I was so struck, moved, grieved, lots of emotions I guess...by a conversation I had with two teenagers who were fasting for Ramadan last month whilst I was on a residential youth programme. I found their commitment and endurance incredible, and each night when I would sit with them as they broke their fast, my heart would be deeply tender towards these wonderful young men who were staying so true to their faith. As I watched them patiently wait until almost 10pm to consume a meal that they had earlier watched 60 teens ravenously devour following a strenuous day of hard graft, my heart would enlarge with compassion.
Yet for me, as inspiring as their commitment was, it was surely futile - if this incredible, exemplary sacrifice that they had yielded their flesh to, in such opposing circumstances was merely a ritualistic practice. If this whole process was in fact devoid of authentic relationship with the one they were worshipping then that would be rather pointless right? Because surely that was the point? Otherwise what is the purpose of 40 days of fasting and prayer if not ultimately to die to the flesh and draw closer to God. I supposed there were a whole host of meaningful reasons - perhaps they found deeper peace in their times of prayer during Ramadan or maybe felt themselves more sensitive to the things of God? Or maybe they found themselves more alert spiritually I wondered...or they appreciated the level of consecration their fasting bought? Whatever their reasons, I genuinely wanted to get to their hearts. I genuinely wanted them to know how precious their love for God was...yet I soooo wanted their sacrifice to count.
As they ate their dinner I asked them how difficult they found it to cope with missing their five times of prayer during such strenuous and busy activities. They responded that they often weren't able to pray during their time on the course or even in general - but it was okay they explained, even if they did miss their prayers because exceptions could be made. I understood completely, given the principle of freedom - and then suggested that even if they missed the prescribed five times of prayer it was okay because they just prayed to their god at other times right? I was so sure that they would say yes. I wanted them to say yes. My heart wanted to believe that these young men were seeking after an authentic relationship with God. Yet they said no! My heart broke as they explained quite clearly that they don't pray to God outside of the five daily times of prayer...therefore if they miss a prayer time they just don't talk to God until the next prayer time.
Wow, what a tragedy! I asked what the point of all the rituals and fasting was if they were not relationally involved or personally communicating with the one they were doing all this in the name of. They explained that their god does not require a relationship with them - merely their obedience. What deception? How could they have settled for such a cold arrangement? YET why was I so surprised at their answer? For I am fully aware that all other faiths involve man seeking God yet in Christianity alone does God seek man. So of course the average non-Christian wouldn't be acquainted with the notion of God seeking a relationship with him. In fact let's face it there are also untold Christians who can't fathom such a notion.
YET somehow I guess I always want to believe that beyond the rituals whether it's in Islam, Christianity or any other faith...is ultimately a pursuit and hunger to know the one you worship. In fact I personally know Muslims who are so hungry for God, they regularly talk to their god allah, outside of the prescribed prayer times and yearn to experience more of him. Yet to come across young believers so faithful and obedient to the one they worship - only to discover that they are totally content to do it from a place of obligation, outside of relationship and intimacy, grieved my heart.
I explained that when you love someone you want to be with them and talk to them. You want to be intimate with them in an authentic relationship that went beyond ticking boxes. One of them seemed totally unfased by my words. He laughed and explained that he'd heard this argument on a previous occasion, from another Christian who had shared this wacky concept of having a loving relationship with God - but he explained that he knew God wasn't there to have a relationship with mankind. He was Creator and Judge - to be revered and obeyed as Judge - not to be treated in any form of intimacy or nearness. He also explained that his fasting was to demonstrate his obedience and nothing more. I asked him if he was content with having a distant God and with complete confidence he responded yes. Ouch ouch ouch in my inmost being.
The other young man thankfully wasn't as blinded to the thought of having a loving, authentic, relationship with God. In fact although he had accepted all that his fellow Muslim had just disclosed to me as standard procedure for many in Islam, it was clear that he was at that very moment inwardly contemplating the futility of all the rituals he had followed if they were simply just works. As he responded to my suggestions of pursuing a deeper relationship with God with a longing in his eyes, he certainly seemed stirred at such a possibility. I was grateful. I shared a little about my own relationship with God as a Christian, and how in love I am with Him...how near and present He is in my breathing, my sleeping, dreaming and being. I explained that God is in love with all mankind and longs to be intimate with us all.
I truly believe seeds were sown into hearts that day...to desire far more than self righteous good works as trophies of faith...to desire a relationship beyond rituals...and to never ever settle for a distant God because there is someone who is SO near...SO close...yearning for intimacy...you see YAHWEH will never leave us nor forsake us...He is God Almighty - Perfectly Holy and Perfectly Just - His is Love PERSONIFIED - and He is SO ready to dwell in each of us...to become one with all of mankind...if only we choose to truly seek HIM in SPIRIT and in TRUTH...