40 Hours of Prayer- a Crazy Idea?

 

Today I finished 40 hours of prayer.

Not 40 seconds or 40 minutes or 4 hours but 40 hours. What’s going on?

I didn’t do it on my own, I shared the prayer marathon with the President and General Secretary of the Uniting Church along with a number of other Moderators and Synod General Secretaries.

To make the experience more deeply meaningful I and several others fasted for the 40 hours, no food or coffee, just water.

No, there is no pending nuclear attack, global financial crisis or crisis in the Uniting Church. Indeed the event was stimulated by a major celebration, it’s the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church. In 40 days time, we will celebrate 40 years since that historic moment took place, the joining together of three churches, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational. I was 20 plus at the time. If you are on social media, tag us using #40prayers.  

So our prayers began with praise, thanking God for many of the things that God has done in and through and at times in spite of our church over four decades. There is a lot to give thanks to God for; our congregations, our schools, our agencies, our growing relationship with the First peoples Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

At the 40 hour prayer marathon, we celebrated many things such as our cross cultural/inter cultural dimensions, our great diversity in suburban, country and remote areas. We thanked God for decades of faithful people who have loved God and their neighbour in the name of Christ and the Uniting Church. The list could go on and on. We also prayed repentantly recognising our many mistakes and sins.

We remember that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness in prayer and preparation for his ministry and how the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Our prayers were full of thanksgiving, repentance, supplication and hope.

My main take home was that prayer and lots of it , must come from the margins and be central to our life together.

May God teach us to be praying church.

Steve Francis
Moderator

PRAYER – for what it’s worth

When I became a Christian (still thinking about the right way to say that …) I had lots of advice from all kinds of well-meaning people. There were those who told me about behaviour, those who warned me about dangers and those who gave me instruction about the things I had to do and the rules I had to comply with. I heard them but largely ignored the advice.

It seemed to me that the most important part of being a follower of Jesus was that I should have a relationship with him. Few gave me any advice on how that might happen. I struggled initially through reading the Bible, attending worship services and joining fellowship groups. All were helpful in one way or another.

The common thread was prayer and I began to explore prayer as the way in which I could best relate with God. I found the old classics on prayer, Rosalind Rinker’s “Conversational Prayer” and O Hallesby’s book on prayer. I was drawn into this space and now spend a few hours in the early part of every day in conversation with God.

Of course, its not like a human conversation, but I speak and I listen. In my listening, (or meditation) I “hear” responses to my speaking. This has been the pattern of my forty years of building this relationship with Jesus. I used to write prayers in my journal, now I post them on Facebook. And while I get many “likes” each day, this is not what prayer is really all about. The written prayer is simply the end result, or summary, of a conversation.

There are many different ways of praying.

What I have described is the approach in my personal life. There are also community prayers, where prayers are prepared for or spoken out extemporaneously in the public space, particularly in worship services. I usually encourage people to say those prayers in their heart as the leader prays, rather than simply listening to them. In this way they “own” the prayer for themselves. I must admit that I do struggle with public prayers still, I am often too focussed on the human listeners, and getting the words right, rather than the Divine Listener but this is an ongoing journey. We also need more space to listen back in our public prayers.

On Sunday May 14, the Uniting Church in Australia begins 40 days of preparation to commemorate the 40 years of our existence since 22 June 1977. It begins with a 40 hour prayer meeting beginning on Sunday 14 May. The call to prayer has come from the President Stuart McMillan, and the Moderators and General Secretary’s from each Synod will be gathered in Melbourne for this time. Please join with us wherever you are in this time. If you are on social media, tag us using #40prayers.

I love the fact that the 40 days are being marked as Forty Days of Prayer. It is putting the focus in the right place – not on what we have done but what God has done through us. There are moments when we have been able to take strident steps, in the area of First People, Congress, Refugees and other human needs. The current Social Reinvestment WA program is particularly important. The program seeks to address ways of keeping people out of jail through focussing on correcting the conditions which might lead to offences. There have, of course, also been times when we have been unchallenged by the evangelistic call of the gospel, and even limited our involvement in sharing the Good News.

