Transcript: Episode 14
Advent reflection on prayer in the darkness
This episode as we’re in the season of advent it felt appropriate to me to spend a bit of time thinking about prayer and in particular, prayer in the darkness. Thinking really about how prayer can be useful to us when things are not so easy. And the reason that advent made me think about this is that actually as we’re in the middle of winter, in the middle of the darkness, coming up to a season that sometimes has a lot of pressure around it to be having fun and for things to be good it can really highlight when things are hard in our lives. And there’s a real question around what place does prayer play in those situations. Because on the one hand we know we have a God who can help us and it makes sense to pray. On the other hand there can be real pressures almost to spiritually perform in such times and there are real questions that come up if we are wanting to pray in a way that is really about wanting to make situations change, when we know that prayer doesn't always actually change situations.
That doesn’t mean it’s not useful to us but it's not like a tool that you can get out of a toolkit and make everything alright. But there is sometimes a pressure for that to happen.
As I was thinking about this I remembered that a number of years ago I went on a short term mission trip to Kosovo. We were going to do a bit of kids work to teach some english to people. And while we were there, I got a tummy bug, which is not unusual. It was fairly grim. It was hot. I was feeling particularly lousy so I went back to bed.
And there I was lying on the floor, trying not to move lest that require yet another trip to the toilet when a couple of Christians who were part of our team came to pray for me. And they were from a particular church in Albania. We were an international team and they were from a church and from a Christian culture which had a huge amount of faith that if you prayed for something, God would do something about it and things would change. God would hear you and it would all get sorted. So. They thought the best thing they could do was come and pray for me. I said ‘yeah, that’s fine. If you want to pray for me that's great.” So they prayed for me. I was still feeling lousy. But then they started asking questions about whether I believed that God would heal me. And my response was “Well, I believe that God can heal me.”
“Ah yes, but do you believe that God will heal you.”
I said “I think that God can heal me but I wasn't feeling any better.” But they did not feel that my response that I believed God could heal me was showing sufficient faith for healing to actually happen. So at that point the problem apparently was that I was not spiritual enough. If i believed that God would heal me, definitely, 100% I would feel better and all would be fine.
So what they then proceeded to do was to give me some instruction about what my faith ought to be like. And when I wasn't responding to them in the way that they thought I should more and more of them came upstairs and what started as a friendly, concerned, ‘we’ll come and pray for you,’ turned into a bit of what felt like a spiritual mob attack as I was lying there feeling grim surrounded by people who were haranguing me really and explaining that if I understood the Bible properly, and if I’d got proper faith and if I believed that God would heal me then all would be well.
One of them talked about the fact that on one occasion she had the flu and she'd prayed and she didn't feel any better but she believed that God had healed her because she had faith in what the Bible said - I’m not sure that the Bible does say what she was suggesting that it does - but anyway because she had faith in God she got up and got on with her day and she was better. The implication being that even if I wasn't feeling like I was healed I ought to get up and get on with my day and all would be well.
I didn’t. I stayed there. But what really struck me as I was thinking about that today is that in actual fact, in that situation prayer did not help in fact prayer added to my suffering. If you’ve listened to last week’s episode, I was chatting to Hannah Lamberth and she was sharing an occasion when she was really really struggling with the sleeplessness of one of her children and getting almost no sleep at all and in that desperate sleep deprived state one of the Christians in her life helpfully suggested that what she should do was get up earlier in order to pray for an hour. And of course the the impact of that - she only did it the once - was that she felt even more lousy than ever. So prayer often is sold to us as this thing which will sort things out. But actually when we're in the middle of things that are difficult, when we’re realistic about, when we recognise that although miracles do happen and although God does sort things out, that isn’t always what occurs.
And so there becomes I think a real question around how can prayer be helpful to us if we're not saying that things are necessarily going to be sorted out. Now I do know that
God intervenes miraculously in peoples lives sometimes. The divine steps in and things do change in the material way on occasions, but quite often that’s not what happens.
That doesn't mean though that prayer’s not helpful. It can be immensely helpful and a huge blessing in the middle of the darkest of times. But I think it's really important to understand how that works and what is the kind of prayer and what is the attitude to prayer that is really actually going to be helpful. So that if you are in the middle of advent and things are difficult, you do need prayer and you need a connection with God which is actually gonna be useful to you and is going to make a difference.
So I wanted to think about what are some of the elements of the way that we pray and the way that we connect with God, what we can expect that actually will be helpful in the middle of the darkness. Just a few things from my own experience of when things have been tough.
The first thing is it's really important to have space somewhere to talk honestly about our pain, about how we’re feeling. To express how we’re feeling. And you can talk to God about how you’re feeling. Your conversation with the divine can be really honest.
Sometimes it's only when we start to honestly express what's going on for us that we realise just how awful and difficult things are. But that honesty is where the healing starts. Often we could be tempted to ignore the difficult stuff that is going on inside, not face it and it just kind of sits there, festering.
What is interesting is that nowhere in the Bible do we find people putting on a brave face on things and pretending that things are okay when they're not. By contrast what we find is that the Bible is absolutely full of people telling God exactly how they feel.
