Prayer, Providence and Bonhoeffer

In the US a country preacher decided to skip church one Sunday and head to the hills to do some bear hunting.

16th August 2015: ‘Prayer, Providence and Bonhoeffer’
Romans 8:26 – 30; Luke 11:1-13
Revd. Dr. Philip Krinks

In the US a country preacher decided to skip church one Sunday and
head to the hills to do some bear hunting. As he wandered along the mountain
trail, around a corner he ran, bang, right into a female grizzly bear. The
collision sent him and his rifle tumbling down the mountainside. Before he
knew it, his rifle went one way and he went the other. He landed on a rock, his
leg broken. The bear gave chase, and approached, at speed. The preacher,
being a man of God, naturally turned to prayer: “Father, I am sorry for
skipping church today. Please forgive me, and do just this one thing for me….
please make a Christian out of this bear that’s coming at me. In Jesus’s name I
ask this. Amen”.
That very instant, a few yards away, the bear skidded to a halt. She fell to
her knees, clasped her paws together and to the preacher’s astonishment
began miraculously to pray aloud, right at his preacher’s feet: ‘For what I am
about to receive, may the Lord make me truly thankful. Amen.’
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In our series of sermon topics suggested by members of St Mary’s,
Alison Wintgens suggested that we address a difficult question about prayer, a
question which could be asked by someone sceptical that we should ask God
for things at all. It would go like this: ‘Don’t you believe that all that happens
to us has been ordained by Him? If so, how can be right for you to ask God
for things, to make these intercessions? Surely if God has ordained things you
can’t change His mind? And doesn’t God know your needs anyway before you
The sceptic’s question is a fair one, and it has troubled Christians from
the earliest centuries of our faith. In challenging us like this, the sceptic is
helping us to clarify what we do believe about prayer – and specifically
intercessory prayer, asking God for things.
I’m going to talk about three things in particular we are helped to clarify,
and i exploring them I am going to follow a suggestion from Sunny WalkerKier, that we consider in one of sermons this summer the thought of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, as many of you will know, was a great German
pastor and theologian, who resisted Hitler and was executed by the Nazis a
few weeks before the end of the war in Europe in 1945.
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The first of the three things the sceptic makes us clarify is this: what
does it means to speak of God’s providence, that God has made provision for
us, ordained the way things go? The sceptic’s assumption seems to be that
everything has been ordained by God in the sense that His providence is
completely fixed. But that creates a mistaken picture of how God acts – a
mistake I call the ‘cosmic tea break’, which goes like this: ‘At the beginning of
time God made all His provisions for us and his world. He ordained
everything that would happen. So now He’s been able to take his eye off the
ball, put His feet up, forget us and our troubles, and go for a very long tea
break – for the whole of time…… a cosmic tea break’
But we know that cannot be the right picture of how God is with us.
God is active, now, engaged with us now, active in our lives, now. The
Holy Spirit is restoring us, refreshing us, comforting us, correcting us
interceding for us when we cannot find the right words; Christ the divine
Word is exalted before the Father, interceding for us always before the Father;
the Father is always loving us, drawing us to Him, revealing Himself to us.
God is active, present, ready to meet us when we wake every morning.
Bonhoeffer expressed this in a famous poem, widely sung as a hymn in
German churches: ‘We know that God is with us night and morning, And
never fails to greet us each new day.’
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Here is the second issue: whose will is to be done, mine or God’s? When
I was taught intercessory prayer at Westcott House, we were given pieces of
advice by our seniors, often wryly expressed. One was this: ‘when intercessing,
it is good to hold difficult situations before God; – but do not feel the need to
tell Him how He is to resolve them.’ To do so would be to get our
relationship with God all wrong. If we allow prayer to become a shopping list
of outcomes which God is to deliver for us, we have the wrong idea of our
relationship to Him. God is not on a cosmic tea break, but neither is He a
divine Amazon Prime, who will deliver what we order, bang on schedule and
without cost
As Bonhoeffer famously argued, there is a cost of discipleship. When
what we ask of God follows our Lord’s command – ‘thy kingdom come, thy
will be done, give us this day our daily bread, deliver us from evil’ – we
acknowledge that cost.
We pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s rule – not our own
control of the situation, or what would be most comforting to us. We pray for
God’s will to be done, for our wills to submit to His. We pray for daily bread
for us and our neighbours – that we are dependent on God for what we need
to sustain life, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and do not rely on our own
wealth and security. Finally we pray to be delivered from evils –from every
evil: from conflict internal and external, from our own sin, from our own
anxiety. These four are our ‘ask’s to God in the Lord’s prayer. But they are
also things we are asking of ourselves, costs we are willing to pay
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The third issue the sceptic makes us clarify is whether we think we are in
‘spiritual solitary confinement’. The sceptic’s challenge makes it all
individualised, it is just you and God – as if you want things, and God may or
may not deliver them for you. But we do not live, ever, in ‘spiritual solitary
confinement’. Bonhoeffer actually spent many days in solitary confinement
during interrogations by the Nazis. But he would the first to say we live in
community, in communion. When in prison, he prayed for his friends outside,
and they prayed for him.
Earlier Bonhoeffer had written a famous book, called Life Together,
describing the life of the community of trainee ministers he supervised. It was
essential, he wrote, that they prayed for each other every day. Part of what it
means to show Christian love for someone else is to attend to them. And to
attend to them in faith means commending them and their needs to God,
No Christian is without community, whether they are confined or not.
And how can the Christian community not commend each to other, and their
neighbours, to God in prayer?
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So the sceptic about prayer has done us a great favour. He has forced us
to clarity what we believe and what we do not: no ‘cosmic tea break’, no
‘divine Amazon Prime’, no ‘spiritual solitary confinement’. We should be
grateful to God for sceptics and their challenges.
And we should be even more grateful to God for Bonhoeffer, for his
wise writings, especially his teaching on prayer, and for his example of
persistence, courage and faith in the face of evil.