The real problem with praying to God for healing: he has an agenda

We might not like the medicine

You probably know the old joke about a person who fell off a cliff but managed to grab hold of a branch halfway down. As he swung, he called into the mists below him, ‘Is there anybody there? Can you help me?’

A voice came from the mist. ‘Trust me, and let go the branch.’

The person thought about it and then said, ‘Noted. Is there anybody else down there?’

Involving God in our healing exposes us to the risk that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways.

We may come to him with the hope of a quick fix to a medical problem. But in coming, we open ourselves to the fact that God may have a view on what is really wrong with us and what needs to be put right.  

We may point out the mote in God’s eye (he let me suffer toothache!), he points out the plank in ours. We bring our agenda to him; he brings his agenda to us. It is like when you have to speak to your wife about something.  It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what avalanche will be unleashed as you remove the first boulder. 

Unfortunately I know of no way round this. Once we bring our problems to God we are in the same position as the king with an army of 10,000 discovering that the opposing king has an army of 20,000.  By the end of the day there will only be one king left standing. One agenda will survive the meetup. And it won’t be ours.

Our options at this point are limited. We could take the ‘Henry V’ option (‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’) Or, since it is God we are now facing, God and his agenda for us, we could take our army to one side and say, ‘Lads, it’s like this. We either face certain death in battle or we surrender and hope for the best.’ We come to him: we submit to him. We want his touch; the only thing offered is his outstretched arms, his deep embrace. It’s all or nothing, all of him or nothing.

Our only way out of this dilemma is to take our medicine as soon as possible. We want healing if possible please; if so, we first need to surrender ourselves, body, mind and schedule, heart and soul and hopes, to the Healer.

 

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Inconvenient data

It just really gets in the way of sloppy thinking.

Fulbe herders, W Africa, 1984, taken from just outside my front door — a missionary memory of my own.

Our new vicar showed us a film of his early life as a child of missionaries in West Papua (the other half of Papua New Guinea).

A compilation of home movies, and from the 1970s, it was almost a splicing together of Victorian missionary cliches: small dark-skinned people carry suitcases on their heads through the jungle. White missionary in shorts and pith helmet preaches to seated crowds who are clad in shells and penis-gourds. Female white missionary gives injections while dark-skinned people wait patiently for their turn; local children run to greet the aeroplane.

I’ve spent a lot of my career writing positively about missions in a world where ‘everybody knows’ the whole endeavour is an exercise in cultural imperialism and thinly-veiled racism. These images confirm everything ‘everyone knows’ and they don’t help.

Except they did help. As the film unfolded, we saw the happiness on the people’s faces when they destroyed their weapons in a fire. We saw the road that two villages built to connect them because they wanted to give up war forever.  Primitive peoples? They were advanced enough to disarm and to build bridges with their neighbours and rivals. Conspicuously more advanced, then, than my country; and the gospel did that. The gospel the pith-helmeted missionaries in their t00-short 1970s shorts brought.

How often is the truth more complicated, and more unfashionable, than the lazy assumption? I think probably always.

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

My favourite slow mission habit of them all

Do stuff you love, with friends.

Group hugs

Nothing comes close to this, in my experience:

  1. Get a group together doing something you all love.
  2. Mix together people who have a faith with people who don’t.
  3. Er – that’s it.

I’ve seen this so many times.

  • My wife ran a youth group for 15 years. We did youthy things on Sunday nights, and on Mondays all had a meal together and a Bible study. We used to take them camping as well. We saw several generations of young people grow in faith (and some not) over the years.
  • Our church organizes a men’s walking weekend each year, coupled with a monthly breakfast meeting that involves bacon sandwiches. We do curries and film nights too. Quite a few guys have been scooped up by this over the years.
  • I go to a community choir in our village organized by the local Baptist church. Several people, thus exposed to Baptist threshing machinery, have also now joined the church.
  • I used to be part of a book club, a place for some fantastic discussions.
  • We have a board games evening every month, people of varying orientation and faith all geeking together and enjoying each other’s company.
  • Once I organized a bird-watching event at 5:00am one May morning. I put it in our parish magazine. In the more than 10 years I edited that magazine, it was the only thing we advertised where the resulting crowd actually blocked the road. At 5 am! (Actually this was a one-off and did not result in a group, but perhaps it should’ve.)

Slow mission in a nutshell.