2 Chronicles 7:14 reminds us “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” It is a call to prayer, humility and repentance with the promise of restoration. We need this so much in the world today, and it will only begin when those who are already followers of Christ apply this in our own lives.

For more about the 4oth anniversary celebrations and guidelines for prayer for the 40 days click here.  You can also find worship resources here.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

Beauty and Arson

Australians love fireworks. And it’s not just on Australia Day.

Almost every week it seems someone in the metro area is letting off fireworks as a way of celebrating a special event. As a child I grew up loving fireworks. In those days you could buy them from the local shop and set them alight wherever you wanted to. Eventually due to the negative effects of fireworks, things like severe burns, physical injuries and damage to property, they were banned.

The authorities rightly thought the risks outweighed the benefits. A few weeks ago, I came across a little book that I warmed to the title, The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. I haven’t read it yet but I can so identify with the title. I tend to shy away from books about being a successful or high achieving pastor. They tend to depress me as I fell that I fall short of their high bars of expectations.

Back to fireworks, in Zack Eswine’s book he likens passion or desire to a firework. It can light up the sky or it can burn down a house. Our passions require careful examination because they can end up like fireworks- being creative or destructive, either instruments of beauty or unsuspecting weapons of arson.

When Christ followers and especially Christian leaders begin to scrutinize their passion for ministry and service sometimes we can detect that they can be tainted by a desire to be noticed or to control. For me, it is not enough to simply be passionate about the gospel, discipleship, worship or justice, we have to look a little deeper to see if the passion is something of Godly beauty or of worldly ambition.

Christian ministry is not about the Babel tendency to make a name for itself, it is all about servant-hood that models the humility of Christ and shares in the passions he had.

Frequently local ministers, pastors and priests are called not to light up the sky with their personality and charisma but to seemingly insignificant un-applauded and dull chores over a long period of time. Jesus exposed the unworthy desires of James and John (Mark 10:35-52) as they passionately sought a position of privilege and status. When preaching the other day I had to ask myself, “am I wanting to impress a congregation with wise words and please people? Or am I simply willing to proclaim God’s word whether or not people find it palatable or not?”.

The art and practice of deep spiritual inner examination of our thoughts, words, deeds and desires is all too rare in our culture and in the church.

I am off to a retreat next week for a few days asking that God will help me discern the beauty from the arson in my passions.

Rev Steve Francis
Moderator

Being a Christian Community for Everyone

The first case study I was exposed to at Business School was the very famous 1960’s study by Theodore Levitt called Marketing Myopia. He points out that “the history of every dead and dying ‘growth’ industry shows a self-deceiving cycle of bountiful expansion and undetected decay.” He uses the illustration of the railroad business which was failing because they thought they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They kept their eyes on locomotives and rail tracks rather than the needs of the changing market – they were product oriented rather than customer oriented. Their view was short-sighted and they failed to see developments in road vehicles, airplanes and other modes of transport.

It can be the same with the church. Are we too short-sighted in our planning?

Is it enough to swing open the doors on Sunday and hope people will attend the worship service? We’ve being doing that for a really long time with consistent results. Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The church has become really good at preaching to the choir – trying to convince the already convinced. We focus almost exclusively on ourselves – though we might possibly have a sign outside the church building inviting others to join us, if they can pluck up the courage to enter a room full of strangers who already know each other fairly well.

For some years as a Church Growth Consultant, I would visit congregations incognito, a bit like an undercover food critic. There was usually a lively hubbub as everyone caught up with each other, but I was mostly ignored. I would take a look at the notice board and the publications table. A lot was out of date and mostly it was about themselves in a language that would have been strange for an outsider.

