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Refreshing Prayer | Who’s Pursuing Whom?

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

September is a blink away. And it often feels more like a new beginning than January, where nothing much changes except the number of the year. In September the school and university years begin, work gathers pace, club programmes reignite, things get going.

This year, that sense of a fresh start is perhaps intensified as we adjust to life after lockdown. September may not be the time to make resolutions, though it may still be a good moment for us to rethink the rhythm of our devotional lives. In doing so, there’s one vital lesson to keep in mind – Jesus came for us.

We did not ascend to heaven; God descended to earth. As John puts it, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ His was the initiative, ours only the response. It is ever so. We only seek God because God first sought us. Indeed, whenever we feel a stirring to pursue him, it’s his grace that has put it there, his wooing that has roused us.

At the beginning of a new year, and perhaps in September too, many of us resolve to read our Bible more, to pray more, to be more fruitful in our everyday lives. We grit our teeth and ‘try harder’. But we’re already on the back foot.

If we forget that God has taken the decision to come to us, our prayers become an exercise in striving. We try to pray for longer than we desire, or pray the ‘right’ prayers. Soon we can feel dejected. Perhaps we have forgotten the grace of the incarnation, the coming of God to us. And so, the right response is not to strive but to rest, trusting that God wants to be with us, wants to listen, wants to speak.

So, instead of trying to manufacture an experience, it can be helpful simply to acknowledge his presence, repeating quietly to oneself a short phrase like ‘You are here. And I am here’. Even in this situation. On this frontline.

In this position of prayerful trust, we can be confident that the places in which we find ourselves, the people among whom we live and work, and the tasks to which he calls us will all be permeated by the presence of the one who is ‘full of grace and truth’.

 

Matthew Greene

Matthew is a ministry trainee at All Souls Langham Place, London, who loves to read theology, run, and share time with close friends.

How does the reality of God’s gracious initiative-taking empower us to live well on our frontlines this week? Join in the conversation in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Matthew. You’ve captured the mood of the moment as we approach September without necessarily having had the most refreshing and relaxing of summer breaks. The reminder to resist the temptation to strive and to recognise His presence is insightful wisdom to practise.

    By Tim  -  16 Aug 2021
    • Thanks for your encouragement, Tim – God bless as you live this out in your everydaqy life.

      Dave Benson
      By Dave Benson Culture & Discipleship Director, LICC
  2. I really appreciate the Monday email from LICC. This comment is not specifically about this article, though, it’s more general than that. It’s about the persistent use of the word “frontline” to describe the situation in which we find ourselves day to day, including in this article.

    “Frontline” is battle or war imagery. And of course the Bible is full of that kind of imagery, not least the Epistles, with battles against the world, the flesh and the devil. But I am not sure it’s helpful to refer to every situation in which we interact with those who are not Christians, or the broken nature of the world as the “frontline”, with its imagery this morning of what’s happening in Kabul, or echoes of D-Day landings or Paschendaele. I might just be out for a walk with a friend, or sharing a conversation with a colleague. Of course as a Christian I must be true to my calling and my faith in that situation as in any other, and that’s not always easy – the Gospels do not promise that. But, especially in the context of this article about prayerful trust, is this battle imagery helpful? I don’t see myself as someone always on the frontline. As Christians are we not also called to be “salt”, something invisible but without which the food would have no flavour and would rot. Are we not called to be embedded in our communities as much as out on the frontline of some spiritual battlefield?

    So please may I prompt you to think about the persistent use of this aggressive, testosterone laden image and to wonder whether there are other words with which it could co-exist which would speak of the wisdom of serpents and the gentleness of doves, as well as the might of the battlefield?

    By Adrian P Beney  -  16 Aug 2021
    • Adrian, I totally resonate with your comments here.

      By Jo Harrison  -  17 Aug 2021
      • Dear Adrian and Jo,

        many thanks for taking the time to express your concerns about the use of ‘frontline’. Your point is very well made, that our words are always interpreted within a context … and with resurgent war in the middle east, and radical polarising in the west, the use of military metaphors surely needs careful scrutiny. ‘Campus Crusade for Christ’, accordingly, renamed as ‘Power to Change’ to remove problematic associations working at loggerheads to their missional purpose. I’ve brought this to the LICC team to consider, once again.

        In terms of multiple metaphors – such as salt and light – I entirely agree. You’ll notice, for instance, that I’ve introduced the language of ‘wise peacemakers’ in a 5-part series (starting at https://licc.org.uk/resources/wise-peacemakers-part-1-of-5/), capturing who we are called to be, wherever we are. I speak of our call to ‘water, weed, and weave’ (https://licc.org.uk/resources/wise-peacemakers-part-4-of-5/) as we join God in fostering life/shalom/flourishing in these places. Indeed, most of language surrounding ‘fruitfulness’ (such as the 6 M’s – https://licc.org.uk/resources/6ms/) is organic, and fits LICC’s larger imaginary of constructive and holistic interaction that blesses rather than curses, eschewing muscular Christianity and battlefield imagery.

