why pray when you can worry?

The Christian writer and doctor John White has an alarming story about the early days of his medical career. Within just a year of completing his training, he was frequently put in charge of all the night time emergency surgery in a large city hospital (wisely, he does not tell us which one). During the day, he was often given his own operating list. He goes on:

Understandably, sometimes things went wrong – seriously wrong. In the operating room, a wave of panic would sometimes rise in me as with horror I would see that the operation was getting in a deeper and deeper mess.*

White eventually went on to become a psychiatrist. You might assume that he withdrew from surgery because of a string of disasters on the operating table, but that was not the case.  In fact his patients seem to have survived despite his inexperience, thanks to a valuable lesson he learnt about thinking under pressure.

During these white-knuckle sessions in theatre, White discovered that his brain’s first reaction was to freeze. His movements became pointless and repetitive. He would look desperately at his assisting team, but all eyes just stared back at him: he was the guy in charge. All he could do at that point was to force himself to think carefully and deliberately. ‘Now take it easy,’ he would say to himself. ‘What’s my immediate aim? What should I do first?’

Slowly, with a sense of growing confidence and relief, I found my way through the difficulties, successfully completing what could have been a tragically botched operation. My mind had been freed to accept new ideas, to remember old principles and to force myself to rely on them and go ahead.

The most interesting thing for me about this story (apart from the reassuring fact that fatalities were averted) is what happened to White’s prayers when panic took over.  White describes them as becoming like ‘muttered incantations’. ‘Oh Lord, help! Lord, don’t let it go wrong! Lord, don’t let it get in a mess! Don’t let her die!’

I have never had the type of life-and-death responsibility that faces a surgeon, thank goodness, but I do recognise this kind of ‘incantation’. It is what I do when I sense life is getting out of control. I have come to see it as one of the early signs that my mental health is at risk. ‘Oh Lord, help! Oh Lord, stop me from getting so tired that I bite everyone’s head off! Oh Lord, don’t let me get depressed again!’

As White wisely points out, this is not prayer. This is not communicating with God; it is ‘expressing panic in parrot talk’. Saints through the ages have taught us that prayer leads to peace and freedom from our anxieties. Unfortunately, if we do not recognise the difference between panicky parrot talk and really communicating with a God we trust, things will actually get worse, not better. ‘Why don’t I feel any peace? Why am I even more worried now than I was an hour ago? Oh God I am such a terrible Christian!’

As part of my recovery from the mental distress that used to plague me with horrible regularity, I have discovered that sometimes before I pray I need to spend some time in careful, logical thought. Or as White puts it, sometimes before we talk to God, we have to talk to ourselves. ‘What really is the problem here? What solution do I want to see? What can I do about it? What do I need God to do about it?’

There are several situations that are causing me a bit of anxiety at the moment. Snowed in and unable to get to church this morning, it has been good to spend time thinking slowly about what needs to happen with each of them, and only then to bring them to God in prayer.  This makes my relationship with God feel much more real. I have a sense that together we will be able to work out a creative solution. Of course things may still not resolve themselves in the way I would like, but I am not panicking; my anxiety levels have dropped, and I have a genuine hope for each situation.

Finally, I couldn’t blog today without posting a snow picture. I spent two hours out walking with a camera today, but the photograph I like best was waiting for me back in the front garden.

*All quotations from John White’s book Parents in Pain. (Now out of print but available here.)


A sheep is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar but the weather has been far too horrible for me to go out and get a picture of one. So hurrah for these badges from Felicity Ford’s Etsy shop – they arrived today, beautifully presented with this lovely sheep stamp.

Felicity Ford wrote a really thought-provoking blog post yesterday about the relationship between wool and time. As I admired my new badges and thought about how I would write about them, I suddenly realised that her post that had already raised so many issues was particularly relevant to the Advent season.

Felix writes: ‘Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep

You can’t hurry wool.’