The church however, in the words of some unknown and wise author, is the one institution which should exist exclusively for the benefit of the non-members. The reality is that we exist for ourselves, the same as every other club or group.

I have been working on a Vision Statement for the Uniting Church in Western Australia. If you have read the previous blogs, I wrote about our core values first, and followed that with a preliminary mission statement – Growing communities of Christ followers uniting in God’s mission to the world.

A vision statement declares what you want to become, and with the warning about not being myopic we might ask how we see ourselves in the future. I tested a number of thoughts on a lot of different people and the conversations always ended up with the thought that heart of the Uniting Church is for uniting people under the Lordship of Jesus. In fact, we are seeing the “Uniting Church. Uniting People” by-line appearing everywhere now.

At the launch of the Uniting Church, 40 years ago, the intention was to be a uniting movement, rather than a denomination. The hope was to be an inclusive community of Christ followers who shrugged off the constraints of tradition, customs and various practices which have historically separated Christian denominations. That does make us rather different – we are open to all and everyone who seeks to follow the journey of Christian faith. In practice, this is not always true, but at least it is our intention. We want to be a Christian community for everyone.

The trick to achieving this is that we must do more than simply open the door on a Sunday morning.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

The Mocking of Easter

I love humour.

Our sad and melancholic world needs more of it. Laughter is a therapy and one of God’s great gifts. I am told that Orthodox priests often begin the Easter Sunday worship service with a joke, seeking to underline the joy of Easter morning, the movement from sadness to celebration, death to life. We cross the line however when we move from mirth to mocking. Luke’s gospel tells us that the Easter story begins with scorn and ridicule.

En route to the cross Jesus endures insults from three different groups of people who had almost nothing in common with each other.

The first group was religious leaders. They sneered at Jesus saying “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is God’s Messiah”. (Luke 23 v 35). Their mocking was a rejection of the claims Jesus made about his identity and purpose. Somehow that could not fathom that God’s Messiah could be God’s “suffering servant”. A messiah, they conjected, would powerfully win and not end up on a cursed cross. They thought Jesus was a bad joke. Spiked on a Roman cross, Jesus certainly looked powerless. They missed that in a paradoxical way there on the cross was the creator God became the suffering God.

The Roman soldiers were next in line to knock Jesus. From a military point of view only losers ended up on crosses. In the only piece of writing we know of from Jesus’ time (New Testament writers wrote a decade or two later) they gave their verdict as they scribed the words “King of the Jews”. They didn’t seriously believe Jesus was a king, so they thought they would just have a bit of fun at Jesus’ expense. There was no crown of jewels only a crown of thorns. Jesus was another Galilean tragic who was the object of their fun. They could not have conceived that Jesus was more than King of the Jews, he was and is King of the Universe.

And then there was a terrorist, probably a guerrilla fighter or murderous bandit who from his own cross joined in the taunts and hurled insults at Jesus. If Jesus was a revolutionary it was a revolution of love. If Jesus was subversive, it was because of his counter cultural gospel. If Jesus had weapons they were the sword of the Spirit and the breastplate of salvation. Jesus seemed like a failure, a lost cause and therefore someone to make fun of. God however has a way of getting the last laugh. On Easter Sunday the ridiculed one was the risen Lord. The mocked one was the majestic Lord triumphing over death. The one who faced mirth with words of forgiveness now offered new life, eternal life, life to the full, to those who would follow and be part of his Resurrection community.

Is Jesus still mocked today?   

Rev Steve Francis
Moderator

What are we meant to be doing?

The church lives in a changing culture and in the post Christendom era, we are being challenged by declining and aging congregations, and a struggle to find relevance in this new world. In this environment the Synod is working on the development of the strategic plan for the Uniting Church WA. Last time, I wrote about our Core Values and for ease of reference, I repeat them below:

  1.  To follow Jesus through life, death and resurrection
  2. Being community which safely embraces people beyond gender, cultural, economic, national and racial boundaries
  3. To act with God alongside the oppressed, the hurting and the poor
  4. To encourage wisdom and faithfulness in the use of the finite resources of the earth
  5. To exercise wisdom and faithfulness in the use of God-given gifts, talents and skills
  6. To live a creative, adventurous life of faith, characterised by openness, flexibility, hope and joy.

