PRAYER FROM PAINFUL PLACES (PART 1)

Silhouette Of Child Looking On Window Blinds

 

We’ve all been there, in one way or another, haven’t we? Listening to people’s stories in our house church gatherings and at a recent thanksgiving tea, most believers seem to have come from places of pain. And, as the saying goes in Afrikaans (a major language in South Africa), ‘Die nood leer bid,’ i.e. ‘distress teaches us to pray!’ Currently, dark forces are gathering all over the world and in our own nation, calling God’s remnant to prayer. World-mission (Mt. 28:16-20) requires prayer, the persecuted Church has learned to pray (complacent Western Church, look east!), people in stressful circumstances learn to pray, etc. Recently my wife and I each had a major health crisis, a re-location and down-size of our home of 36 years and a total re-orientation of our life and future ministry – we have had to lean hard on the Lord in new ways of pervasive praying.

While the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippian church is known as ‘the epistle of joy’ (the word ‘joy’ appears 16 times in this short letter), it arose from places of pain.

  • Paul wrote from house arrest in Rome (circa 61 AD). His crime was testifying to the good news of Jesus (1:1-6).
  • Philippi in Macedonia was a prosperous city and renowned military base. The local believers found themselves pressurized by at least three groups:  Roman officialdom which worshiped Caesar as Lord; Judaizing groups lobbying a return to legalism; and affluent antinomians loud-hailing libertine lifestyles (ch.’s 1-3).
  • While the local ekklesia had some great co-workers, more recently two of them had sharply disagreed, threatening the unity of the body (4:1-3).

Paul addresses some of these needs in his final exhortations to the Philippian assembly, calling the faithful above all to the regular (and practical!) practice of prayer:  4:6-7 (NLT), ‘Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything’ [in the last months, my wife and I have made that our daily dictum in a new way, diarising the outcomes as a record of God’s faithfulness]. ‘Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus’ (as a military HQ, there was of course the constant reminder of guards everywhere).

From these very well-known/quoted words, we Jesus-followers, as individuals and communities, can learn much:

  1. The enemy of peace (and joy) is often our own self-centred and counter-productive anxiety. We worry about our health, well-being, finances, the past, the future, enforced changes, ministry pressures, etc. [At this point we need to distinguish between ‘normal anxiety’ and ‘acute anxiety.’ In 1993 my wife and I went through the hell of acute burnout, due to family circumstances and pastoral leadership responsibilities. My wife recovered within three months, mine dragged on for six months because I tend to ‘live in my head’ much more. For many months I couldn’t pray for lack of emotional energy and concentration – I ‘floated’ on the gracious prayers of many in our caring and prayerful congregation. Such ‘acute clinical depression’ is related to chemical imbalances in the brain, making anxiety virtually uncontrollable at times, except by medical means and the prayers of others. My wife and I benefited from both. More normal anxiety can be relieved and even cured, as explained in my next point. BTW, we were both Spirit-filled believers at that time and trust we still are! In our humble opinion drastic mental break-downs have nothing to do with ‘spirituality,’ so we counsel folk not to listen to their ‘super-spiritual’ advisors (found in every congregation) – they mean well but are really ignorant!] **
  2. Paul’s antidote for such anxiety includes three elements:  prayer; thanksgiving; and biblical thinking. Believe me, prayer about everything helps, and so can diarizing it, however simply. Thanksgiving helps us to be less self-engrossed and puts a more positive spin on life. Focusing our thought-patterns on ‘what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely and admirable… excellent and worthy of praise’ (v. 8) can be life-transforming. Of course this is a skill to be practiced until habitual (v. 9), even when it is hard. [Psychologists call it ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ – it was popularised in the 1960’s by, among others, American psychiatrist Aaron Beck). ** Talking about a thought-focus, I came across this lovely quote from Karl Barth recently: ‘Where Christian love arises, self-seeking love can only sink to the ground. When the sun arises, the shadows and the mists in the valleys can only yield and disperse… (Christian love) is grounded in God’s love for humanity and not in our love for ourselves’ (CD IV/2, 747).

