Recently the Church Times ran an article about an art project in Leeds. The idea was simple: people were asked to do a short video responding to the question, “What if you could ask God anything?”
What might you say? The caricature version – what people think we might ask – is that old beauty contest cliché, “world peace”. And of course we do ask for that: we’ll do it again this morning. But do we put limits on the conversation? Do we stick with the good Anglican ideas of what we “ought” to ask? And do we hope that God won’t talk back?
Well, the questions people in Leeds came up with ranged from the theological:
– “Can God be all-knowing if we co-create and participate in a trinitarian relationship that develops and unfolds in a mutual way?” (someone who took their homework very seriously, I’d suggest)
– “why is there so much division in the church when the Bible clearly says there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, we are all one in Christ?”
Via the quirky:
- “So God, why did you create wasps?”
- “Did God have as much fun creating the world as I do creating worlds in Minecraft?” (this one’s easy: I refer you to Job 38:7)
To those which look at relationship:
- “God, if you want people to know you, why does faith seem so complicated?”
- “Is God a person or a process of connection?”
- “God, do you have any regrets?”
- “the Creation story tells us that God was abandoned by that which he’d created…. does God need healing, I wonder?”
- “Is God fair?”
Those are all interesting questions, and I’d be genuinely interested to know what you think, and what you might say. But of course prayer isn’t like a political interview where Jeremy Paxman can make the headlines when a government minister refuses to answer a question 17 times. We know that. Of course we do.
But do we then fall into the trap of assuming that that is God’s role in the conversation? To listen, at best. We can all – I hope – think of times in our lives when we can say “that was an answer to my prayer”, but usually that’s about things that happen: healing, deliverance, guidance in making a decision. And we will also all know that experience of asking the same question 17 times (and more): bringing us neatly back to world peace.
But if we open ourselves to actual conversation with God, we do get the possibility of some unexpected answers. Take Job. Like Alan last week, I love the book of Job. It treats us as grown-ups. It wrestles really seriously with the issue of suffering (taking us back to that last question: “is God fair?”) with all the dreadful things that befall that good man Job: and eventually God responds directly to all of Job’s rage and anger and despair and bewilderment. But he does not do what we might expect and answer Job’s question “why did all this happen to me?”. He simply says “what do you understand about the world?” and speaks about the glory and complexity of creation. We may think that’s a cop out. And we cannot say that we are given a neat answer to the problem of suffering.
But to be fair, Job considers that he has indeed been answered. And God’s parting shot to Job’s friends – who have put forward all sorts of theological explanations that we recognise Christians making today – is that “you have not spoken well of me as my servant Job has.” When we remember Job’s actual words flung at God, we’re forced to conclude that God can indeed take anything we throw at him, and still we haven’t damaged that deep relationship. Job has been nothing but honest throughout, and God honours that.
That is God responding in mighty power, literally out of the whirlwind. But again we shouldn’t limit God to that sort of appearance: when he speaks to Elijah in 1 Kings, we’re told specifically that he is NOT in the fire or the earthquake or the whirlwind that Elijah experiences, but in the sound of utter silence, or as the Authorised Version puts it, “a still, small voice”.
Or on a more human level, the New Testament shows people having a conversation with God all the time, in the figure of Jesus (often not realising of course that that’s what they’re doing). This morning’s Gospel gives us James and John asking a favour of Jesus. Other versions have their mum asking on their behalf, but it’s fundamentally the same thing. When Jesus becomes King, they’re after the top jobs: and in a normal kingdom they’d have a good chance. Powerful people tended to appoint relatives because they trusted them. But this is the Kingdom of God, which doesn’t work by the same rules. No-one – other than Jesus himself – could at that time have visualised the defeated Messiah hanging on the Cross, dying between two thieves and outcasts.
Here the answer Jesus gives to the request in this conversation is quite clearly “NO”. But he softens it by saying that things are to be different in the Kingdom. The greatest thing they can do – that anyone can do – is to serve. That is, after all, who the Son of Man really is.
Hebrews reinforces this message by connecting that life of service and sacrifice to eternal salvation. And in case we are tempted to think that Jesus was very serene about all this, because he was in on the divine plan, we are reminded that he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”, but he still went through with it.
So the Bible shows us all sorts of conversations with God: joy and praise, lamentation, pleading and despair. We don’t have to keep to polite Anglican topics in case God thinks we’re being rude. And we shouldn’t be surprised to get an answer, even if that answer is no. A proper conversation isn’t one-sided, and in the cosmic scheme of things God wants what’s best for us. Keep talking and keep listening.
Still dunno about the wasps, though…