These are values stated 40 years ago at the inception of the Uniting Church, and which, I would hope, remain relevant today, even in our rapidly changing world. From these values, we can begin to build towards a mission statement.

Many authors, including Aubrey Malphurs, author of the book Advanced Strategic Planning for Churches and Ministry Leaders, talks about the need to define purpose (why we are here) and mission (what we are supposed to be doing). By and large, they agree that we are here to glorify God and we are meant to be making disciples, or helping people to be followers of Jesus.

I particularly like the choice of the word ‘glorify’. I have appreciated John Marsh’s definition of this in his commentary, Saint John. He speaks of ‘glory’ meaning “the manifest presence of God in the ordinary.” Thus, throughout John’s gospel, the apostle writes of such things as “my glory is not yet revealed,” “he thus revealed his glory” and “the Son of Man has been glorified”. So, if our purpose is to glorify God, this definition means that we are being called to reveal the presence of God in the ordinariness of our life, in all the things we do and say.

So let’s now go to the Scriptures and look at the commissions of Christ recorded for us by the gospel writers. “Go and make disciples”(Matthew 28:19), “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel” (Mark 16:15), “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), “These things are written that you may know that I am the Christ” (John 20:31).

Clearly there is a sending forth and a teaching or sharing of what we know of Christ.

But the church is more than that. We are also a community – a community which loves one another and the world, and which shares hope in Christ with this world and the next. The church is both a resourcing and a sending community. It is a community in action seeking to be actively involved in Missio Deo, the mission of God.

With that background, we can begin to derive a mission statement, which embraces those sentiments and gives some definition to our mission and purpose. This is then our preliminary mission statement: growing communities of Christ followers uniting in God’s mission to the world.

Some questions we may ask are: Is it short enough to remember easily? Does it embrace all of who we are – congregations, schools, agencies, social justice or Uniting World?

One final and crucial question: Is this what we are actually meant to be doing?

Rev David de Kock

General Secretary

God a drummer?

I am unashamedly a baby boomer. I was brought up on a diet of rock and roll, rhythm and blues.

Some of my friends aspired to form bands. Their hope was to make music and take their place in a culture where guitars, vocals and drums could be a ticket to celebrity status. Perhaps surprisingly the urge to form a rock band with these basic instruments lives on.

As the sixties musical revolution began I felt a little sorry for the drummer. He or she would play a metre or two behind the main singers and guitarists. They were further from the audience and often undervalued. Slowly however, the role of the drummer was appreciated. Paul McCartney (ex Beatle) once said when their new drummer Ringo Starr joined the band’s quality took a step up. Then came Phil Collins and other drummers who became the centrepiece of the band rather than the background contributor. Drumming came out of the shadows.

In churches, which are often slow to embrace musical changes, we began to see that drumming was not of the devil. First guitars and then drums began to appear in sanctuaries and in worship. At first they were ‘too loud’, but eventually some Christian worshippers began to value the place of drums in Christian worship. Drumming essentially is a way of catching and carrying the beat of the music and the beat of life.

In one of his poems Hafiz has a line that says “A father’s toes lifting a child’s in dance causes God to pull out a drum”.

Is God a drummer? Creative drumming not only captures the pace that already is, it sets the beat for what is yet to be. Drumming can be an invigorating and compelling beat that calls forth life. Jesus in his ministry called people to march and dance to the beat of different drum. He came to bring life in all its fullness (John 10 v10), to be open to the rhythms of the Spirit and the beat of love. I have a feeling there will be more than harps in heaven, especially if God is a drummer. May we see more of them on earth and in our sanctuaries.

Blessings

Rev Steve Francis
Moderator