‘How can you tell that I cooked dinner tonight?’ my husband asked our children last night, beaming around at us as we sat eating Deliciously Ella’s lentil bolgnese. (He hadn’t cooked dinner- he’d warmed the dinner I’d made earlier in the day…)
He enjoyed answering his own question. ‘Because there are no plumes of black smoke coming from the kitchen, because we’re not all furiously waving recipe books at the smoke alarm, because we can’t hear the noise of the fire engines approaching…’
And then they all fell about laughing, regaling each other with stories of times when I almost burnt the house down making supper. Their favourite is when I fled from the house on Boxing Day with a tray of chipolatas beneath six foot flames.
I didn’t really have a defence. We’ve lived in this house less than a year and I’ve had the fire engines here more than once. I blame the ovens. We live in a climate where you could probably cook your dinner on the bonnet of your car, yet our oven rings get even hotter, as though the oven and the car are competing for which can burn your dinner faster. This is a country that knows how to do HOT.
Even so, every night when I go to make supper, I forget. I whack the oven ring all the way up to its highest setting (because I am always in a mad-football/rugby/youth group-related-dash) and, et voila, most nights I burn something. Often it’s rice, sometimes pasta, always salmon, leaving us living in a fishy fug for days.
There was one night when my husband was away and I had fed the kids early for a club. Tired and hungry, I did a 0-500C-in-under-3-seconds frying job on some fish and within minutes, there were the sirens outside the house. I just wanted to sit down and eat my dinner and instead I had to show several firemen around the house and wait for them to check all the smoke alarms and inspect my incinerated dinner.
In slummy-mummy fashion, I hadn’t managed to persuade our three year old to go to bed so he was still glued to Paw Patrol on the TV. Aside from the embarrassment of this incident, the thing that stayed with me was the fact that he never once looked away from the screen. When two firemen set up a ladder between him and the TV to get to a smoke alarm, he leaned sideways so he could continue watching his favourite rescue team (if you look carefully, you’ll see him hidden behind the ladder in the top photo!).
The character he loves most is Marshall, the fire-fighter of the group. He even has a Marshall fireman costume. But when he had two real-live fire-fighters in his sitting room one Tuesday night, he never acknowledged them.
Our small compound has a fire service all of its own. I imagine the firemen spend quite a lot of their time with nothing to do. The biggest fire drama since we arrived was a teacher burning some toast at school. We’re very fortunate because it means the firemen can be with us almost as soon as our hand is hovering recklessly over the oven dial.
I’ve wondered for months if there was something to take away from my brush with the fire department, apart from moderating my choice of oven temperature, which I haven’t yet done. Then last night it struck me. We were driving back from town and I was looking out of the car window into the darkness of the desert and I had a thought
I pictured that oven dial as my prayer life. With one quick turn, I can have the emergency services at my door, offering to help me with whatever disaster has struck. With one quick prayer, I can have the same thing. Only it’s God who will respond, the one who doesn’t need to check around and do an inspection because he knows what’s going on before I call on him, better than I know myself.
And yet, a bit like that oven knob, I make the same mistake everyday. Only it’s actually the opposite mistake. With the oven, I go for maximum heat but with my prayers, I usually select ‘Low’ or ‘Moderate’. I could go for ‘High’ but I rarely do, unless it’s a real emergency.
Even in an emergency, I might not pray, or not straight away. A bit like our toddler with his Paw Patrol cartoon, I might pick an alternative to the real-live fire-fighter. I might peer around the true source of help in order to focus on something more visible and immediate.
God depicted as a column of cloud and a column of fire from Exodus 13, All Saints Church, Hinton Ampner
Before we moved to the desert, the fire-fighter I called on most regularly was my sister. I adore her. She knows me as well as anyone can probably know a person. She knows my faults, my fears and my strengths and she knows what to say when I am upset. So does my husband but he’s not available for long chats in the day and he’s often away.
My sister, on the other hand, was usually on the other end of the phone. In fact, we had a similar routine, whereby we spoke most mornings whilst we walked our dogs, me in Hampshire, her in Scotland.
