To Whom do We Pray?

The Direction of Prayer

The Direction of Prayer

I recently walked into a beautiful Mosque in Central Asia. No one could mistake the direction toward which prayers were offered. There it was, the Mihrab, an indentation in the wall that looked somewhat like a large arched door beautifully decorated with tiles and calligraphy. See the picture above. The Mihrab showed worshipers which way to stand so that they would face Mecca and pray to the One God proclaimed by Muhammad. The place of each worshiper facing the Mihrab was marked on the carpet covering the place of prayer. There was little confusion over how to pray or the God to whom they were praying.

We who follow Jesus don’t have such a structured way to pray. We can face any direction. Sometimes we also have confused ideas about the God to whom we pray. It is so easy to imagine God the way we want Him to be—which, of course, is a form of idolatry. C. S. Lewis said something like this, “The prayer before all prayers is, may it be the real God to whom I pray and may it be the real ‘I’ who prays.” How do we come to understand the “real God”? I am gratified at the way in which David Wells has answered this question in his recent book, God in the Whirlwind (Crossway, 2014). He urges us to go beyond simply looking up individual verses that describe God. If we would know God, we must “begin at the beginning and see how God revealed his character across time” (page 41). We must immerse ourselves in the whole sweep of God’s revelation contained in the canon of Scripture and culminating in Christ. That immersion must be one of submission. As we humbly submit to God’s self revelation he uses it to reshape our thinking about Him. In the first chapter of the above book Wells warns us against allowing our own culture rather than Scripture shape our understanding of God.

I’ve written Christian Faith in the Old Testament: the Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, February, 2014) with this purpose in mind. I wanted to help ordinary believers gain a sense of Scripture’s wholeness. I have offered this book as an aid in understanding the contribution each part of Scripture makes to the whole with suggestions on how each part applies today. My prayer is that Christian Faith in the Old Testament will help people in both pew and pulpit to humbly gain an ever more accurate understanding of the God revealed in Scripture, whose fullness is beyond our comprehension, but “whom to know” in His self-revelation “is life eternal.”

In Bondage to the Profit Motive

Several weeks ago a friend who works as a nurse in one of our large hospitals said to me: “We don’t have health care in this country any more, we have a health industry.” Here is how she began to explain what she meant—patients who have no means of payment are often sent home early; patients who have good insurance are kept longer than they need to be. Health care has become all about profit. My wife received excellent care during a recent minor surgery—but I couldn’t help noticing how lavish the facilities were. The frills push the price up—but help to compete for paying customers (note the term “customer,” not “patient”).

Education appears to be following the same course. Colleges and Universities dump down their curriculum and develop majors that attract students whether those majors are either academically or professionally profitable. They, too, are in the business of adding frills that increase the price in order to attract “customers”—cable TV in the dorm, cafeterias replete with variety, etc. We have even had the appearance of for-profit colleges. A recent prospective student repeatedly referred to our institution’s “customer service” and described the education we offer as a “commodity.”

We in the church have not escaped this tendency. We are called to be the people of God who live in covenant relationship with one another centered on the worship of God through word and sacrament. Instead we have often become purveyors of programs that provide various services in an attempt to attract people. The commitment of those attracted by these “ministries” often goes no further than the service they receive. Some years ago a local funeral home bought a church near by. I say “funeral home,” but it became an “event” center. The establishment would provide service for any life event you wanted to hold there. This arrangement may be fine for an “event” center, but it is not good for the church. We are not there simply to get numbers or “make a profit” by giving you whatever you want.

God was not moved by the “profit motive” when he sent His Only Begotten Son—“For God so loved the world, that he gave . . .” Perhaps his people should be more concerned about following his example.  

The “Fear of the Lord”—and One Night in Madina

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Madina House

We had our last class on 2 Corinthians tonight. It has been a good course—none of us wanted it to be over. The class has been delightfully small—three students have been physically present in the class room, and three have been present by Skype—one in south Mississippi, one in Spokane, Washington, and one in Mexico City. Tonight we were finishing our study of  2 Corinthians 5:11-21 in the Greek text. Paul begins this passage by saying, “Because we know the fear of the Lord, we persuade people.”

The “Fear of the Lord” is opposite the fear of evil. Some years ago we were living in the village of Medina—about 2,000 people—Sierra Leone, West Africa. One night well after dark there was a knock on the door. Several men from the regent chief were standing outside. They asked me to bring my little blue Mazda B1600 pickup to the chief’s house. When we were on our way they told me to turn off the head lights—because someone might see us. They loaded the sick regent chief into the back of the truck and we took him to another house. The pastor of the local church explained it to me the next day. They believed the chief’s sickness was caused by a witch. If they could move him secretly, the witch would not know where he was. The fear of curses and swears, of jealousy and malicious intent were a staple of life. From this fear Christ would set us free.

