There are many popular hymns sung in our churches by Graham Kendrick, a contemporary singer-songwriter, such as 'Beauty for Brokenness'; 'From Heaven You Came'; 'Jesus put this song into our hearts' and 'Shine Jesus Shine'. Indeed, there are 30 worship songs written by him in Hymns Old & New! Yet one of my favourites sadly doesn't often get a mention. It's entitled 'In Your Way' and the lyrics include the lines 'In Your way and in Your time, that's how it's going to be in my life' - then goes on to make the bold statement 'and though some prayers I've prayed may seem unanswered yet, You never come too quickly or too late...' How true these sentiments are to anyone who is constant in their prayer-life - and equally to those who turn to prayer only when the need arises.
I know of its truth, but, if you're anything like me, you can't wait for the Lord's time, as I have a tendency to prefer an answer as of yesterday and in a way that I can cope. Even when we get an answer to prayer, have you ever responded by saying 'surely not that way' or 'you got to be kidding' or something to that effect? It's only in hindsight that we realise that God knows best - as the Prophet Isaiah was to discover: 'The Word of the Lord came to me: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. Just as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My thoughts above your thoughts". (Isaiah 55: 8 - 9)
This is certainly born out in the period between Isaiah announcing that 'A young woman is with child, and she will give birth to a son and call him Emmanuel' (Isaiah 7: 14) and the eventual realisation that God had finally appeared in the world in a tiny place called Bethlehem. Every year since the announcement, God's people would have been praying earnestly for this promised child to appear among them, but had to accept in the end, that 'it would be in God's way and time' - however hard they found this truth.
To add to the difficulty, when God finally did appear, it wasn't necessarily in a way that His people had expected - although there are hints in the scriptures to the reality of 'Emmanuel - God with us'.
Advent and Christmas is an opportunity to remind us of what happened when God made an appearance in the world: coming with the help of an unmarried mother; born in a borrowed barn because there was nowhere else available; adored by shepherds and foreigners but rejected by the authorities; and becoming a political refugee - and all this at the beginning of His life!
I have to smile at the knowledge that Mary would have offered a prayer that the Messiah (God's appointed One) should come to rescue His people - but wouldn't have expected for a minute that she was to be requested to be the mother of God's child, and bear both the joy as well as the pain; the fulfilment as well as shame. It all reinforces this belief that we should be careful what we pray as God may surprise us by His response 'as God's ways are not our ways...'
As I was composing this Pastoral Letter I was fascinated by a new record that came on the radio by an artist called Sam Smith entitled 'PRAY' with the following lyrics: 'You won't find me in church (no!) reading the bible (no!) - I am still here and I'm still Your disciple. I'm down on my knees, I'm begging You please. I'm broken, alone, and afraid. I'm not a saint, I'm more of a sinner... That's why I am stood here today and I'm gonna pray, pray... for a glimmer of hope... '
He then pleads for a 'one-to-one' with God, so they might have a conversation about freedom, knowing that 'everyone prays in the end'. I find the words quite incredible in an age which is often seen as disbelieving and secular, but one in which God seems to be inspiring an international star to promote the power and promise of prayer and the hope it contains for his life. I sincerely hope that he finds what he's looking for, but want him to heed the warning that, by seeking God in prayer, he has to be open to the possibility that God may respond in ways and at a time when he least expects - for that's at the heart of the Christmas message.