I saw the wasp on the windscreen and casually flicked on the wipers to swish it away. It took me back to a beach in Runswick Bay with Louise and the boys. Ben got stung a couple of times and was unsurprisingly upset. It was a momentary helplessness that was easily fixed with some TLC and chocolate.
As a parent you want to be able to make it right. Sometimes you can’t. There was a lot of helplessness in hospital. After Ben died, for a period, the helplessness was all there was, other than a desperate flailing to survive.
Obviously we’d looked for something to fix it. We looked to the doctors who did their very best, only to ultimately show that as a race we are still much more limited than we’d like to be.
Beyond that we looked to God. This was the God that done so much to fix us but he couldn’t fix this at least not in the way we wanted him to. Prayer wise we tried everything we knew – prayer appeals, prayer meetings, people coming to the house to pray, taking Ben places to be prayed for. As I type this I know in some ways it sounds ludicrous and ultimately some of it probably was.
I didn’t get prayer after Ben died because the idea of prayer as a means to get God to act hadn’t worked. I was left with plenty of time to unpick my previous ideas and to see that viewing prayer as something to get right misses the point.
You see, if this gospel that I held onto by my fingertips means something it’s about a God getting involved not because of my correctly formulated prayer but because that’s what he’s about. Every religion and belief system I know other than Christianity is about what we can do to fix things and if there is a God or Gods to get them onside. Christianity says God makes the first move, this is called grace. The ultimate grace is Jesus’ sacrifice of himself, a lightning rod for all of the wrongness that blights life to enable a new start. Beyond that, the gracious offer is his guiding hand through the baffling maze of life.
I was out running on Sunday morning, Father’s day. I ran past a Dad trying to teach his boy to ride a bike. It wasn’t going well. The boy was doing that scared, half crying thing. The dad’s voice was harsh, telling him to get his feet on the pedals. This wasn’t taking place in a park where a soft landing was on offer but a pavement at the side of a main road where the falling off menu comprised hard pavement, hard wall or hard road (with optional squashing under a double decker bus). I’m doubting this ended in success.
For some, that would be their conception of God – harsh, demanding, disappointed. That’s not the God I know – my God is patient, knowing there will need to be second chances, looking to bring out the best.
There’s other ideas of God of course, often shaped by your own experiences of being fathered. As well as harsh dad, you can select others such as ‘soft dad’ and see God in those terms. Many people still believe in some notion of God and for some it’s soft God. This is the idea that God is fundamentally nice and there’s little consequence for any untoward actions. Before we know it, we’re trying to dictate terms to a God like that. Disillusionment can follow up when God doesn’t deliver on our agenda.
So what is the point of prayer and further the point of God if it’s not to get our needs met? Why bother if God can’t always make things right?
I had a quick-fire God conversation with a friend in the pub recently. In the past I would have felt like I needed a spiritual jet pack like on Ghostbusters to obliterate all the arguments. These days I am more like the man I the Bible healed of blindness by Jesus, who is bombarded with questions and just says ‘I was blind and now I see’.
It’s not that I don’t think Christianity is historically credible or philosophically coherent – I do but I can’t tidy all the loose ends and I no longer pretend they don’t dangle. Faith is the hope my friend in the pub, who believes in a soulless, meaningless life, does not possess.
And what of prayer?
Well I’m clear what prayer is not. It is not a performance management tool to get God in line.
Prayer is connection with the source of life and what I am most confident of is that prayer changes me and through that it changes my bit of the world.
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life. Philippians 4:6/7 (The Message)