How does this all work out in practice? Let me share two more perspectives…

Years ago, through a well-known missions conference in our city, our family was privileged to host one of the overseas speakers, Dr. J. Christy Wilson (1921-1999). He and his wife had been veteran missionaries in Afghanistan, later he became professor of missions at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the USA. He was certainly one of the most godly and Christ-like men I have met. Dr. Christy Wilson’s students could testify, and so could I even from that brief visit, that you were never quite sure whether he was chatting to you or to God. The two seemed to blend almost seamlessly. The story goes that he prayed through Gordon-Conwell’s student directory daily, and that he knew your name and family background before you walked into class. He became a mentor to many! I recall he and I driving past a gypsy fortune-teller and her caravan. One moment he was talking to me about her, the next moment to God. For myself, I strive after that ability to be ‘anxious about nothing and to pray about everything.’ I believe such a lifestyle derives from a spirit totally surrendered to Jesus. Ultimately, it arises from Christ’s indwelling Spirit in our lives and communities, flooding our lives and others’. It’s one of the most natural and spontaneous processes on earth! (cf. Rom. 5:5; Jn. 15:1-8)

A few weeks ago, one of our house church members who has been going through years of almost unbearable stress as a younger widow and businesswoman, shared with me how, encouraged by Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, she has been learning, in absolutely everything, just to ‘come to Jesus’ and to ‘look to Jesus.’ Remember Isaiah’s invitation in chap. 45:22 (KJV), ‘Look unto me, all the ends of the earth, and be saved.’ Remember Matthew’s account of Peter walking on the water:  he was fine while keeping his eyes on Jesus – when he glanced at the mountainous waves, swept up by the wind, he began to sink (Mt. 14:22ff). My fellow-traveller, under great pressure at the moment (for whatever reason), why not practice this constant ‘coming to Jesus’ and ‘looking to Jesus’ in everything?’ You may just find that somehow you’re able to cope and experience God’s supernatural peace amid it all.

In Part 2 of PRAYER FROM PAINFUL PLACES we’ll look into probably the most important aspect of our individual and corporate prayer-journey with Jesus.

** Believers suffering from clinical depression may also benefit from reading ‘Happiness Is A Choice,’ by Drs. Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, two Christian psychiatrists. It is easily read and grasped. To my knowledge the book is unfortunately out of print, however you may find a second-hand copy in a bookshop somewhere or on-line.

Advertisements

LEARNING TO ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER

20160321_133109_resized

[House Church Seminar on ‘The Roman Way,’ Port Elizabeth, South Africa]

 

Years ago I came across a statement, ‘The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners!’ Or something to that effect. I think it confirms the testimony of Scripture and Jesus.

For a few months now I’ve been reading, I must say with much pleasure, the Gospel of Luke. The introduction to the well-known story of ‘The Lost Sheep’ (Lk. 15:1-7) reminds us of Jesus’ constant battle with the religious establishment of his day in getting it to grasp that his mission was not to ‘righteous’ people but to the ‘unrighteous.’ For the umpteenth time, as he reached out to despised ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (v. 1-2), the Pharisees and law-teachers (the so-called ‘covenant people’ of Israel) were heard muttering ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ But that was his mission! The previous chapter, Lk. 14, relates the story of ‘The Great Banquet’ (v. 15-24), making the same point. After his general invitation to dinner resulted in excuse after excuse, the master of the house ordered his servant to ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled and the lame’ (v. 21), and when there were still empty seats, ‘Go out to the roads and the country lanes and make them come in, so that my house may be full… not one of those men who were invited (full of excuses) will get a taste of my banquet’ (v. 23-24).

The NT ekklesiae we’re also reminded of the apostle Paul’s exhortation in Romans 15:7, ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted  you (including you and me, sinful, self-centred, ‘warts ‘n all’), in order to bring praise to God.’ 

