...but the remaining with God.
Someone shared this quotation with me a while ago. Quotations are all around us, more now than ever, it seems. On mugs, teatowels, printed and arranged on artistic faux-wooden plaques to hang on the wall, and, of course, on the walls of Facebook. Even today I have probably scrolled past half a dozen or so quotations. Quotations are everywhere; some witty, some profound, some thought-provoking, many, well, let's be honest, instantly forgettable.
So why has this one stayed with me?
Well, firstly, because it intrigued me. So often prayer is talked about in terms of what it promises; we might believe that prayer promises peace, joy, healing, and meaning. Some people, although I am not among them, believe that prayer promises more material rewards too. As someone who is privileged to live with the luxuries of a full fridge, a heated home and good, free schooling for my children, it seems obscene to me to see prayer primarily as a means of acquisition of yet more stuff when millions around the world live in squalour and poverty with no realistic way out.
I know this, and yet it is so easy to slip into the shopping list mentality when we pray. Maybe this is partly because as well as being surrounded by quotations, we are also surrounded by advertising which shows us, over and over again, what we haven't got. I bought a well-known women's fashion magazine this week (there was a free lip gloss on the cover) and, having not seen one of these magazines for a while, I had forgotten that the are, essentially, a brochure of consumer adverts with the occasional editorial (which was mostly about more stuff that you can buy). We live in a shopping list world. I was reading a friend's blog about Christmas and consumerism last night, and as I was reading, my daughter, who was sitting across the living room from me, texted me her new updated Christmas list; talk about timing! No wonder the temptation to approach prayer in terms in terms of what it can get us is so strong; it's how we live today.
Yet the heart of Christianity is relationship, a profound relationship between God and humans, made possible only by the God-human, Jesus. And I think I'd go so far as to say that the heart of life itself is relationship, relationships with ourselves, others, and ultimately, God. I was listening to the wonderful, much-covered Nat King Cole song Nature Boy the other day which puts it better than I could:
'This he said to me:
"The greatest thing
you'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
You can't go into Sainsbury's and buy that; how pitifully empty the lives of those who substitute stuff for love can be.
So, back to prayer, which, as the quotation has it, promises nothing but the remaining with God. What does that even mean? Well, I take it to mean that prayer is all about entering into the mystery of relationship with the unseen but ever-present God who is himself love. Whatever else it might be, prayer is, at heart, relationship. It is the deepest expression of who we are, crying out to the Spirit who indwells us to fill us more, draw us deeper, show us more of this incredible reality that is the love for which we exist, asking for this love to overspill into our wounded, fractured world and to pour into that world the only thing that could ever bring true peace and healing; the presence of the Spirit of God himself. Or, to put it more concisely, an ancient prayer of the church: 'Come, Holy Spirit.'
What the coming of the Holy Spirit may mean is not ours to preempt. If we pray this truly, what we are doing is, effectively, ripping up the shopping list and standing with open hands to beckon God himself to come and fill our emptiness. It means knowing that stuff, even what we perceive to be spiritual stuff, is a poor substitute for the presence of God himself. It means recognising that the only ultimate answer to our deepest prayer is a richer, deeper revelation of the remaining with God. Which is exactly what prayer promises.
I'll probably blog more about Christmas as it draws near. But for now, suffice it to say Christmas can either be approached as a consumer-fest, a wishlist blowout, or as an invitation to enter more deeply into the incredible, unpriceable gift of God with us. Prayer is much the same.