You are invited to set aside some time tomorrow, (22 December 2023) this year’s UK shortest day of the year, to pray we might open our doors to God, as individuals, as churches and as a nation.
The most fascinating new book I have picked up this year is ‘The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’ by Justin Brierley. I have been particularly struck by the question whether the “Sea of Faith”, by any analysis at a low ebb, on the brink of returning?
Justin explains how this book came about as ‘a book that I’ve tried to summarise by its subtitle: ‘Why new atheism grew old and secular thinkers are considering Christianity again’.
The victorian poet Matthew Arnold famously described the ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ in his generation, and for the last 150 years the tide of Christianity has continued to recede in the West. However, in this book I recount the ways in which, after a long spell in the grip of the atheist materialist worldview, we are seeing Western culture begin to open up to the idea of God again – in culture, history, science, philosophy and other areas.
It’s not a simple picture – when people get rid of God they tend to replace him with all kinds of modern idols and quasi-religious stories. We don’t become less religious, we just become religious about different things. However, I believe the Christian story may be ready to sweep in again and make sense of the many smaller stories people are telling themselves today as they tire of the thin gruel of atheist materialism and the confusion of the post-modern ideologies that have proliferated’.
Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” is re-produced in full below. ‘The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’ uses this poem, as its central metaphor. The fact that Arnold uses the metaphor of the ‘sea of faith’ with his description of its’ ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’, back in 1867 is a reminder our present spiritual ‘low ebb’ is not the first by a long way. As GK Chesterton said, ‘Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave’.
My purpose in writing this short blog post is partly to encourage you to read the book for yourself, but primarily to encourage you to pray:
On this shortest day of the year:
Pray the tide representing our Christian faith will be at its lowest ebb, in reality, not merely in perception.
- Thank God for who he is and the fact he does not forget his people.
- Pray for every sign of hope you notice.
- Pray for those who are profiling the rich fruits of Christianity, that they may put down deep roots.
- Pray for more lost wanderers to be ‘found’ by God.
- Pray for the church of Jesus Christ, that we might be hungry for righteousness.
Pray for more of the light of Jesus Christ to be revealed across our nation.
- Begin this line of praying by asking for more of the light of Christ in your own life.
- Pray for the church congregation to which you belong.
- Pray for the church denominations and streams, which represent the body of Christ across the UK.
- Pray for politicians, thinkers, influencers in every sphere to open their doors to God.
- Pray for more people to ‘see the light’, which is Jesus Christ.
Check out The Discipleship Cycle App as a useful tool. The default reading for 21 December reminds us ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5)
Opening our doors to God is an initiative to encourage monthly prayer gatherings, which began January 2022.
Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”
The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;—on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night