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Storm Babet and Prayer

A Kairos Wednesday Discussion Starter

In my email at the end of October, I mentioned that I’d battled storm Babet and the flooding in Derbyshire to attend a course at Cliff College, only to be informed on arrival that the course had been cancelled.  I could stay overnight, at the expense of the course organisers if I wished, I was informed.  The journey had been arduous.  There were several moments I wondered if I’d make it, and be stuck in the middle of nowhere.  At times there were literal rivers of water flowing and crisscrossing the steep roads I was driving, many 3 inches deep in the middle, and nearer a foot deep at the edges, stones and debris strewing the roads.  I’d ploughed through several dips in the road with 6-8 inches of water flowing across them, and been swamped numerous times by tidal waves created by oncoming cars.  I decided to pause, grab a quick lunch and consider my options.  Cliff College, is, of course, run by the Methodist church, and has a community who reside there all year around.  Those also gathering for lunch, some completing their weekly courses, were also being informed of the state of the roads and offered a similar decision.  Lots of conversation ensued, to which I added my recent observations, clearly unsettling many.  The one person, stood up, and said, “This might be radical but…can I pray?”.  There is of course no other answer in a Christian establishment than yes.  The dining room fell silent and his prayer evoked the all-powerful God of the elements, rain and storm, urging both a let-up in the storm, but also safe travelling for those who chose to leave. The prayer made me uneasy.  I didn’t object to it, far from it, I felt cared for and appreciated the sentiment.  Why shouldn’t we pray? 

John Wesley on his voyage to America, full of missionary zeal, encountered a storm and feared for his life.  He records praying with a family, one of whom brought to him a baby to be baptised, fearing they might lose their lives. A little later John records joining some German Moravians who were singing and worshipping even as a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured into their cabins.  The Moravians continued, seemingly untroubled, and speaking to them later John discovered, that they were unafraid because they knew even if they lost their lives, God would never let them go.  According to the Methodist church website’s recounting of the tale,  “All the time John was nagged by the thought that he did not have full faith in God. But this was about to change.”

 I was left feeling equally troubled by the prayer, why did it not occur to me to pray?  Did I really think it would do any good?  Part of me questioned the notion that God might answer a prayer for my journey home, and yet, somehow not answer an equally fervent prayer to bring peace in Israel and Gaza, but that of course suggests God has a finite well of love, and the ability to help, which I don’t believe. However, if God could intervene so overtly, why does he not?  For the most part, I find it easier to understand how God intervenes through human beings, and more subtle nudges and mindset changes.  It’s almost easier to see how God might influence a war, through peacemakers and the encouraging of paradigm shifts in thinking, than calming a storm.  (Even though I accept in the bible there is a story asserting Jesus did just that!).   

With a full stomach, foolishly perhaps,  I decided I would try and make the journey home and then was immediately troubled about my decision.  Had I made that choice, because I now felt safe and that God was with me?  Had I in effect ignored my own very real fears and experience on the journey there, wondering if I’d arrive safe?  Was I ignoring the God who through the hospitality and generosity of others, was offering me a safe place to stay?  Was I ignoring the God who had raised the question of the safety of my travelling at all through those present?   Don’t get me wrong, I often pray for people and situations, but what do I believe?   I am confident, that prayer, enables me to hear God’s leading.  I’m confident that the sharing offers me some peace.  The very act of prayer, of steadying my breathing, of being quiet, enables my body to still, reduces the ‘fight or flight’ adrenalin-fueled bodily response to stressors,  allowing my parasympathetic nervous system to take control and ‘rest and digest’ instead.  The prayer mantras and centring processes calm my muscles and enable my breath to fall into the 5.5 breaths in and out a minute that is life-giving and calming.   The whole process, even without a spiritual dimension improves my mental clarity and health (even atheist scientists concur on those points).  And of course, I believe there is a spiritual dimension.  However, the praying  I have just described is a very different sort of prayer, to the arrow prayer just prayed in a busy dining hall at the college.  What do I think of that?  Is there something better, more powerful, about a prayer shared?   I recently was chatting to a retired Methodist minister, suffering from terminal cancer.  He admitted to me, that he too had always been a little dismissive of the prayers offered in church for people in his situation.  He’d offered them, out of a sense of duty, but had his doubts as to their effectiveness.   However, he added, his recent experience of being cut off from his friends,  his church and housebound,  he could not deny, the sense of peace, and the feeling of being held, by the prayers people were praying.  He felt, as the Moravians had on that ship with Wesley, calm in his personal storm.  This experience of being prayed for, rather than the one leading the prayers, had re-shaped his belief.  We would say, his faith had shifted.  Add to this conversation, the fact that in recent weeks, I have been able to rejoice with him in an all-clear diagnosis, or as he put it “I’m still in the departure lounge, but my flight has been postponed” feels more than a minor miracle.  Suffice it to say, I also thank God for bringing me safe home from my travels, even with my doubts and questions still hanging!

Possible Questions to Mull Over and conversation starters for our Kairos Gathering.

What has been your journey or relationship with prayer?

What modes of prayer do you find most helpful?

Have you felt discomforted by a prayer?

Does praying with others change things?

Are there things which we just shouldn’t pray for?

As your faith has shifted, has it changed your prayer life?

Is the very idea of prayer a barrier, or a doorway?

What are your experiences of being prayed for?

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