LIGHT TOUCH INTERCESSION
As God shapes the pottery, he invites us to place our hands around his in prayer. As we grow more confident, he asks us to put pressure on his hands in the right places.
What is the point of reading books which purport to tell us what is going to happen in the future? Let me take you back to 1979, which is more or less half a generation ago. Three things happened that year which altered the course of history but in ways which were entirely unforeseen as the year began.
Firstly, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. This was not unexpected, given the so-called Winter of Discontent which preceded the election, but it heralded the dismantling of the post-war welfare consensus and the re-assertion of free market economics. This outcome wasn’t as clear as people think it is with the benefit of hindsight. Secondly, the Shah of Iran went into exile, precipitating the Iranian revolution. At the time, it was unclear whether this was going to be a Shia or a Communist revolution, but it became the former, ushering in an era of Islamic resurgence. Thirdly, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly to prop up a failing friendly regime. Many thought it was a break-out that would create a route from Russia to the Indian Ocean. In fact, it lit the fuse for the implosion of the Soviet empire and the funding by the CIA of radical Islamic factions in Afghanistan which led to 9/11, the war in Iraq and all that followed. All this, half a generation ago.
I don’t think you’ll find many specialists in 1979 that saw much, if any, of this happening. Since then, further developments have astonished us as we passively receive the evening news. The end of communist rule everywhere in Europe, apart from Belarus; the eruption of Islamic extremism among its general resurgence; the rise of inequality within nations at the same time as poorer nations began to be lifted out of poverty; the fracturing of Arab regimes across the Mediterranean rim and an unprecedented exodus of refugees; the digital revolution, which is entirely re-shaping our common social and economic life. This latter, digital, development is in its infancy though we imagine it is fully formed. It ensures we are living in an accelerated culture, but our current experience of its speed is no more than a taxiing to the runway before the jet engines are powered; what lies ahead of us still is a vertiginous climb at an extraordinary velocity, taking us to places we are unfamiliar with and unsure about.
Jesus said, pray ‘your kingdom come on earth as in heaven’. So how on earth do we pray into contexts we understand so little of? One answer is to focus on specific human stories and to pray the kingdom of God will emerge in lives like the fresh green roots of spring. This is an excellent way of earthing our desire for God’s will to be done. Most of us, though, think there is more to prayer and this is evidenced in our public intercessions, which often revolve round big global issues. There are two risks attached to this. The first is that we are steered only by the editorial decisions of our national media and so pick up and drop issues as quickly as the media moves on to the next big event, creating a sense of permanent crisis and disorientation which can disable our public prayers.
The second is assuming we know what to pray. The failed Arab Spring is a good example of this. Colonel Gaddafi and Presidents Mubarak and Assad were ruthless autocrats with atrocious human rights records, so when the Arab Spring rippled out from its unlikely origin in Tunisia, many prayed for freedom for Arab people from their tyranny. The problem is, we had no grasp of what might lie ahead and some of us, in retrospect, might have looked like the spiritual wing of NATO. It is not enough to pray that the mighty are cast down from their thrones; it is essential we pray that the humble poor are lifted up at the same time. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum; Satan, I suspect, loves one. As Jesus said, when a spirit goes out of a man but returns to its house, it may find it swept clean and ready for seven other spirits to make the place their abode and the last state is worse than the first. The failure to visualise outcomes is a human trait and it calls for us to be less controlling in prayer, for we do not always know what we ask for.
It is said that God does not always give us what we want because he knows it won’t be good for us; thankfully, I am sure this is true of our prayer for the world. What we ask for isn’t necessarily the right thing. I am sure God protects others from the ignorance of our intercessions, but we should aim to become wiser and smarter in our prayers for the big questions of our time.
Perhaps the worst kind of sloppiness in prayer is the assumption that God’s will always gets done. It doesn’t. People are sometimes surprised when this is said. There is a spirituality that has more to Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be, than Jesus’ call to pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Fatalism is a virus that can infect our theology and our prayer, undermining the sense that the world is in the wrong shape and there is something we can do about it even while we sit there.
The notion that God’s will does not always get done may feel frightening to some, but any theology which does not cohere with reality is suspect. How can it be God’s will that refugees drown in the Mediterranean Sea, dissidents suffer in the North Korean gulag and babies die of AIDS in southern Africa? If we believe God loves us with an everlasting love, how can any of these outcomes and more be a reflection of his character?
God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. We are familiar with the idea of God being the potter, but it is not just we who are the clay, the world Jesus came to redeem is the clay too. As he shapes the pottery, he invites us to place our hands around his, to sense the movement of the fingers and to become used to them. As we grow more confident, he invites us to put pressure on his hands in the right places, to mould what he is making. Sometimes we may exert our strength in the wrong places, temporarily mis-shaping the pottery, requiring God to make it good again. But over time, we learn to move his fingers, to mould something beautiful and strong; a work of art that will last. This is the light touch of intercession, where we share in the making of the kingdom.
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