  • This exhortation was preceded by Paul’s masterful exposition of the ‘Good News,’ in all its fullness and beauty – creation, justification by faith alone, sanctification by faith alone, the gift of the Spirit, the sovereignty of God in his saving purpose for mankind, etc (ch. 1-14). What a motivation!
  • Paul proclaims this gospel of grace to the small, scattered house churches in Rome (1:7) and beyond.
  • He exhorts his readers to show respect both to the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong,’ those still struggling with dietary issues and special days, and those who had worked through those peripheral issues and experienced the liberating grace of Christ (ch. 14).
  • Paul addresses the perennial issue of Jew vs Gentile, with the Jews seeing themselves as the chosen ones and the Gentiles as untouchable. In ch. 15, on the Jew-Gentile issue, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’ (Is. 52:15; Rom. 15:21). Right from the start God’s people were intended to be ‘light to all the nations.’ Somehow most modern Jews in their spiritual blindness have failed miserably in this high calling.
  • It’s wonderful when we today begin to see ourselves as people complete in Christ, ‘a new creation in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), perfectly accepted in him through simple faith. It’s just as great a thing when we see Christ’s corporate body as a new creation in Christ, entrusted with God’s ministry of reconciliation everywhere on earth! (2 Cor. 5:11-6:3) I like to think of Jesus’ little ekklesiae, wherever they are, as places of acceptance. Forgive me if I have my sources wrong, but I seem to recall reading about Jim Cymbala, church-planting in down-town Brooklyn New York, inviting a prostitute to the Services, only to be told that a church would be the very last place she would visit and feel accepted. [Thank God for Jim and his wife who persevered in that difficult church-plant, whose ministry and famous choir has gone on to be greatly blessed and used of God]

Some time ago I was inspired by the words of Jurgen Moltmann,* taken from The Passion for Life. I recently shared the following quote at one of our house church gatherings: ‘Congregation is no longer the sum of all those who are registered on church rolls. Congregation is a new kind of living (I love that. My words) that affirms:

  • that no one is alone with his or her problems;
  • that no one has to conceal his or her disabilities; (aren’t we all ‘disabled,’ in one way or another? My comment)
  • that there are not some who have a say and those who have no say; [recently here in my city a church member was prohibited by the rector from serving communion to his bed-ridden mother because as a layman he was ‘not licensed to do so.’ My comment]
  • that neither the young or old are isolated;
  • that one bears with others even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement;
  • that we can also leave each other in peace when the other needs it.’ (I love that! I enjoy community but also my privacy. My comment)

Another of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,* had this to say:

  • ‘Where a people pray, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.’
  • ‘God wants to see human beings, not ghosts who shun the world.’ [We live in a day of  ‘Gnostic Christianity,’ with believers aspiring to escape the real world into some super-spiritual world where ‘Christianese’ prevails, refusing to be ‘salt and light’ where it really matters and among the lost of the earth. Cf. Mt. 5:13-16. Own comment]
  • ‘Christ has been exiled from the lives of most Christians – we build him a temple but we live in our own house.’

Of course, ‘learning to accept one another as Christ has accepted us’ is a process, a journey, a long road. I have often, too often, stumbled along that road! That’s why I changed my blog caption to LEARNING To Accept One Another. Let’s all, as Jesus’ humble disciples (Gr. mathetes, i.e. learners/apprentices), learn to walk in his footsteps in utter dependence on his indwelling Spirit. And may all our faith-communities become gracious places of acceptance!

* Jurgen Moltmann, now in his nineties, is a renowned German Reformed theologian, who has specialised in eschatology (study of the last things), ecclesiology (study of the church) and ‘a theology of hope.’ He was drafted into the German Air Force in 1944 at the age of 18, surrendered to the first British soldier he came across at the end of WW2, broken and disillusioned by German culture at the revelation of the Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz and the other death camps.

* Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young German theologian who received his PhD at the age of 22. He defied Adolf Hitler and joined the Confessing Church in the 1930’s. He was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis at the age of 39, just 2 weeks before armistice in 1945. [Quotes from Bonhoeffer’s biography by Eric Metaxas]