You haven’t done this before…

One of the daily pleasures in my life is the devotional I receive in my inbox each morning from Dr. Micha Jazz. He writes with the humility of someone who knows he’s on a journey, and not the assuredness verging on arrogance of some who seem to think they’ve reached their destination and have all the answers. But while he continues to seek, he’s built up a great store of quiet wisdom that he shares along with honest accounts of his struggles, disappointments… and hope.

Today I want to share his devotional from 19 October 2017, titled “You haven’t done this before.” I expect I will share others in the future. You can subscribe to his email or podcast version of the devotional at Be Still & Know.

“You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.”

John 16:24 NLT

Ageing has its benefits. While I don’t like the aches and pains, or the physical challenges around the garden that some years ago I’d have taken in my stride, I do enjoy the ability to see life in context. Where once I was a blind slave to consumerism, feeding and serving my acquisitive nature, with the benefit of age I have found freedom to live without, in contrast to living wanting.

Understanding is one thing, practise something else altogether! I recall always wanting the latest technology to play with. My family teased me relentlessly as I begged, borrowed (yet never stole) to acquire the latest gadget. I am an early adopter by nature and stretched myself financially to buy a first-generation Prius hybrid car. And as for books, my shelves were filled with partially read volumes I coveted and purchased. Today, I am pleased to say I am free from all that. I now know what I want and why.

My prayer life was also pretty acquisitive in the early days. I mistook Jesus’ invitation to ask for anything I wanted as a blank cheque to fill my life with my own desires. In fact, Jesus was speaking to his disciples about Pentecost, when they would receive the Holy Spirit and subsequently discern what it was that the kingdom on earth required of them, and their dynamic friendship with God. In other words, praying is always to seek to see God’s will happen on the earth. Where once I prayed through a list, now I simply offer those I am praying for to God, and hold them in God’s presence that God’s will might be done in their life on earth.

The joy that flows from prayer is not about securing my material happiness, but about seeking the presence of God in the earth. This may have a material effect, but such an effect is no objective measure of the work of God. Jesus also invites us to go on praying (see Luke 18:1-8). Pray and then pray again, and after that pray again.

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Goldilocks and the Three Prayers

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. I started watching regularly towards the end of the Tom Baker era, and Peter Davison was the first Doctor I saw from beginning to end, so I guess those two are my ‘favourites’ though I can see merits in all of them (yes all of them!)

I’ve enjoyed the 21st Century reboot as well, but there was one particular change that bothered me. I think it bothered me so much that I even complained about it on internet message boards! It was the change in episode format and story length.

In the good old days the episode was generally around 25 minutes long, and a story typically ran over 4 episodes. That gave opportunities for classic (or not-so-classic) cliffhangers, but more importantly it gave a degree of flexibility to the story length. If necessary the story could be spread over a shorter or longer number of episodes – I remember the all time great Genesis of the Daleks was a 6-parter. In theory you could also have a one-off 25 minute story if you wanted to. Somewhere in my archives I probably have a list of all the stories that I could check to see if they ever did that – but I won’t!

The reboot changed the format more in line with the current US TV vogue. There was a 13 episode ‘season’ which had on underlying/overarching storyline ‘arc’, but within that were 45 minute episodes that were usually self-contained stories. Yes there was the occasional 2-parter but they were the exception, and in any case putting together 45 minute episodes naturally gives less flexibility than 25 minute ones.

Many stories work brilliantly within that format, but more often than I’d like, I’d see stories that seemed either padded out or squeezed to fit them into the required number of minutes. In my perfect world I would let the writers write a story that worked, of whatever length was necessary, and I’d let the director film it in as many parts, of whatever length, so that they would work on screen for maximum audience satisfaction. So a 30 minute story one week could be followed by a 2 hour TV movie the next, followed by a 90 minute story spread over two weeks with a terrific cliffhanger in the middle.

Of course that’s not how TV schedules work these days – I don’t know if they ever did. If you want the flexibility to produce a moving picture that is the perfect length for the story you want to tell, cinema is your best hope.

Other art forms aren’t as restricted by schedules – although some might be moving that way, as Billy Joel noted in his 1974 song The Entertainer:

I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You’ve heard my latest record,
It’s been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song.
But it ran too long.
If you’re gonna have a hit,
You gotta make it fit –
So they cut it down to 3:05.

I recall a magazine interview Mark Knopfler gave, back in the late 1980s I think, although he’s told the story on other occasions. He spoke about being in a bar, listening to “Telegraph Road” which was on the jukebox, and he found it overlong, overblown and lifeless. Straight afterwards, he heard Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”, about 13 minutes shorter, which was the complete opposite, and to Knopfler’s ears sounded so much better for it.

Of course he wasn’t comparing apples even with oranges, but rather with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Completely different songs, trying to achieve entirely different results, with entirely different things to say. Each one works perfectly well in its own terms.

