When God’s not answering your prayers

Last week I preached on Signs and Wonders in the Early Church. But I have to be honest with you when I saw the reading for the day,  the story of Peter raising Dorcas from the dead, my heart sank. It’s a scary passage to preach on: as far as extreme discipleship goes raising the dead is right up there with treading on serpents and walking on water and it might not surprise you to know that I haven’t done either of those things either.

It would have been tough call even if I’d been in a ‘good place’ but I wasn’t.  I was feeling battered, weak, inadequate and ineffective. God hadn’t seemed to be answering my prayers either for myself or for anyone else I prayed for. Disheartened wouldn’t be too strong a word for how I felt.  However three days before the sermon, I went on a retreat day. I was still ranting on about what on earth I could say and generally moaning about a heap of  other stuff God didn’t seem to care about. My spiritual director listened carefully, made several wise observations but most importantly sent me out to spend three hours in a beautiful garden. I was given an orange blanket and a copy of  Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. Wrapped in the blanket and looking for all the world like the victim of some natural disaster, I soaked up the spring sunshine and read the book (wonderful, wonderful book). Better though than the book, the blanket or the garden was Jesus himself who came to sit with me.

Well, I did go on to write the sermon, although I don’t for a moment think that God turned up just so I’d have something to say. He came because I needed to be reminded that he was on my side. And he didn’t just say it once: the following day, I ‘chanced’ to pick up a true story I myself had written 16 years ago,  I’d forgotten all about this incident but reading it again was like an echo of my conversation with Jesus the day before.

It’s all about how we feel when God seems not to come through for us:

Matthew my son started nursery age 3. He  is now 19 and yes, he has given permisson for me to tell this story. Matthew didn’t want to go to nursery. He found the idea of being left in a strange place with lots of noisy children quite unpalatable. It didn’t do him any good to tell him about the sand-pit, or the train set, the Lego or the playdough: as far as he was concerned the only good thing about nursery was coming home at the end. As it seemed unrealistic to expect him to enjoy it, I turned my attention to reassuring him that he would survive it.  I found out that the session always ended with a group story time, so I promised him that ‘Mummy would come back after the story’. This reassured him on two counts. It told him I would come back and when I would come back, 11.45 being a bit meaningless to a three year old.  So leading up to his first day, we repeated this promise like a mantra, ‘So you’ll come back after the story?’ ‘Yes, I’ll come back after the story’.

On his first day I left him making a noble attempt to be very brave, mouthing the words of the well-worn promise through the window at him as I left. He nodded solemnly.  What happened next was recounted to me by the nursery leader when I duly returned at the appointed time.

Matthew had made the best of the situation for about half an hour and had then decided he’d had enough and ‘could he please go home now?’ Faithful to the formula I’d given him he’d trotted over to the book corner, selected a story and put himself on the knee of an unsuspecting helper. Quite naturally, she read him the story. When they reached the end he looked round expectantly and then burst into tears. ‘Mummy said she’d come back after the story’ he managed to blurt out between heart-rending sobs. He had not been able to make Mummy magically reappear and it had taken the helpers a good twenty minutes to calm him down.*

It can often feel that God lets us down in the same way that I let Matthew down that day. He fails to come through for us in the way we’d like and our distress is made all the greater when we shake our fist and say ‘You promised…’  God has indeed given us many wonderful promises about his love and his power but we cannot control God by quoting these at him.  When God isn’t answering our prayers we have to conceed we may not know the full story. We trust in people who know more than us. That’s why phrases like ‘Trust me I’m a doctor’ or ‘Trust me I’m your mother’ work. On that afternoon in the garden, it was as if Jesus was saying ‘Trust me, I’m your friend’. If you’re not given the miracle you  want, can you trust me enough to receive the miracle of my transforming presence in the midst of pain and confusion?

If you want to hear the sermon, here’s the link. If it doesn’t work just go to m20 on my website list. It’s called ‘Signs and Wonders in the Early Church’ but ‘When God’s not answering your prayers’ would have been a more accurate title.

http://www.stmatthews.org.uk/Media/Player.aspx?media_id=43235&file_id=46368

*First published in The Art of Imperfect Parenting by Sheila Bridge Hodder and Stoughton 1995

  My ‘brave’ boy!

Twilight

Twilight tells the story of  clumsy, awkward 17 year old, Bella, who falls passionately in love with a gorgeous young man, Edward, who just happens to be a vampire. It is a hugely successful series of novels and film, with millions of fans, grossing millions of dollars.