The book of Lamentations is several chapters of exactly that. Of Jeremiah being really really fed up and down and depressed about what's going on in Israel. Many of the psalms. The book of Job is chapter after chapter of Job expressing how he felt. In psalm 22 David says this:
My God, my God why have you forsaken me. Why is your rescue so far from me? So far from my words of anguish? I call by night and you don’t answer. I call by day and I find no relief. But I am a worm, not even human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me deride me. They curl their lips, they shake their heads. “He trusted in the Lord, let him save hime. Let him release him.”
To be honest, to say that David was having a bad day or a difficult time of it when he wrote that is a bit of an understatement. And actually the psalms are a really good place to go if you're looking for a way of expressing your anguish to God and you're not quite sure that you can say it in your own words.
There are lots and lots of psalms where people are expressing to God exactly how it is and exactly how they’re feeling. Jesus drew on psalm 22 when he was on the cross and you can kind of see why.
So honesty would be the first thing. And what we discover when we are honest with God is that God is incredibly empathic. When we have the courage to face the darkness honestly it is God’s empathic presence that we meet. It's really interesting in the story of Elijah. Elijah gets to the point in his life and in his ministry where he has really absolutely had enough. He's been doing some fairly amazing things but he's just got to the end of his tether and he flees. Just getting away from everything and he has a conversation with God where he tells God how he’s feeling about everything and he lies down, and he goes to sleep and God provides him with some food miraculously. And he goes on a 40 day trek in the wilderness and then he meets God and the first thing that God says to Elijah is ‘what are you doing here?’ and Elijah has another rant about how dreadful things are and how he’s feeling.
And what really interests me about that story is that God responds very empathically to Elijah but he's been on this rant presumably for 40 days. I can't believe that he just brought the subject up when he had the conversation with God after 40 day of wandering. I think he’s been countering for all of that time. And what’s really interesting is that there is no sense of God saying “that’s enough, I don’t want to listen to this anymore.” What you get is a really understanding empathic response from God and God gives him space to express his feelings again despite the fact that he's been countering for 40 days on his journey. God again asks him questions that enable him to express aloud honestly what's going on for him. And our honesty combined with God’s gentle empathy brings strength and it brings a rest and it brings healing.
There is a beautiful couple of verses in Matthew where Jesus says:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.
And it's meeting that gentleness and that humbleness actually of God, that empathy that understanding, which can bring real solace in the middle of the difficulty. So those would be the first things. Being really honest about how things are. Trusting that what you're going to meet is empathy. And you can have empathy for yourself. I think that's really important. If God is having empathy for you, you can have empathy for yourself. There is no need to berate yourself for where you’re at. You can be gentle and have compassion in the way that you listen to what is going on inside of you.
So those would be the first things. And then I would say that we can find what I would refer to as streams in the desert.
Margaret Silf, in one of her books, says this:
Prayer, if it is honest, does not deny the darkness in our hearts and the anguish in our lives but it can lead us to the streams in our desert and the morsels of food that we never expected.
So just as Elijah, on his kind of trek through the desert was fed by God and finds provision, we can find it too. And I would say that a very helpful prayer practice when things are difficult is to deliberately look out for those signs of grace. Because, when we’re feeling really low they can be easy to miss. So you can think that you're alone but actually it may well be that there are still people around.
On a much simpler level I can remember one day in particular feeling particularly low finding things particularly difficult. I had bought myself a bunch of flowers when I had been to the supermarket earlier that week and I made myself a cup of tea and simply sat in front of some daffodils. And that sounds like a simple thing to do and given all of the chaos that was going on in my life in one sense it was almost sort of beside the point. Except that it wasn't because even when things are difficult the good things are still good. So taking time in God’s presence to notice the beauty
Around us and the good we’re still experiencing can bring us solace and even joy.
Even when life is hard, the good things are still good. The sunrises are still beautiful. The ducks on the canal are still gorgeous. Things are still good. Even when some things are hard there will be other things that are good and very often I do think that God brings to us just morsels of grace that help us to get through. Little love letters if you like. If we've got our eyes open to them. So part of a practice of prayer I would say is noticing those things.
The next thing that I would say is that it's actually very helpful if you can keep in mind that there will be some meaning in the middle of the suffering. Not that the suffering happened for a reason, because often the suffering doesn’t happen for a reason or certainly not for a good reason. So that whole thing people say about ‘well it all happens for a reason’. Very often the reasons people are finding just do not match up to the trauma and the difficulty and the hurt that has occurred. So that’s not quite what I’m meaning. But. I certainly find it helpful to know that suffering is not pointless but it can have meaning. And actually this is a theme throughout the New Testament and in particular the concept that suffering can produce personal growth.
So this is a letter written by somebody called James. He says:
My brothers and sisters consider it a great joy when trials of many kinds come upon you, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance and perseverance must complete its work for you to be fully mature, complete, not deficient in any way.