The “Fear of the Lord,” however, is our trepidation before infinite good. It is our accountability before the almighty Creator of the universe who himself is pure self-giving love without stain of evil. Who can truly behold the vast universe that He has created without trembling before the Maker.

Although the Cross through which God has redeemed us delivers us from condemnation, it does not diminish the “Fear of the Lord.” The work of redemption only intensifies our awe and trembling before a holy God. Sin is so horrible and God’s judgment on the sinner is so terrible that nothing less than the Cross was sufficient to remove its stain. Roberto Stevenson, one of the students in the class, suggested that “the Fear of the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 5:11 was actually the “Fear of Christ.” After all, Paul says in 5:10 that we must all appear before “the judgment seat of Christ.” Yes, you say, but the Cross also reveals the great love of God in Christ—look at 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. There “Christ died for all.”  It was there that God “made [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Doesn’t the fact that the God of the universe would go to such lengths for our salvation add to our trembling? The wonder of what he has done—and the realization that to reject him is to also reject “such a great salvation.” No wonder Paul said, “Because we know the fear of the Lord, we persuade people” to receive God’s offer of reconciliation in Christ.  

Kamakwie Secondary School—“being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:11, ESV)

In my last post I described what happened at Binkolo on our second night in Sierra Leone, September 3, 1969. It seemed that I was the one to whom other funny and embarrassing things happened over the next three years as Rosa and I completed our first term of missionary service. Maybe I’ll write about them another time. In this post, however, I’m not going to talk about the funny or the embarrassing, but about how the life of Jesus shines through our weakness and suffering.

In 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (remember, I’m teaching 2 Corinthians this semester!) Paul uses the following words to describe his life as a minister of the New Covenant: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (ESV).

On September 4 we went up-country from Binkolo to Kamakwie (yes, for those not familiar with Sierra Leone, Kamakwie is more “up-country” than Binkolo—but not as many ants). For the next three years I was to be chaplain and Bible teacher (Bible Knowledge was a required subject) at Kamakwie Secondary School. I was straight out of seminary and so green that I made the grass look red, and I was the only missionary at the school. Those who had been there the previous year had either gone home or been transferred. There had been a big brouhaha (or, as we say in Sierra Leone, a “palaver”) that necessitated their untimely departure.

The school was in disarray. As far as I could tell that first year, there was no other committed Christian teacher for the 450 or so students in attendance. During the next two plus years the school was characterized by gross misuse of funds and by immorality of various kinds. I once found the boys in the boarding department drunk with wine given them by a respected person in town. At another time the walls of the senior prefect’s room were covered with porn given him by one of the school authorities. It appeared that everything was being done to intentionally corrupt the students. There was still tension among missionaries.

There was also anguish in our personal lives. During these years our first child died twenty-four hours after birth and Rosa all but died at the birth of our second. Throughout much of the last year I was suffering from recurrent intestinal cramps, fever, and chills, all the while endeavoring to stand as a witness for Christ in the midst of a godless mess. At one point my life was threatened and I have no doubt that at other times I was in physical danger. Although I had not been beaten five times with “forty-stripes save one” (2 Corinthians 11:24 KJV) as had Paul, I certainly felt “afflicted . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down.” Yet, by the grace of God, “not destroyed.”

Paul thought his sufferings were necessary. He described them as “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.” They were necessary “so that the life of Jesus also” might “be manifested in” his weak “mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11 ESV). And so it was at Kamakwie. By the time we left God had given us a strong Christian principle, several Christian teachers, and a youth center in town for the students. But the long term results were even more important. Many of the students to whom Rosa and I ministered during that time became strong Christians and leaders in the church—one became National Superintendent, another the Principal of The Evangelical College of Theology, and another the Principal of Gbendembu Wesleyan Bible College. We never know how, when we are faithful, the “life of Jesus” will shine through our human weakness.

September 3, 1969. Binkolo, Sierra Leone, West Africa.

The time has come for the truth to be told concerning the events that occurred at Binkolo, Sierra Leone, West Africa on the night of September 3, 1969. The preservation for posterity of a true account of that night is important for several reasons. First, the recounting of this story has often led to distortion. Various exaggerated apochryphal versions of legendary proportion have gained credibility. Second, the true account will establish the fact that I was an innocent victim of the embarrassing events that occurred that night. Furthermore, after more than forty-four years, Rosa and I are the only two surviving witnesses. Thus, with her by my side, I am endeavoring to write a true an accurate account, which will be of interest to all persons concerned with the history of the American Wesleyan Mission in Sierra Leone.