 I’ve been wondering about its appeal. Fans of the series are often obsessed, reading the books over and over.  Some Christians think the book is dangerous with its occult undertones, others think it’s highly moral, preaching a ‘no sex before marriage’ message. My view is that it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just a story but it’s a very compelling story so I’ve been asking myself what is it that makes it so compelling?  What does its huge success tell us about  the generation of women and girls who have embraced it?  A friend of mine suggested that it works because it fulfills a ‘deep longing’.

 A deep longing for what? A longing to be loved, to be known, cared for, intimately understood, accepted, adored and desired.  We all have or have had a longing for someone to love us in such a way: someone who would be amazingly strong, totally obsessed with our welfare and completely attentive to our every need. Those with a heightened awareness of this longing are far more likely to ‘get’ this film, than those who either have satisfying personal relationships or have settled for an easier substitute (shopping? eating?).

 But is this longing unreasonable? Is it just a teenage fantasy we all once held but now we are ‘grown ups’ we have adjusted to the fact that life isn’t like that.  Actually I think it is a reasonable longing and it is one many of us have either forgotten or buried it  beneath disappointment or replaced it with more easily achieved goals.

 Stephanie Mayer, the author of Twilight, and I agree about one thing: no other human being can ever fulfill this kind of longing. Only a supernatural being is capable of delivering our deepest desires. For Stephanie, the supernatural being in question is a vampire.

 Edward is incredibly strong and powerful as well as stunningly gorgeous to look at. His relationship with Bella begins with the act of saving her from being crushed by a truck. He literally races to her side, putting himself between her and the oncoming vehicle.

From his many other appealing qualities, she adores the fact that he can lift her like a feather and carry her effortlessly. Oh how deeply that fantasy appeals to women conflicted over their weight!  He throws her over his shoulder and carries her to places she could never have reached without a great deal of stumbling and effort.  He is obsessed with keeping her safe, he is protective and vigilant. For several months without her knowledge he keeps watch over her while she sleeps. In short he adores her and one of the tensions running through the books is the tantalizing possibility that one day he might transform Bella into a beautiful, graceful, eternal being like himself. Laying aside ice-cold skin and a proclivity for eating flesh, he is in all respects the lover we all desire.

To be loved so utterly and completely – is that unreasonable? Unattainable? I don’t think  so. I believe we were created by a God who left within us a knowledge that we were meant to be loved in this way. That’s why we long for it. It’s not unreasonable but it does feel unattainable.

 Maybe that is because we have forgotten that the God who made us is also obsessed with us. It was Catherine of Sienna who called God a ‘Divine Madman’ ‘drunk with love, crazy with love’. He has not left us alone in the world but came in human form to throw himself in between me and all the forces of death, hell and destruction that threatened me. He is strong, he is powerful. He watches over me by day and by night ‘he neither slumbers nor sleeps, he will not let my foot slip, he is my shade (Psalm 121), he watches over me while I sleep (Psalm 139).  He has immense strength and supernatural power which is always for me and never against me (Romans 8). He also promises that one day he will transform me into an eternal being of grace and beauty.

 We shy away from linking our romantic longings to God. Perhaps we are afraid of trivialising God or appearing too sentimental and matey in an undignified ‘Jesus is my home boy’ kind of way. But God does not shy away from using the language of romance and intimacy with us. He describes himself as ‘the bridegroom’ and we are his bride. He invites us to ‘remain in his love’. The idea of sexual union is actually used as the highest metaphor for the way that God loves us. ‘Husbands should love their wives… as Christ does the church’ a ‘profound mystery’ says Paul (Ephesians 5). Whatever that means, it clearly indicates that what God expects from this relationship is a level of intimacy we find hard to conceive.

I was made to be loved. I don’t have to settle for anything less than being loved completely by God.  Impossibly beautiful but completely fictional vampires are not the answer to my deepest longings. There is a supernatural being who is real and much closer to us than we realise. He waits for me to turn, to recognise his presence and to open my heart to his love.

 There is a moment in the book when Bella wakes up with a kind of creed on her lips.

About three things I was absolutely positive. First Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him’.

 My version of Bella’s creed is thus: About three things I am absolutely positive. First Jesus is God himself. Second that there is no part of him that he held back when he poured out his life blood on my behalf. And third he is unconditionally, irrevocably and unreservedly in love with me. 

‘How to Feel Good Naked’ By Sheila Bridge published TODAY!!

