BY DR DAVID SMITH
Readers of this blog may know that I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years writing a book on the biblical tradition of the prayer of lament. But in addition, I recently worked on a set of Bible reading notes dealing with Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, which of course includes Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer.
So let me begin with the words of Jesus. At the very heart of what might be called the ‘manifesto’ of the kingdom of God, Jesus deals with three aspects of what we can describe as ‘spiritual disciplines’: giving to the poor and oppressed, prayer and fasting. A friend of mine told me recently that he avoids using terminology about ‘the soul’ because, he said, it has become a kind of jargon that few people really understand. Instead he will occasionally ask colleagues, ‘How is your inner life?’ He reports that when phrased in this way, even non-Christian friends respond to a sensitive enquiry, recognising that there is more to being a human person than what appears on a surface level.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Jesus’ teaching on these subjects is precisely his repeated insistence on the private, internal life of his disciples and, conversely, repeated warnings about parading religious devotion in public in order to enhance one’s esteem with other people. He talks about ‘acts of righteousness’ and immediately says they should not be performed (an appropriate word!) ‘before men’. The sharing of resources is to be done in secret, never as a means of gaining honour; the discipline of prayer is a matter for your own room with the door closed; and fasting (which Jesus clearly regards as a regular spiritual discipline) is to be directed solely to ‘your Father, who sees what is done in secret’.
The connection between this teaching of Jesus and mission has nothing to do with effectiveness in evangelism, as though this is a kind of method to achieve greater success. The concern of Christ is
instead with the kind of people we become and the manner in which that then challenges the normal values of the world in which we live our lives. In 1937 the English missionary Charlie Andrews sailed to India for the final time and received a letter on his arrival from a Hindu friend who said, ‘During all these twenty years I have never asked you about Christ, for your own personality has been more than enough for me’. He went on to request Andrews to write a life of Christ in simple English and added: ‘You are the only person who can write this book, for you have lived like Him all these years in India’. Before his death Andrews wrote a small commentary on the Sermon on the Mount which he described as ‘an amazingly perfect description of the Christian character at its highest point’.
What though if your inner life is in turmoil? Is prayer possible when we experience crisis, whether personal tragedy or some larger catastrophe which shatters our hope and shakes the very foundations of our faith? This, of course, is the point at which the biblical tradition of the prayer of lament is so crucial. The Bible does not tell that when our hearts are breaking we have to say, ‘Praise the Lord anyway’. Praise and lament are closely connected in Scripture, and both form part of a normal relationship with God. The conclusion we draw is that biblical prayer is not only crucial for the inner life of the Christian, but also that it must be honest before God, unafraid to admit failure, doubt and struggle. As someone has said, the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘How Long?’ are as authentic in the Bible as the cry ‘Hallelujah’.
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash
This article was originally featured in the April 2020 edition of Reach magazine. To subscribe to Reach, or any of Pioneers UK’s other digital publications, click here.
BY HARRIET, A PIONEERS UK MISSION MENTOR
African diaspora Christians living in Europe are confronted with a phenomenon that presents both a great opportunity and a challenge of equal magnitude. The state of the continuing decline of Christianity in Europe has been a great concern in the global church for a long time now, with many churches in this region being deserted and eventually closing. However, in these same regions, African churches are on the increase. At the same time, there has been increasing migration of people into Europe from countries with many least-reached people groups, yet with restricted access for traditional missionary work. The combination of these factors has led to an increasing awareness in the global church that God may be calling the African diaspora Christians to a task that is greater than the original reasons for their migration into Europe. God is not raising only Africans for this task. Rather, theirs is a call to join other diaspora Christians as well as the indigenous church in Europe in the battle for these lands. Freedom of religion in Western Europe sets just the right stage for the fulfilment of this task. The enthusiasm of African Christians is an added impetus in that direction.
However, this is no small task. Apart from the obvious challenge of massive cultural differences, there are also historical realities from the interactions between Africans and Europeans that lead to set perceptions of how the gospel message should flow, as well as the spiritual forces of Evil characteristic of all mission fields.
While African diaspora Christians should be thoroughly prepared to engage through awareness and cross-cultural training, prayer is the greatest key to overcoming these challenges.
Prayer changes our perspective. As we humbly confer with God about a matter, he opens our eyes to his view. Human calculations and reasonings are brought to nought as we see the world as God sees it and look at ourselves as God does. We begin to see the poverty and impoverishment around us often masked by material wealth. At the same time, we begin to see ourselves not as immigrants on the periphery of society but as agents of change right in the middle of God’s purposes to establish his kingdom in these lands. As Paul the Apostle put it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Prayer disturbs our apathy. Constant staring at idolatry, fluid moral standards, general disinterest in religion and a marked hostility to Christianity in particular, can have a paralysing effect on believers to the point of acceptance of the state of affairs, a resignation to defeat. When we pray, however, our gaze is shifted to God, his will on earth and his sacrifice to accomplish it. We begin to be uncomfortable with the way things are and eventually find ourselves in a passionate plea, ‘thy kingdom come’, rebelling against the status quo.
In prayer, God invites us to participate in his intervention. God is already at work to establish his kingdom in the world, in Europe. He invites us to his ultimate victory. What a privilege! We triumph as we pray and then rise with boldness to follow our prayers with corresponding action.
Therefore, in the face of this daunting missionary call of participating in evangelising Europe, African Christians must join up with all believers, to pray. Persistent, continuous, concerted prayer. We must be prepared to come up with creative ways of praying together. A Kenyan network of ministers in London, for instance, spends hours praying together on the phone.
In these times, Christians from different cultural backgrounds must unite in prayer, laying aside personal comforts for a greater purpose. African Christians need to be willing to be flexible and adaptive to new expressions of worship as they join with Western, Asian and Latino Christians in Europe for concerted prayer.
Many spiritual battles have been waged and won all over the world as missionaries and local Christians have engaged in prayer with humility and brokenness. We are set to see a revival in Europe as well, as we pray as Jesus taught us.
Photo by Samuel Martins on unsplash.com