It is necessary for me to give you a certain amount of background information in order to put that infamous night in proper context. Rosa and I had been married on August 15 of that year. On the second of September we arrived in Sierra Leone for what would be my first three-year term of service. Rosa had already completed one three-year stint. We were met in Freetown by two respected single lady missionaries, Dr. Marilyn Birch and Miss Lois Sheridan (later Miss Lois Sheridan Ellis). We remember awaking the next morning in the mission rest house, affectionately known as Summer Hill Villa, and hearing some children outside saying, “they done come from the United States of America.”

After some business in Freetown, we headed up country arriving in Binkolo about 10:00 pm. Binkolo, as most of you know, was an old mission station. The house, with high ceilings, dark wood paneling, overhanging eves, and large shuttered screen windows, had often been enlarged. It had numerous rooms and a total of thirteen outside doors. At this time Marion and Marge Birch lived there. Marion was Mission Director. We were to spend the night with the Birches. Another single lady, Marie Lind, was also present. Marie was writing a history of the American Wesleyan Mission and the Sierra Leone Wesleyan Church.
Dr. Marily Birch (Marion’s sister), Lois Sheridan, Rosa, and I got out of our van and began walking toward the dark house. One or two feeble flashlights lit our pathway. The women, who were wearing skirts, began to complain of driver ant bites. As many of you know, driver ants march in columns. They do not inject a toxin, but their pinchers are very painful. I felt no driver ants.

The three women and I climbed the steps to the veranda and entered the living room of the house. Marge and Marie were there to welcome us. There was one small candle. Its feeble light disappeared in the shadowy recesses of the ceiling. The rest of this mysterious house was enveloped in darkness. The women were busy picking of the biting ants. Suddenly, I, too, began to feel the sharp bites. As I began to squirm, Dr. Marilyn Birch, in her quiet way, said, “The only thing you can do is drop your pants.” So, since the doctor had spoken, I loosened my belt and let my pants fall. Immediately, the four-foot florescent bulb overhead burst into light. Marion, Marge’s husband, was not there because he had slipped out to start the generator. There I stood with my pants down in front of five women—three of whom were single and one of whom was my wife of two weeks. You have heard of people rolling with laughter. Rosa was literally on the floor doubled up and shaking uncontrollably.

This event had numerous after effects. Once when I was telling it in Dr. Marilyn’s presence, she said softly, “Well, what else could you do but drop your pants?” When new people came to Sierra Leone they, too, first went through Binkolo. When they got to Kamakwie, they would often look at me with a wry smile and say something like, “So, are you the one . . .” Marion had already told his version of the story. Once several years after we had returned from Sierra Leone Carol Earl, who had served as a nurse at Kamakwie Hospital, asked me for a true account. There were many distortions. Some thought this embarrassing incident happened at Gbendembu or Kamakwie. What I have here written, however, is a true and faithful narrative. You now know how, at the very beginning of my missionary career, I was caught “with my pants down.”

“Let’s try one more time. Give me a push!”

“Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  2 Corinthians 3:5-6 ESV

As we were working on 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 in class, we were struck by Paul’s clear sense that his sufficiency was not self-sufficiency. It was God-sufficiency. According to Paul’s own testimony in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6, God, and God alone, had made him sufficient as a minister of the New Covenant. How easy it is to attempt God’s work in our own strength—and ultimately, how futile.

When I taught at Kamakwie Secondary School in Sierra Leone, West Africa, one of my colleagues, Duane Steele, had a Honda 70 motor bike. As I remember, it was blue and white. Those Honda 70’s were a popular means of transport in the Africa of those days. I enjoyed riding it. One day he loaned it to me to ride over to the secondary school compound after school and visit with some of the students. After completing my business, I mounted the machine and kicked the kick starter. Nothing happened. I kicked it again. Nothing happened. I kicked until I had little kick left. What was the matter with this motor bike? So I enlisted some secondary school students to push me—my leg was tired, so we would push start it. They pushed me all over the school compound—the motor didn’t even sputter. Then I happened to look down. There was the key—in the switch, but not turned on! Somehow I distracted their attention long enough so that I could stealthily reach down and turn the key. Then I said, “Let’s try one more time. Give me a push.” And, of course, it started.   Sometimes we try to do God’s work by our own kicking and pushing— we have forgotten to turn on the switch. Even if we appear to have gotten things going, what we achieve will be futile in God’s sight.