Does this mean war?
‘To clasp the hands in prayer,’ wrote the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, ‘is the beginning of an uprising’. The uprising begins, of course, in us. Sudden miracles may happen ‘out there’ in my bank account, or on the cancer ward or even in the corridors of power, but more often they happen slowly ‘in here’, in my thinking and motivation as I wrestle with the implications of Christ as Lord. When I clasp the hands in prayer, things change firstly because I myself get changed.
But the uprising does not end with me. It would be a pretty lousy uprising if it could be contained within my rib cage. I’ve often seen great boulders of rock shattered by mere trickles of water that entered cracks and simply froze. In a similar way the unlikeliest force on earth - mere prayer – has the power to destroy the sorts of strongholds identified by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:18. The way it does this, however, is not nearly as metaphysical as this metaphor makes it sound, so let me give a different example…
I received an email recently, inviting me to take part in an ‘exercise of focused global consciousness’ which was aiming to change a situation of great suffering. The request was well intentioned but New Age understandings of prayer are doomed to change little and challenge nothing because the power of prayer is not in the act but in the object; it’s in the name of Jesus. Without Christ, prayer is mere meditation. With him it can engender transformation. The early Christians understood that bowing the knee to the anointed King Jesus was to defy Caesar’s delusions of divinity. They knew that it was a simple matter of allegiance to one Lord that meant dangerous defiance to another – a political act that could cost their lives in the coliseum. When we bow the knee to Jesus in prayer we are not just engaging in an esoteric religious exercise; we are conspiring with an exiled King to depose a Dictator. ‘Prayer is subversive activity’, says Rodney Clapp, Associate Editor of Christianity Today (not a magazine generally associated with revolution and counter-cultural conspiracy). ‘It involves,’ he explains, ‘a more or less open act of defiance against any claim by the current regime’.
Forget the posters of skipping lambs and communion wafers. Re-brand ‘retreats’ immediately! Prayer is militant. To pray is to engage in spiritual warfare. And because the dividing line between the spiritual and material realities cannot easily be marked, ‘spiritual’ warfare has implications politically, socially, relationally, emotionally, economically and even artistically. That’s just one reason why we’ve recently held a week of prayer for global justice. It’s why we pray about Haiti. It’s why 24-7 communities seek to feed the hungry, celebrate creativity and throw parties. It’s why we sometimes raise our voices in prayer, sacrifice sleep and shed tears. How happy the enemy of our souls must therefore be when he persuades us that prayer is merely the ephemeral hobby of little old ladies, the cloistered irrelevance of spiritual pacifists. No wonder there is such a battle every time I come to really pray (it never gets easier) and then, having prayed, to persevere in prayer until the battle is won.
The actual reality of spiritual warfare was perhaps exposed most terribly in the physical warfare of the two world wars of the last century. While the sociopolitical triggers for that ‘century of hate’ may be attributed to the end of colonialism, the rise of German fascism and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Austria, the spiritual roots of these conflicts are less well known. What on earth are people of faith to make of the death of 71 million people, the decimation of the Jews and the bloodiest century in world history? How does such warfare reflect the spiritual battle surrounding God’s great mission to bless the nations and ‘reconcile all things to himself in Christ ’ (2 Cor 5)? For answers to such vast questions we must look to the witness of the church and may therefore take note of a particular international gathering of Christian leaders, which took place in Scotland just four years before the outbreak of the First World War.
If you had scanned the roster of international delegates at the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference you would have noticed that three particular nations were disproportionately represented: the USA, the UK and Germany - great economic powers, all recently stirred by nationally significant movements of prayer.
The Edinburgh Conference, under the leadership of John Mott, marked an historic convergence of global Christian missions, intent on the evangelisation of the world in their generation through mutual love and co-operation. Had they achieved their aim of fulfilling the Great Commission by taking the Good News of Jesus to every tribe and tongue, then the great prerequisite of Christ’s return would have been met (Mat 24:14). However, within just four years of that gathering, the three great mission-sending nations would begin destroying one another in two World Wars and they would not stop until the generation of men who had been so wonderfully saved in the Welsh valleys had been decimated, bleeding to death in the French trenches. It is a sobering thing to recognize the terrifying holocaust unleashed when evil is confronted by the immanent possibility of its own demise (Rev 12:7-12).
The positive legacy of that Edinburgh Conference lives on, however, in the modern Missions movement, in the World Council of Churches (which it was instrumental in forming), in the enduring witness of men like John Mott (who went on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of the Second World War for his missionary statesmanship) and ultimately in the inspiring story of a generation of students rising up to bless the nations because they had first learned to bow the knee in prayer.
If Karl Barth was right, and to clasp the hands in prayer really is the beginning of an uprising, then after ten years of 24-7 prayer in one hundred nations, we must accept that this is a dangerous business: we are by default engaged in a global conspiracy of assertive hope that refuses to sit idly by while the world cries out for a saviour.
I don’t know about you, but I am terrified and stirred simultaneously. The stakes are so high as we pray. I must decide, once and for all, whether Jesus Christ is my Lord. But then I look around at the crying needs of our time, the violence and suffering, the emptiness of consumerism, the crisis of global warming, the holocaust of unjustifiable abortions, the AIDS pandemic, the enslaving of Africa through debt, the breakdown of families, the decline of the western church, and I know something has to change. And when I look to Jesus, the exiled King, I know that there must be an uprising and it will begin, as it always has done, in prayer!
In the words of William Booth’s last address,
‘While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight, I'll fight to the very end!’