I think what james is saying is that actually suffering does something within us that can be of value. You probably will have known people whose lives have been difficult and who are mature and complete to and who have a beauty about them that is partly a result of the pain that they've been through and the way it has shaped them. So our prayer in difficult times can usefully include listening to our lives and to God to see where we are learning and where we are growing. And that really isn’t to diminish the fact that things can be flipping difficult.
One of the one of the revolutionary things about the New Yestament and about the story of Jesus is that pain is kind of included. Jesus at one point says don’t worry about tomorrow for
Each day has enough trouble of its own. And that’s a really honest honest kind of sentiment. And james is not the only New Testament writer who talks about the fact that from suffering good things come.
I can definitely see in my own life that there is a resilience and a strength and an ability to understand other people and to be more compassionate that has come from the things that have been really tricky and it has been very very helpful for me to know that in the midst of the things which are difficult actually there is a core part of me that is changing and being shaped for the good as a result of that. And even when things have been really tough that has been one of the things that has been really helpful to hold onto.
So to be in the presence of God and to know that I am sort of in the core of my being safe. And the core of my being is becoming stronger and is being shaped and is changing through what’s going on I’ve found very helpful.
And then there is something about finding refuge. Simply taking time to be at rest with God in the midst difficulty can actually bring great solace in whatever way that works for you. Some people find that singing can be really helpful. It may be that simply going for a walk and noticing the nature and the beauty around you if that's your thing. It might be that simply sitting quietly having a cup of coffee and remembering that God loves you, that God is gazing upon you with love, can be really really helpful. Knowing that God is a refuge. Knowing that you don’t have to be doing anything. You don't have to be praying loudly and working harder.
You can simply be and simply know that God is with you. Padraig O Tuama I heard quoting in an interview an Irish phrase that translates
You are the place I stand when my feet are sore
I think that is a great description of the prayer of refuge.
So we’ve talked about honesty, being honest about where we’re at. We’ve talked about empathy, having empathy for ourselves and understanding that God has empathy for us. Which actually makes it safe to do the honesty. We talked about looking out for the streams in the desert, the moments that help us to keep going and there will be those. We’ve also talked about the fact that we can find meaning and we can trust that something good will come out of what’s going on. And that doesn’t diminish the difficulty of what’s happening but we can trust that we are not going to be crushed by it actually. And we can find refuge in God. Despite how things are there is a place of refuge.But that’s not a place where you have to work hard.
And I think some of the prayer that can be most toxic is the prayer that requires a lot of your energy at a point when you don’t have it to give and that is expecting you to make something happen. Actually simply knowing that God is gazing upon you with love might be all that you need and expecting great spiritual efforts from yourself in times of difficulty is not kind or compassionate I would say. But there will be things that are helpful to you.
And lastly I would want to kind of balance out what I’ve been saying I guess. It's really important to acknowledge that not all suffering is meant to be patiently endured without challenge. Sometimes the pain we’re experiencing is a call to do something about it. Emotional pain, in particular, like physical pain has a purpose. It tells us that something is wrong.
If you keep stubbing your toe against the same piece of furniture, if you’ve got any sense you will move it. So pain is quite often a call to action. There is something about, when we’re facing pain, being able to work out what pain is creating positive change in us and what isn’t. What is it that we need to resist? What is calling us to change? And taking those questions to a place of prayer can be immensely helpful. I said that we can have confidence that things won’t destroy us. And as I was saying that, I had the sense that that’s not always true. I think this is the point that sometimes you do have to make something change.
Not doing the powerless waiting for God to sort something out with all the angst that can come along with that but actually praying about, OK, so what do I need to do. And sometimes God does step in and miraculously change stuff. But knowing the difference between pain that we need to simply walk through and take strength from our friends from our faith from ourselves in order to do that, and when is it a call to action, to create change. Sometimes pain is telling us that we're in the wrong place. Or that there are emotional issues within us that need to be courageously faced and brought into the light and sorted out.
So this is not a plea for passivity. But just an acknowledgement that the kind of ‘let’s pray very hard and ignore how we’re feeling and make things happen’ is probably not the way to go. In fact I think it’s definitely not the way to go.
And actually if you've done all the things that I've talked about first, about being honest about finding God’s empathy about finding the good stuff about trusting that there’s meaning in things, if you do come to the point where it's very obvious that you need to make a change, you'll be doing it from a different place than if you'vd kind of started with that.
It strikes me that the message of advent, actually, is that God was prepared to come and live with us in this messy tricky difficult world. That Jesus came as emmanuel. Knowing that that is the case we know that God’s purpose very often is to simply be with us compassionately in the middle of the difficult. Because actually that's what God did in coming to walk amongst us on this earth. So as we head into Christmas, the thing to take from it, if things are really tricky for you is that Jesus, that God, is walking with you.
And that’s what we’re hoping for. The coming of the one who comes to be with us in the middle of everything. So I hope that you can take something from this of use and I wish you a very very lovely advent.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved, Called, Gifted podcast. If you'd like to get in touch you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org And you can find our website and lovedcalledgifted.com. Thank you for listening.