Litmus Test Questions: In politics, philosophy and religion a litmus test question is asked on one hot-button issue (eg: abortion) because it is believed the answer will indicate the person’s attitudes on other issues (conservative versus liberal etc). Several times I have been asked “Do you pray for a parking space?” This is a litmus test question designed to probe a person’s view of God and how they relate to Him – (for people asking this question, God is always ‘He’.)
Arriving around 6pm on a Friday in a New South Wales (Australia) coastal town the main street was packed. I was scheduled to lead a seminar but was feeling a little queezy and needed a chemist. My driver, the host for the evening, asked, “Do you ever pray for a parking space?” “No” I replied. “I do it all the time” he said. He immediately started to pray (eyes open) that God would provide a parking space near the town’s chemist shop (drug store). To my amazement it happened! A car on the kerb immediately in front of the chemist shop pulled out and we drove straight into the space. “Our God is a wonderful God. He cares for all the details of our life.” My driver looked at me reproachfully. Crest-fallen, I hurried across the pavement to the store’s entrance. The chemist was closed.
It was my driver’s turn to be uncomfortable.
Even as a young person I have never been able to accept the ‘parking space’ God. As a teen I was ultra conservative and prejudiced. But even then, the idea of a God that acts in my life every day in matters large and small didn’t make sense. I believed only people like me (Baptist) were real Christians. Because of this we were the ones all the promises of scripture applied to – concerning matters large and small – theoretically parking places. However, through missionaries and the daily news I was aware of the dreadful suffering and starvation of millions of people in other countries – and some of them were Baptist. These folks weren’t praying for parking spaces, their prayers would have been for survival. If God cared for all of his children even more than for the sparrows, how come he wasn’t answering their prayers? Does God only care for white, western Christians who have correct beliefs (Bible believing etc.). That didn’t seem right.
J.B. Phillips’ book ‘Your God is too Small’ provoked me. Many religions have regional gods. Others have many gods each for separate tasks. Christianity along with a number of other religions believe in one God. This one God is over all, in all, and not just in planet earth, but in the whole universe.
How big, how complex is the universe? As my interest in exploding galaxies, nano particles, higgs boson, quantum physics and black holes has increased, I have been amazed – more than that, staggered. If as the Bible said God was in all, through all, and held everything together then there must be no part of the furthest universe in which God is not present. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has to be in it all and through all.
Many great minds talk of a mysterious something which is in and through the universe. Albert Einstein speaks of it in this way. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations (series of inter-connected things), there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.”
Is there an alternative? How else can we understand the universe? Shakespeare’s Macbeth poses another way of explaining things. He is speaking of human life but it can equally apply to a mindless universe.
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I can’t believe it signifies ‘nothing’. On the other hand I find it hard to believe in omnipotent power who organises parking spaces for a few select people. I do believe that the subtle, intangible, and inexplicable force that Einstein speaks of has shown us his/her face to us in Jesus. My primary way of conceptualizing it is through the words at the opening of the gospel of John. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”. John1.1. Now, the Greek word ‘word’ can be translated ‘meaning’. For me then that verse now reads, ‘In the beginning was the meaning and the meaning was with God and the meaning was God.’
Belief like mine poses a crucial question. Does that ‘meaning’ have any contact with my life? Can I connect with it in any personal way? Well that is the core business of the Church, all churches and all religions. Religions stock-in-trade is connecting the worshippers with the ‘meaning’, the Divine, God or Gods. But, according to religions (all I know of) most of the benefit of this connection will be experienced by the worshipper after they die, in the next life. However, some benefits are accessible to the worshipper in this life.
In the suburb in which I live in Auckland, and I understand it is the same in other western cities, over the last 50 years two things have happened. One is that organized Christian religion as I know it – protestant Christian churches, has declined and continues to decline. The other is there has been a great increase in other kinds of spirituality. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga are just three expressions of this.
Although not often articulated it seems to me that implicit in these practices is a search not just for health and wholeness, but for some connection with the universe. There is a growing acceptance of the idea that we are connected to all things. Indigenous peoples have always thought like this. Now this concept is becoming mainstream. I suggest that the emerging forms of spirituality aim to put people in touch with the universe and align themselves with the meaning of the universe. This search for harmony is a kind of prayer.
Last year I participated in a short course of meditation. For me the breathing and the long periods of silence was different, but not unpleasant. On a couple of occasions, I dropped off to sleep (naughty!) but, in fact I experienced connectedness in two ways. One was that I felt connected with the others with whom I sat in silence. It was as though we were one unit. The second connectedness only occurred once but it was memorable. A sense of warmth and peace filled me. I felt I was connected to and affirmed by the whole universe. I believe this in-touch feeling is something that many people find through the new forms of spirituality.
All of my life I have been praying – praying for all sorts of things. In my teens I was pretty free in using “God told me”. For instance, when I wanted to spend all my savings and buy my first car. My dad opposed the idea saying the car would take all my money -which it did. I countered by saying God told me to buy a car to use in his service. My dad was a committed Christian and “God told me” ended the argument.
As I moved through theological training and into the ministry my use of ‘God told me’ statements diminished. I realized that it was all too easy to tag ‘God told me’ on to my own thoughts, needs and desires. I continued to pray about my life and the needs of others. A few significant things have happened in my life which I accept as miracles. I can find no other way of explaining them. But as for the round of daily life, I try to cope as best I can. I try to live as a follower of Christ and I do not seek divine help in practical matters.
However, for those of you who do pray for parking spaces, God bless you. But over recent years such prayers have been beyond me.
The older I get the idea of ‘the word’, ‘the meaning’ in everything make more and more sense to me. I note the churches frequently attempt to cut the Jesus narrative down to their size, to meet their needs and ambitions. Actually, I probably do the same thing. Constant reading of the Gospels helps to correct this bias, as does an ongoing interest in scientific developments. Through Jesus I glimpse the love and purpose of God which encompasses all things including my life. I will pray to him and look for him ‘everywhere’ from here to eternity.
Stan Stewart December 5, 2019