        That said, may I offer our rationale for why we continue to use this term in our work?

        First – a definition. By ‘frontline’, across all our resources we explicitly state something to the effect that we mean ‘any regular place or activity where we interact with people who are not Christians.’ We’ve wrestled over the years with what to call this (e.g. place, sphere, location, context, culture, are all too generic and non-descript, missing the missional import). It’s not primarily about our function in these places (e.g. salt, light, etc.), but a name for these places (and activities) in and of themselves. And from feedback over the years, we’ve found far more people have found this helpful than unhelpful – to keep drawing us back to these missional locations and activities where the kingdom is breaking forth and light is coming into the darkness as we join with what God is already doing.

        Second – a rationale. You’ve acknowledged the theme of spiritual battle, and rightly noted that ‘frontline’ emerges from this military imaginary – being the positions/locations closest to the area of conflict. And yet, in our largely secularised imagination, we often downplay or ignore the larger reality within which our everyday lives our lived … that in these everyday places and activities where we spend time with those who don’t follow Jesus, there is a conflict being played out for our allegiance (see, for instance, Matt. 10.34–39, 12.22–29; Mark 6.7–13, 13.5–13; Luke 6.20–26). Indeed, Jesus himself framed this as his primary mission, that as Satan and his forces are cast out and pushed back, the kingdom of God has truly advanced and come (Luke 11:20 – cf. Mark 1:15-34 – academically explored at https://www.jstor.org/stable/26422751). Theologians like Fleming Rutledge, in her magisterial ‘The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ’ (https://www.eden.co.uk/christian-books/theological-studies/christology/the-crucifixion/), point out that this battle is real, central, and ongoing … and thus shapes our everyday mission, making prayer a priority. Even in our context of resurgent war, where such language could be misconstrued, we believe it is important to acknowledge this larger conflict and properly define what it means to follow the way of Christ out of love, even unto death.

        Use of ‘frontline’ helps us not only name these places, but recognise that our seemingly mundane actions are part of a heavenly tapestry of great significance, under Jesus as Lord of all. But it does not say who *we* are in this battle, nor who our neighbours are. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, use of ‘frontline’ has been commonplace to describe the NHS, where ‘frontline workers’ are responsible for triage and binding up the broken in these places of ‘conflict’ against an unseen/invisible enemy, that being a virus. That is, it’s about engaging with and working on behalf of others, rather than gearing us up for a sortie. In much the same way, we are called to be agents of reconciliation and healing in this fight, as Ephesians 6:12 makes plain: ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’

        As one of my colleagues replied, when I raised this with the team: ‘Our use of “frontline” is a reminder to take seriously our needing to stand in the Lord’s strength in all that we do. So we are in a battle (whether we like it on not) but that should not make us belligerent towards our neighbour.’

        So, it’s in this sense that we use ‘frontline’ – equivalent to ‘frontline ‘places’, where we love and care for our ‘frontline friends and colleagues and connections’, through our ‘frontline roles’ as wise peacemakers – not bayonet bearing soldiers attacking our neighbours so a this-worldly kingdom bearing the cross as standard may advance (as was the case with Constantine, a nascent form of Christendom).

        Interestingly, others have also found this language helpful. For instance, the Church of England has employed ‘frontline’ in both their ‘Setting God’s People Free’ and ‘Kingdom Calling’ guiding documents (https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/Kingdom%20Calling%20Web%20Version.pdf – see p78). They offer this qualification:
        ‘While some may find the military metaphor implicit in “frontline” unhelpful, its use here is intended to underline the theme in Jesus’ teaching of his disciples that the kingdom’s arrival precipitates struggle with the forces opposed to it – forces that cannot be simplistically equated with a fixed group of people, or with certain social institutions or forms of culture, not least because the resistance will also come from within ourselves. If we believe […] that human society is part of the earth God made to be good, to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth is to offer ourselves as those through whom this prayer may be answered in the societies of which we are a part, not to ask for our withdrawal from them.’

        Thus, ‘frontline’ helpfully calls us back to our mission, attending to the larger dynamics at play in these places and activities, recognising the struggle at hand and redoubling our efforts to submit who we are and all we do to Jesus as Lord of all. We’re happy to keep beating this drum, to properly define these terms in ways becoming of Christ’s peaceable kingdom.

        Apologies for the length of this reply – I hope that this reply honours the very important concerns you’ve raised, while also making sense of why we continue to use this language. Hopefully over time you’ll see a greater diversity of words and metaphors used to capture our calling in these contested places, but without ever losing attention to these key places and activities where we regularly engage with those who don’t yet know or follow Jesus.

        Yours in Christ,
        Dave Benson
        Director of Culture & Discipleship

        Dave Benson
        By Dave Benson Culture & Discipleship Director, LICC
        • Dave, As someone involved in the Christian peace movement, I also related to Adrian’s comments. I often notice how even when discussing issues with other Christian peace activists, the military metaphors just naturally infiltrate our language. Perhaps it is a consequence of our nation’s belligerent history that our language is shot through with such military terminology.
          Your detailed response is massively helpful and reassuring. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I’m sure it would have been easier to just fire off a quick response and get on with your day. It speaks a lot about LICC that you have thought and written so deeply about this.
          I also think that your closing comment, that LICC will be using a greater range of metaphors in future, is a positive one. I’m fine in principle with the military analogy, which, as you say, is quite biblical, but it needs to be in the context of all the other, more peaceable, ways of expressing our faith in the God of Love.
          Thanks again for this and for all you do.