You might be wondering by now, just what all this has to do with my Christian journey? Well these examples were brought to mind when I was reflecting on this blog. What I like about the blog format is that I can write as much or as little as I want on a particular subject. I can even produce a series of posts on a theme (as I intend to shortly) to extend the scope wider if I feel it’s necessary.

But I’m still not convinced that I’m getting it right. There’s a danger of me writing too much, and just getting boring, or overly-analytical. I feel there’s even more danger of me not writing enough. I usually think about my posts for a few days before I write, though some are more spontaneous. I’ll tend to write them out in draft form, then read over them again a short time later to correct obvious grammar problems and generally tidy them up. But still I often look back on a post and realise that there was so much more I could have added to explain my thoughts, and my faith, more clearly.

Hopefully I will improve as a writer over the next weeks, months and years. And one of the advantages of a blog is that I can go back later to revise them if I really need to, although I’ll try to avoid that if possible, and maybe add links to better articles, or footnotes, instead. I’m not George Lucas and this blog isn’t Star Wars. I’ll try to avoid tinkering. If Greedo should have shot first, then I can only apologise.

Thinking about this also reminded me of other places where I’ve noticed the problem in Christian life. And the first of these is in sermons.

I haven’t been a Christian for that long – less than four years at the time of writing. I don’t have a vast personal experience of the variety of preaching styles that are available, but I’ve heard a few, and I’ve also heard that one of the hallmarks of some denominations can be the length of sermons. I hope I’m not stating the obvious when I say that I don’t mind how long the sermon is, as long as it’s appropriate for the message being delivered. Actually I hope I am stating the obvious there!

I was troubled to read this statement by James MacDonald in an article titled 5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word (on page 3):

“Twenty minute sermons”

I don’t know how it works at your church, but for us it takes 5 minutes to set the rig up and another 5 or 10 minutes to take it down. If you’re only preaching for 20 minutes, that gives you 5 minutes to drill. You’re not going very deep, are you? It takes some time.

Judging by the comments on the article there were several others who shared my concern. Of course, I’m not arguing in any way that 20 minutes is always long enough to explain even a single verse, but 45 minutes? An hour? 2 hours? How much is enough? How much can the congregation take? How much will sink in? If you preach the most devastatingly insightful and life changing message of the last 2000 years, but you’ve lost your audience, then what glory will God get from it?

Some services are unrestricted, while others are strictly scheduled, especially when multiple services are running through the day, so the preacher’s hands may be tied in some respects. But I would like to think that room can be found for flexibility in most cases.

I’m not going to make arguments comparing Jesus’ sermons and teaching, because what is written doesn’t necessarily reflect everything He said, and there are often layers of meaning to read into His words. But at other times He was able to encapsulate a major message in the simplest of ways, and that simplicity is something I cherish and want more of from my spiritual leaders.

There is a time for every sermon under the sun. Sometimes that time will be 20 minutes or less. Sometimes it will be 2 hours or more. Let wisdom decide.

And finally to something I’ve struggled with many times – prayer.

I’ve thought about prayer a lot over the years. Talked about it. Prayed about it! No doubt I’ll blog about it plenty in the future. I don’t understand how it can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time – particularly public prayer.

More than once I’ve been asked to pray at the start or end of an occasion, and the person before me has reeled off what seems an unfeasibly long prayer, full of the right turns of phrase, and making my own words that follow feel pitifully inadequate. In some circles there’s almost a cachet surrounding lengthy prayer.

But again, does the content justify the length? I don’t believe any of the people listening to the prayer need to be told the same thing in half a dozen ways. And I’m absolutely sure that God doesn’t. It saddens me that I’ve found myself not sharing a sense of God’s presence on occasions but instead thinking of Jesus’ words:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

(Matthew 6:5-13)

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words in the New King James Version. Of course that’s not enough to cover everything that you may wish to pray about on every occasion, but as a model it comprehensively refutes the idea that a lengthy prayer has more innate worth than a short one. And in case you want another example, turn to Luke 18, and say together with me:

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

But I say yet again that a short prayer isn’t always appropriate either. It’s all about proportion and balance. I’ve had quiet times alone with God when my prayers have gone on for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more. God knows it all already, so it’s really for my benefit as my conversation with Him helps me understand more clearly the situation and what He wants me to do in it.

And there will be times of corporate prayer where much does need to be said, and something serious will be lost if we short-change ourselves.

So let’s use the right prayer for the right occasion, be it 7 words, or 66, or 1000. And let’s give God thanks for the amazing privilege of speaking to Him directly about whatever concerns us.

(1894 words, excluding this line!)

Update 8 November 2012 – This article describes a different perspective on the length of church services, and sermons. I don’t agree with the rigid structure it suggests, but I can see its merits, unlike most of the commentators!