Travelling at the speed of light
Remember that Icelandic volcano? Business trips were cancelled, the skies over Europe became gloriously silent for a few days, weather girls broke out in tongues just trying to pronounce the name of the thing and you probably knew someone somewhere stranded abroad. My eldest son, for instance, was grounded in Zambia where he’d been visiting his grandparents who run a school for AIDS orphans. I had friends stranded in Japan, Hong Kong and even the Caribbean (try to feign sympathy). As for me, I got exiled in the Promised Land. Chicago to be precise.
But the funny thing is this: everyone I’ve talked to who got stranded said that it turned out to be a blessing. The interruption of their normal, busy schedules was used by God. The friend stranded in the Caribbean had actually just been visiting prisons there and desperately needed those extra days to recover. Nicky and Pippa Gumbel were able to have meetings in Hong Kong that resulted in the appointment of a new Alpha Chairman for the country. My son was able to take part in a play-scheme with AIDS orphans. And as for me, I sensed God telling me to go visit my friend Joe Steinke in Madison, Wisconsin, three hours west of Chicago. Unknown to me, Joe had just been plunged into some unexpected turmoil and had said to his wife ‘I wish Pete Greig was here on my couch to talk this through with’. What he didn’t know when he said that was that I was in fact in the States and when my email arrived the very next day to say ‘can I come sleep on your couch’ Joe just freaked out that God had heard his heart-cry. Maybe we all pray more often than we realise. Maybe even our wishing can be praying at times. For me it was just amazing to realise that the Holy Spirit was arranging my schedule.
A journalist once asked the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton to diagnose the leading spiritual disease of our time and he gave a curious, one-word reply: ‘Efficiency’. Atheism is the religion of the busy. Sometimes the key to encountering God is to do less. To slow down. To swap those speedy, soulless highways, for the inefficient, narrow back roads from A to B via Z (Matthew 7:14).
Of course, at Pentecost we remember that prayer is ultimately extremely productive. But before the church could be born, before those widows and orphans could be cared for, before 3000 people could be baptised (which is, let’s face it, not a bad day’s work) the disciples were commanded simply to stop, to wait, to pray. It must have seemed a peculiar strategy for global mission.
Jesus didn’t hurry. He had just three years to save the entire planet – the length of time it takes us to get a basic undergraduate degree - and yet he somehow found time for such inefficiencies as parties, fishing trips, people who rudely interrupted him and especially, emphatically for prayer. I am ashamed to admit how often I’m too busy doing His work to follow His example and slow down; attend parties, take my boys fishing and camping, have more fun, play a little more. Pray a lot more. Listen for His still, small whisper. Most churches are simply too busy to pray. 60% of British churches don’t even have a weekly prayer meeting, let alone a 24-7 prayer room from time to time.
Why do we get busier than God? I wonder if it’s because He’s eternal and we’ve forgotten that we are too. Sometimes maybe we drive ourselves too hard because we secretly doubt the reality of grace, and we quite like the self-importance of stress. Please don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not arguing for better time-management to make space for prayer. Quite the reverse! The whole point of prayer is that it is a rebellion against the tyranny of false gods. When we pray and when we play we offend efficiency and celebrate the fact that the world keeps on spinning without us. ‘Be still,’ says God. ‘Relax! Take a vacation from trying to be Me’.
And the funny thing is this: when we are delayed or derailed by illness, idiocy or Icelandic volcanoes, when we find ourselves unwell, unemployed, unmarried or un-noticed, a space is created in which we can celebrate life’s neglected pathways and listen patiently for God’s new Plan A.