She then raises some searching questions about how, in that case, it is possible for chain stores to sell wool items at knock-down prices.

‘I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For … sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; … wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; … in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.’

So the high street tells us a lie and the lie is that you can have wool cheaply and you can have it when you want it. And then it presents the lie in cheerful colours scattered with words like ‘joy’ and ‘gift’ (see Felix’s photos for the proof) – and therein is another lie. Which is that if you acquire this discount wool, you will be full of joy and you will be able to spread joy and you will have a gift in your hands, either for yourself (presumably because you’re worth it) or  – marvellously – for somebody else. What’s not to like?

Well, the fact that all this is nonsense. There are a variety of ways to get real wool from real sheep onto the shelves at this price, as Felix points out. Either someone has not been paid at all, or everyone involved in the slow process of producing wool has been paid less than the minimum wage, or the garments on display don’t actually contain much real wool.

Where is the ‘joy’ in this? Who wants a ‘gift’ for themselves or for others that is wrapped up in a tissue of lies and injustice?

The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. It is a season in which Christians wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus.

You can’t hurry a baby.

Yet somehow over the years this once holy time of waiting and preparation has morphed into a season of rush and over-consumption. And the more we accumulate and the faster we want it, so the more the injustices pile up

And in the run-up to Christmas, these injustices increase in the name of the one who said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4: 18-19

I have been a Christian for quite a few years and I have been slow to grasp this, but if I could wish for one thing right now it would be that more people both inside and outside the Church could really understand that the Bible reveals a God who gets angry when farmers are forced to sell fleeces at rock-bottom prices so that high street stores can provide consumers with cheap products to give as gifts.

Especially, I would dare to suggest, at Christmas.

What good is God?

When I planned this post, I was simply going to review a book by one of my favourite authors, Philip Yancey. I had never heard of Anders Behring Breivik. Nor did I know that by the time I came to write the post, a four-year-old girl from our church would be lying in intensive care after seven hours of brain surgery.

The book, What Good is God?, is a collection of talks Yancey has given in places undergoing extreme suffering like those two situations I have referred to above. He spoke at Virginia Tech just days after a lone gunman had killed 32 students. A talk planned in Mumbai, India had to be hastily rearranged when terrorists  unleashed a marathon of horror, killing more than 150 people in a series of bombing and shooting attacks across the city.

What is refreshing about Yancey’s writing is his refusal to turn away from the hard questions of faith. His books have titles like Church: Why Bother? and Disappointment with God. He is not afraid to be highly critical of the Bible college where he studied as a teenager; neither does he hesitate to say that he does not have all the answers. This kind of humility is uncommon.

At the same time, he does not shrink from challenging his audiences to trust ‘a God who can redeem what now seems irredeemable’ (chapter 1). This challenge came sharply into focus when I met with other members of our church to pray for the family whose seaside holiday has turned into a long bedside vigil for their little daughter.

The meeting had been arranged hastily of course. We heard the news by text, or on Facebook. People arrived in tears, in shock, scooping up children or leaving their workplaces for an early lunch break. Our co-pastor, who has three young children of his own and is moving house on Friday, had already driven a couple of hundred miles so he could stand alongside the family, sharing their harrowing wait at a distant hospital.

‘Where is God when it hurts?’ Yancey asks the survivors of the Virginia tech massacre, supplying the answer ‘Where God’s people are. Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and now on earth the Messiah takes form in the shape of the Church.’

The Church comes in for a lot of flak and often that is justified. But what most people don’t see is the local church in action. My father in law died recently; my mother has been suffering from a mystery illness for weeks. In both cases, their churches have been alongside, offering emotional and practical support, providing a strength that is in short supply elsewhere.

Of course not all local churches do the job they should. Indeed, Yancey spends one chapter of his book explaining why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous often do it better. But yesterday, when I looked at the pictures of Breivik’s victims, most of them around the same age as my own kids, I was thankful to have a place I can go when life gets too hard for easy answers.