Then I moved here, to the land of sand, and our dog moved in with my sister. There were no more dog-walking phone calls. For six weeks, we had no means of talking as I had no phone or internet for making international calls. Even now, better set up, the time difference and the temperamental nature of WIFI calls means we speak less.
To begin with, my sister and I both struggled. It felt like a loss, not just of contact but of support. As soon as I had a problem in the UK, I would ring my sister. I relied on her so much that my automatic response to any knotty situation was to call on her so that I wasn’t left alone with the struggle or the uncomfortable emotion. If I couldn’t get hold of her, then I might pray.
Since moving here, the prayer option is often my only option. I’m still not great at it. I easily get distracted. My prayers are often quite brief, not the hour long chats I enjoyed with my sister. But in bringing us to the desert, I wonder if this is another way that God is shaping, not just me, but also my sister.
She wouldn’t mind me saying this because she has felt the same way. And interestingly, her own life has changed dramatically during the time since we left. She has ventured into human rights work and is busy in all sorts of new ways, probably no longer free for endless phone calls.
Perhaps it makes God seem unkind to suggest it was part of his plan to limit my contact with my sister but I don’t see it like that and nor does my sister. We are still there for one another and our relationship is just as strong. But maybe we were leaning on one another too much and not enough on God. God always encourages fellowship and support networks but he may tweak the balance if we replace him with them.
Perhaps, like my toddler, my sister and I were straining away from God to reach out to one another. Now I am getting used to sitting with a problem, experiencing uncomfortable emotions, and then praying through them. Not always but more than I used to.
In our busy, frantic, and if you are me, chaotic, lives, how do we keep our eyes and thoughts fixed on God? Often the idea of slowing down to pray is the opposite of what comes naturally, which is to pick up the pace. The kids are going to be late for their club, I haven’t started dinner. So what do I do? I turn up the heat. Result: burnt dinner. Now we’re even later and more hassled. It doesn’t actually help anything and sometimes makes things worse but haste is still often my preferred alternative to prayer.
When I was about 10 years old, I got thrown off a pony during my weekly riding lesson. When I told a family friend, he asked me, ‘Did you pray?’ I literally thought he was mad. How was there time to pray when my pony was careering off to chuck me in a hedge? He’d clearly never ridden…
But he was right. There was time to pray. A prayer can be as short as ‘Help’ or ‘Jesus’. Whenever we go anywhere in the car here, we always have an incident where I think we are going to crash (that’s a whole other blog…). And there’s almost always time for me to utter a word that’s most definitely not a prayer but which could be replaced by one.
I think our prayer life boils down to an attitude rather than time. It’s good to stop and pray- sometimes it’s really important to do that- but it’s not necessary. We can pray whatever we are doing, wherever we are. The word that escapes my mouth during those near-collision reveals my attitude. It’s not always a prayerful one.
Back in our Somerset days, we ran a Bible group with some of the ladies in the local village. One of those dear friends, who trained as a missionary, later as a florist, and by the time we knew her, was also a widow, told me about her prayer life. She would spend a lot of her time tending her garden. ‘I chat to him all day,’ she told me.
It was that simple. Prayer wasn’t something she broke off to do, an activity by itself. It was like me and sister and our phone calls- a long and enjoyable conversation alongside other things. Praying was a part of living, like breathing. For her it went hand-in-hand with gardening.
BT’s campaign told us ‘It’s good to talk.’ The people in those BT ads loved one another. They weren’t ringing their bank manager or the tax office. That campaign could also be a campaign for prayer, assuming we love the one we’re praying to.
The song below asks God ‘to fan into flame a passion for your name.’ It’s obvious the singer already loves God but he’s asking for help so he can love him more. Do we need to do the same? Do we need to be set alight with that same love? Maybe for the first time or as a renewal of an old love?
When we start to view prayer as the chance to chat with someone we’re passionate about, who’s passionate about us, it will surely become as easy and natural as two sisters burning up the phone lines…
‘Too Busy Not To Pray’ by Bill Hybels is, very aptly, a slim, easy-read book for busy people who want to learn more about prayer.