Don't just fall back on God in an emergency
WE have a saying in the Christian church of "fire-engine faith". This refers to the tendency we have to call out God only in an emergency, whilst most of the time hoping desperately we'll never ever need him.
It's incredibly common, and misses the entire point of Christianity. I encounter it again and again at funerals, or when hospital visiting. Today I need God; tomorrow, hopefully, the crisis will be over and I can forget him until the next time.
I can remember when I was a keen young curate getting worked up in a sermon and telling people off for treating God as though he were some sort of a garage: "We just pop in and fill up when we need to, without ever developing a relationship with the petrol pump!" Nowadays I choose my words more carefully.
A few weeks ago there was a mass national turning-to-prayer as Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during a football match. Football fan though I'm not, I even managed a mention in this column. Well, in the last few days we've seen emotional scenes and a standing ovation for the hero who had been clinically dead for two hours, but who was now back cheering his team on. One or two comments in the press suggest that this recovery might just have had something to do with prayer, but most of the praise goes to the good old NHS.
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It is, of course notoriously difficult to prove or disprove that something is a direct answer to prayer. I think it was William Temple, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said, in response to the accusation that so-called answers to prayer were merely coincidence: "That may be true, but I have noticed that when I pray, coincidences happen."
But the deeper point here is our human reluctance to express thankfulness.
One of the stories of Jesus in the Bible tells of an encounter with ten sick people, all of whom he healed, but only one of whom bothered to come back and say thank you to him. This is such an accurate picture of the human condition, and it works not just with God but among each other too. We're so good at taking others for granted, whether in our families, at work or school, our neighbours: pretty much everywhere, in fact.
But what I find even more incredible than human ingratitude is the incredible mercy of God, which just keeps coming. If I were Jesus I would definitely have been tempted to smite the other nine with something even worse than leprosy, just to teach them a lesson.
If I were God, I might well decide that from now on dead footballers were on their own. But fortunately I'm not, and the world is an infinitely better place because of that. Call him a mug, but God keeps on pouring out his love whether or not we choose to respond with thanks and by getting to know and understand him better.