Healing as thriving

‘Slow’ healing — part 3

157/365 On the Mend 060609They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Mark 6:56)

Can this happen today? It can, if we re-define ‘healing’ as ‘the start of healing’ or simply ‘enjoying the experience of thriving’.

I ought to say I believe what Mark is reporting: people reached out to Jesus with a  whole GP’s surgery of stuff (rashes, cataracts, cancers, anxieties, fears, depression, strokes, diabetes, whatever) and emerged, blinking, stretching, smiling and completely well. But I believe this is exceptional, perhaps because Jesus’ healings were doing double duty both as acts of mercy and as signs of the Kingdom.

In the context of what I am calling ‘slow healing’, though, I believe everyone can encounter Christ and begin to thrive. The thriving is healing’s germination. How much physical healing happens now and how much is deferred to eternity is of course rather important to us, but it is secondary in the grand scheme.

The grand scheme is:

  1. Encounter Christ
  2. Thrive in his goodness in this life and the next
  3. Receive downpayments of physical and relational wellness in this life
  4. Ultimately be completely whole, physically and relationally.

All who touched him were healed. Still true today?

A new introduction to the Christian faith

The Puzzle of ChristianityThe Puzzle of Christianity by Peter Vardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apart from the title — which more to do with the author’s brand than what’s actually inside the book — this is a clear, illuminating, irenic introduction to the Christian faith. It steers admirably away from a sectarian party line and respects critical scholarship while also realizing that critical scholarship can itself be criticized and is anyway often a long way from the lives and preoccupations of actual Christians.

Many opponents of Christianity prefer to criticize straw men (?persons) rather than the real thing, which is usually better thought out, more nuanced, more aware of its own failings and rather harder to dismiss with a single rhetorical swipe. Vardy’s picture includes the warts, but I think it’s a fair and deeply attractive portrait of the past and present of Christianity.

In our (Anglican) church we are seeing a number of Chinese academics adopt the Christian faith; this text will serve very well as a fine, just, heart-warming introduction to the wider context of what they are getting themselves into.

View all my reviews

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.

Four things to think about when praying for healing

Four Point Decoration by MeThese pointers:

  1. It’s all about Jesus.
  2. It’s now and not yet
  3. It’s internal and external
  4. It comes in weakness

are how the Kingdom of God is breaking in (as I blogged earlier). Healing is a part of the kingdom, so we can think about it in the same way. As follows:

  1. It’s all about Jesus. Healing is about meeting Christ, and about his priorities for us.  We put ourselves in his hands and ask him for help. He is King: kings act. The blind beggar called out, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ meaning ‘So you’re the King? Do your job.’
  2. It’s now and not yet. Some healing comes now; all will come later. The exact blend of what you get now and what you get later is up to the King. But we must focus on the now: too much healing prayer (in my experience) focusses on some vague future point which is a cop-out.
  3. It’s internal and external. Healing is never really about a single organic solution. It’s also always about our heart and our relationships. It accepts Western medicine which focusses on repairs, but extends far beyond it. So, for example, the person with a stomach ulcer clearly doesn’t just need a cure for ulcers. Healing prayer embraces all this wholeness, one reason why it is encouraged to happen within the wider context of the church’s leadership and pastoral care structure (as in James 5:14).
  4. It comes in weakness. So our approach to the sick (and when praying for ourselves) is gentle, tentative, loving; not desperate to prove something.

Here comes the sun

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

SunriseI welcomed the chance recently to dig around and ask the question  “what (actually) is the Kingdom of God?” If you had to answer a quiz about it, what would you say? Here are five things.

  1. It’s wrapped up with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and him sending the Holy Spirit. His death fixed things up between us and God. His resurrection was the first drop of new wine into the old wineskins of the world, and it broke a tomb. His Ascension was his coronation. Sending the Spirit to revolutionize human lives was his first act in office.
  2. It’s now and not yet.  It’s breaking in among but this is just the first installment. The rest is yet to come. So we enjoy peace now which is an appetizer for the peace that will break over the whole world at the end the age.
  3. It’s internal and external. It’s about transformed hearts and revolutionizing society. It weaves together the quietist and the activist strands of the Christian faith.
  4. It grows. Like a mustard seed or yeast, tiny but resolute, it can be poisoned, stamped out, wiped out, set back, but it keeps coming.
  5. It comes in and through weakness. Hence the Beatitudes: ‘Happy are you who are spiritually bankrupt.’