          By Martin Tiller  -  22 Aug 2021
  3. Thank you, Matthew, for today’s very helpful and encouraging word.

    Replying to Adrian P. Beney’s more general comment about the LICC articles, I am in complete agreement. I would also like to share an additional thought. As a retired person, I find that the constant referring to ‘frontlines’ often makes me feel worthless and inadequate, as I no longer have the everyday encounters with colleagues and opportunities for sharing that I had twenty or thirty years ago.

    By Pauline  -  16 Aug 2021
    • Dear Pauline,

      thanks both for your encouragement concerning Matt’s article, and for expressing your concerns over the use of ‘frontline’ as a retired person. I’m so sorry to hear how this has made you feel, and with my parents in the same stage of life, can somewhat appreciate the pain of an ever-constricting sphere of influence. I’ve brought this concern to the LICC team to discuss, as we take your feedback very seriously.

      Before the day is out, I’ll reply to Adrian and Jo (above) concerning the other aspects of ‘frontline’ they raise. Just a brief word, though, if I may, on what you’ve shared.

      In the broadest sense, we use ‘frontline’ to mean those places where we encounter those beyond the gathered church, who aren’t following Jesus. This certainly includes where we work – and in the sense of paid work, may no longer be part of your calling. But, this also includes where we live – our neighbourhood. And where we shop – the local store you visit week in and week out. It also takes in where we serve/volunteer, and places we continue to learn, perhaps through an online course. As I touched on in a recent long-form piece, this also includes our digital interaction (https://licc.org.uk/resources/being-fruitful-on-facebook-wisdom-for-the-web/), with friends and family.

      As I’m sure you know, retiring from paid work doesn’t mean retiring from our missional call to follow Jesus, wherever we go, whatever we do, in our everyday life. As John Swinton picks up in his beautiful book, ‘Becoming friends of Time’ (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Becoming-Friends-Time-Timefullness-Discipleship/dp/0334055571), sometimes fresh missional opportunities open up in this season where we face out limitations, especially to intercede for those we love and whom we desire to come to know the Lord.

      In this sense, while your physical frontline has contracted, LICC’s mission is to keep the focus on these places and ways of missional engagement, even as the wider horizon is being a whole-life disciple in every aspect of life. To this end, I pray that though this term may bring some pain, it may also be a place the Spirit brings encouragement in what you’re already doing, and for whom you’re already praying, in your everyday – at this meeting place where your life intersects another.

      In Christ,
      Dave Benson (Director of Culture and Discipleship, LICC)

      Dave Benson
      By Dave Benson Culture & Discipleship Director, LICC
    • Apologies for a second reply, Pauline … as I said, I shared your response with our team. Truly, our heart goes out to you. One of my colleagues wanted to encourage you with some ‘frontline’ stories all centred on people who are ‘retired’ –

      https://licc.org.uk/resources/the-travelling-trenemans/ – a retired couple who make bus rides their frontline

      https://licc.org.uk/resources/the-outsiders-who-went-in/ – where post-career volunteers ‘invade’ a school (for good of course!)

      https://licc.org.uk/resources/the-father-who-came-back/ – about a father who is not only retired but bedridden, and finds ways to meaningfully minister to his daughter.

      https://licc.org.uk/resources/the-venerable-beader/ – About Jenny whose frontline is a volunteering role she did not expect – that came from crafting!

      Presently one of our team is working on a small-group series specifically for people after their work stops, discerning and joining in God’s call on their lives in a new season. And we’re currently videoing a series of 6M’s stories, one of which features Sunil, who mentors, writes, and enjoys recreation with his son.

      We do try to make sure there are examples of retired people in every resource, so you know how truly important you are on your own frontlines. …
      *We talk about Peter – who picks litter in the local park – in ‘Fruitfulness on the Frontline’
      *We feature a grandmother and childminder in Frontline Sundays
      *Mark Greene mentions Maddie, 73, in The Great Divide
      *We feature Ruth and Annette in Making Disciples for Everyday Life, a vignette we use to share with pastors how they can minister to people in every stage of life, including retirement.

      (This last piece, at https://licc.org.uk/resources/chapter-6-making-disciples-for-everyday-life/, may be helpful to send to your pastor, if you feel you need more support from your local church.)

      Anyway, all of this is simply to say that you are seen, and heard, and valued. Thoughts and prayers as you discern what it means in this season to join God’s mission, in whatever physical and virtual spaces this may be, through whatever activities you participate in, and as you pray without ceasing for those the Lord has laid on your heart.

      Blessings,
      Dave

      Dave Benson
      By Dave Benson Culture & Discipleship Director, LICC

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