My book How to Feel Good Naked – Learning to Love the Body You’ve Got’ is finally published today. The publisher is Lion Hudson and you can buy it from their website, or on Amazon or from any mainstream publisher, price £8.99. It will be published in a few months time in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.

It’s about about all the pressures women are under to look good and what creates those pressures. It takes a look at the worlds of diet, fitness and self-enhancement asking the question what works and what’s a waste of time.

The under-lying theme of the book is that your value does not lie in your appearance. You are so much more than that! You are valued because you are loved and by the end of the book I point to the most infallible source of love that I know, available to all.

More info and chapter summaries on my website: http://www.sheilabridge.com

Would love to hear from you if you’ve read it!

Jesus is Coming. Look Busy

The slogan above was on a greetings card bought me by a friend. Clearly it had amused her enough to buy it and it certainly amused me. I like anything that knocks our sense of self-importance for six.  And this slogan is clearly tapping into the guilty consciences of those driven by the protestant work ethic, the belief that come the end of the world things will obviously go much better for us if we have been industriously employed at some highly ethical world improving scheme. Woe betide the slacker found down the pub, the bingo or the loitering with intent in the shopping centre.  As for those floating about on a cruise ship…. 

The trouble is there are a couple of parables that Jesus told that do make us think that ‘busy equals good’. The rich fool who said to himself ‘Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry’ popped his clogs that very night (Luke 12:19) the servant who got tired of waiting for his master’s return and began to beat up the other servants he was meant to be caring for, came to a very nasty end.  (Luke 12:46) Then there were the 5 foolish virgins who didn’t keep their lamps topped up with oil and weren’t ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival.  So clearly being ready, waiting and expectant would be a very good thing.

But is that the same as being ‘busy’?  The problem I have is that sometimes some very  ‘busy’ people can be really quite obnoxious. You ask them casually how things are going and even though they give the impression of being clearly too busy to stop and talk to you they treat you to the full version of their weekly planner and you rather wish they hadn’t. ‘I’m very busy’ can sometimes be a short-hand for ‘I need you to know how very important I am, if I don’t keep on top of things the world might stop turning’.

Mea Culpa.  Forgive me. I’m sure there have been times when I may have given off such horrible ‘busy’ vibes. Which is why the card amused me. It pokes fun at the ridiculous notion that me, on my own, all by myself, might actually change the world.  Does that seem negative and defeatist? Am I just a lazy slacker?  I don’t think so. 

I’ve been mulling over the passage in John 15 about being a fruitful person. One very short phrase stands out to me at the moment: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing‘.  Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. Nothing, in other words ‘no one thing’.  So that debunks the notion that Jesus has gone away and left me to attempt some great world changing task all by myself.   I am, of course, only meant to be busy getting connected to God. Once that connection is secure, a fruitful life is a promised inevitablity. You never see a fruit tree going red in the face trying to produce apples, it just sits there sucking up all the goodness from the soil and absorbing all the warmth from the sun and bingo! apples galore.

Someone once gave me a brilliant definition of prayer: prayer is just like sun-bathing. You bask in the sunshine and you are gently transformed (assuming full Factor 40 protection! Okay, the analogy isn’t perfect!) Anyway prayer (son-bathing?)  is meant to be putting yourself in God’s presence and letting him do the transforming.  The simplest prayer may be ‘What shall we do today, God?’

Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls

For a friend’s 50th birthday I nearly bought a t-shirt with the slogan: ‘Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls’ then I saw another one that really made me laugh but would I, as a vicar-in-training have the courage to wear it?

It says ‘I found Jesus… He was behind the sofa’.
 
I can’t help feeling it would make Jesus laugh too. I know the idea of ‘God incarnate’ getting lost behind the sofa along with the loose change and old TV remotes is somewhat irreverent but I think the slogan works because it pokes fun at the audaciousness of our claim to find God. This idea makes us sound rather big and powerful and God sound rather obscure. This is the very opposite of what I believe. We are the small ones, insignificant dots on huge planet, whirling through space and time. What is more amazing is that he finds us. He knows us individually. The Bible even talks about knowing how many hairs on our heads. It also reminds us that ‘his eye is on the sparrow’ so with such attention to detail, it’s good to know that as far as God’s concerned, I will never get lost behind the sofa. I am not overlooked, forgotten or abandoned.

Perhaps I should get my own t-shirt made: God found me… I was behind the sofa

For t shirts with great slogans look at http://www.rosienieper.co.uk/