power struggles, the deceptions and intrigue, rivalry and forgiveness.  Contemporary themes, if thousands of miles and years adrift.   How do words written then and there maintain their voice today?How am I to read these stories?

Eugene Peterson is insightful-

“The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us, ‘Live into this. This is what it looks like to be human; this is what is involved in entering and maturing as human beings.’ We do violence to the biblical revelation when we ‘use’ it for what we can get out of it to what we think will provide colour and spice to our otherwise bland lives…

“The Samuel narrative will not allow that. In the reading..we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories, but to see ours in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.” Read the rest of this entry »

Living generously

25 02 2011

Jesus’ teaching is all about living generously –

  • think of the best thing you can do for the worst person..and do it
  • think of what you would really like someone to do for you…and do it for them
  • think of someone that you would like to be nasty to…be kind to them instead

Simple! Sorted!  If only…


My father-in-law never forgot the generous love of God in his life.  One of his favourite stories in the Bible was one that I read the other day – the story of King David and Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9.  His eyes sparkled as he read it aloud – “Is anyone still alive from Saul’s family? If so, I want to show God’s kindness to them.”  (Context? – David and Saul were not best buddies;  David has spent years of his life fleeing from his enemy Saul; you can read about that in 1 Samuel chapters 18 and following.)

David is told that Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth is alive but that, “he is crippled in both feet.”  I can only assume that this rider is equivalent to, “Yes, but you won’t want anything to do with him.”  Indeed Mephibosheth describes himself as “a dead dog”.

David’s reaction?

He showers him with generosity.

I think my father-in-law, also a David, loved the story because he saw it as a picture of God’s generosity to him.   The fact that he too had difficulty walking because of arthritic hips added poignancy.  He knew he was deeply loved and had been invited to “eat at the king’s table”; he requested that his headstone bear the words  “A sinner saved by grace.”

So how do I learn to live generously?

Tom Wright pulls the threads together for me in his book Luke for Everyone – “Only when people discover that this is the sort of God [a God of grace and love] they are dealing with will they have any chance of making this way of life their own.”

And I think it’s something to do with keeping short accounts – facing up to failures, against God and against other people, dealing with stuff promptly, and not being  like Tam O’Shanter’s missus

“Gathering her brows like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

Apple to Apple

13 02 2011

You just have to love this one – an iPhone app for confession!

“Designed to be used in the confessional, this app is the perfect aid for every penitent. With a personalized examination of conscience for each user, password protected profiles, and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament, this app invites Catholics to prayerfully prepare for and participate in the Rite of Penance. Individuals who have been away from the sacrament for some time will find Confession: A Roman Catholic App to be a useful and inviting tool.”  (Oh, and it costs $1.99)

Features include –

  • Custom examination of Conscience based upon age, sex, and vocation (single, married, priest, or religious)
  • Multiple user support with password protected accounts
  • Ability to add sins not listed in standard examination of conscience
  • Confession walkthrough including time of last confession in days, weeks, months, and years

Sorry, I can’t bear any more.

The juxtaposition with my reading for today (Psalm 51) is stark.

David has been confronted with his sins – adultery and murder – and pours out his heart to God in confession and repentance.  And notice, David identifies the heart of his problem – he has sinned against God.  Yes, the sin was manifested against Bathsheba and Uriah, but it is his relationship with God that has been compromised and needs to be retored –

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
   and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
   or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
   and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”

It’s always that way. 

And the answer to sin is not to keep track of it on your iPhone; God has a more radical approach.  Fast forward to read from the prophet Micah in The Message –

“Where is the god who can compare with you—
   wiping the slate clean of guilt,
Turning a blind eye, a deaf ear,
   to the past sins of your purged and precious people?
You don’t nurse your anger and don’t stay angry long,
   for mercy is your specialty. That’s what you love most.
And compassion is on its way to us.
   You’ll stamp out our wrongdoing.
You’ll sink our sins
   to the bottom of the ocean.”

That’s the God that David knew; that’s the God I want to know.

“God, make a fresh start in me,
      shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.”

Psalm 51:10

When is a house not a house?

12 02 2011

Greed, glamour and glory are words that capture the essence of 1980s America, at least as portrayed in the soap opera Dynasty.  Do you remember Blake Carrington and his expansive (and expensive) family?  (If you need a nostaligia fix, why not see if Lovefilm can help.)

We may talk about such prominent or influential families as dynasties, but “dynasty” is really associated with monarchy.

Enter King David.

But first a bit of backstory.

Saul was the first king of Israel and we read about his catastrophic decline in the book of 1 Samuel chapters 8 to 15 in the Old Testament section of the Bible.  The prophet Samuel is given the task of finding a new king.  Where do you start?

God gives him a clue – he’s one of Jesse’s sons.  Samuel goes to Bethlehem, finds Jesse and asks to see his sons so that he can choose the new king.  Seven boys are paraded before him and still Samuel doesn’t have a positive vibe.  Finally he says, “Are these all the sons you have?”  I think there’s a tone of desperation here, don’t you?  Samuel is relieved though to find that Jesse has a Frank Lampard (Number 8 ) waiting to come on…the youngest son, the lad who tends the family’s flock of sheep, David.  “He is the one!”

David is anointed as king once in the presence of his family, later in his tribe, and finally over the whole country.

But ostentatious living causes a problem for David.  He’s living in a palace and yet there is no temple, no house, for God.  He wants God to have a suitable home, a place of glory.

But God has other ideas (as he often does).  He doesn’t want a “house”, a building.  Instead he promises David that he will have a “house” of a different kind, a dynasty.  The promise finds ultimate fulfilment in Jesus, who was born of the tribe of Judah and the house of David… a dynasty of self-giving, unassuming…

            to God in highest heaven,
  and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”  (Luke 2:14)

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