Taking some time out from my usual creative posts this week I read a little of Pete Greig’s book God on Mute, and it led me to reflect again on the account from Mark 9 v 14-29, when the disciples encounter a distraught father and the heat of an unhappy crowd. It features one of those quotes we can all relate to, one of those moments of great honesty…
‘I believe, help my unbelief.’
The two live within me.
Arguing over who can have more space,
The biggest bedroom.
Battling in my head and will,
In my heart and conscience,
Along with the fear that such things are
Somehow unchristian, not right.
And the feeling that I should
Be able to solve this riddle,
To put it to bed and
Not be bothered by it anymore.
Yet it is life and humanity,
Part of each day’s trouble, temptation and trepidation,
Part of the wonder and woe of being.
I believe, I do, some moments faith is my watchword,
Some days it is barely an issue of believing or not,
Things just are, faith is like breathing.
But there are other days, other moments, weeks, months…
Help my unbelief, please Lord,
In the many times
When it harries me,
Snaps at my heels like an unwelcome dog.
Help me in those times when the two housemates
Squabble like children,
Rebellious siblings vying for attention.
I believe, and in doing so I am often doubting.
And to trust that prayer makes a difference
Means wrestling with the gift of it.
So help me please,
‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’
We live in this strange world of trust and worry, fear and courage, answered prayer and unanswered prayer, questions and concerns, calm and disorder. Our lives contain this rather unsightly (at times) tapestry of positives and negatives. We wish the picture were strong, beautiful, attractive and at times it may be, but there is great release and benefit in being able to admit the truth is more chaotic and calamitous. And I wonder whether this story from Matthew 17 addresses some of that. Firstly we find a bunch of friends having a wonderful experience on a mountain top. It involves heroes and adventure and hope and wonder. Not all mountain tops are like that. Not all are so inspiring and uplifting. But this seems to be, though there is confusion and misunderstanding too. Misplaced hope about what this experience means for the future.
And having had their spirits lifted boom! And biff! The rug is pulled. Life hits the friends like a runaway train, like a cyclone, and we find frustration and agggggghhhhhh! literally expressed. They have come from peace and order to noise and argument. There is a dispute going on and things are falling apart. Some of Jesus’s friends have discovered that they don’t have it all worked out after all. In spite of the fact they have been out and about doing miracles on other days. When Jesus asks the father of the boy for more details the father says something we may often say, his prayer is pained and desperate, ‘Help me if you can!’
We may want to pin down Jesus’s answer as a prescriptive description of prayer, but maybe it’s more than that, hinting at the mystery and frustration of prayer. Jesus mentions fasting but says nothing about how long. He doesn’t say what kind of prayer. Silent. Noisy. Extended. Brief. We know Jesus relied on prayer, it was a lifeline for him, a way of keeping perspective, nurturing his relationship with his father, but we have no idea how he prayed. He may have drawn in the dirt, may have sung, may have recited pieces of Hebrew scripture, may have sat quietly, knowing that silence was enough. He may have poured out his heart in a tumble of hastily constructed sentences, like a child when reporting back on a big adventure. I like that image, the son letting it all out with his dad. So perhaps his answer about prayer and fasting here is way of saying that prayer is in some ways complicated and challenging. Jesus is clearly frustrated, perhaps wishing that his friends were learning a little more quickly.
If I didn’t believe in prayer then I wouldn’t be bothered by it, wouldn’t be wrestling with it. I wonder whether Jesus’s friends had done what I so often do, see it as merely a way of getting God to do things, instead of getting to know God better. I recently read Psalm 88. Now that’s a prayer and a half! And one for those days of struggling. Full of the kind of faith expressed in the aggggggghhhhhhh moments. (And it is faith to express our pain in this way, as much as the expression of joy and praise in the good moments.) Though perhaps, when our hearts are as heavy as the writer of Psalm 88, all we can do is stare at some of the words and let that be our prayer. Pete Greig describes our praying at times being like a person falling downstairs. Yelps and groans and cries.
I’m cautious about winding these few thoughts up too tidily, because really that is the point, this is a ragged story, frayed at the edges, as life is ragged and frayed. But maybe the best way is to reflect on Jesus and his choice to leave the peaceful streets of heaven in order to plant his feet in the scuffed and soiled tracks of earth. God didn’t send a Guide Book, or a bag of answers to life’s quandaries. He didn’t send a walking Wikipedia. He sent a kind and beloved son. If you read on from this passage we find Jesus talking of the greatest mystery, his life laid down for the world. A prayer embodied, and one full of sweat and grime. One that would cost him everything. And one which features that loneliest, most awful of cries, ‘My God, where are you? Why have you let go of my hand? Why have you forsaken me?’ Questions, longings and gut-felt untidy prayers seem to go hand in hand in the Bible. As they do in our lives…