Autumn prayers

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I celebrated my birthday last weekend and watched the end of our summer move into autumn on the tail of some blustery winds and cold showers of rain. It has been very dry and the leaves I had been watching shrivel brown on the trees were finally blown out from their bows to gather in gutters and the corner of fading lawns.  In church on Sunday the heating was on for the first time and encouraging words of new things in God were matched to the images of falling leaves that must first die and be blown away before anything new can be born. Last year I wrote this,

Autumn has a splendour all of its own. Gloriously each shed leaf tells us that a tree knows how to protect itself against the cold dark months ahead. The days get shorter and the leaf, robbed of light, can not stay green.  At the base of the leaf, cells laid down in spring have accommodated the flow of water and food but now swell to block that flow.  The chlorophyl, that makes the leaf green, disappears and the character of the leaf is changed.  Within the boundaries of its original shape  the leaf takes on fine hues of fiery red and purple, yellow and orange.  Glucose trapped in the cells of the leaf are helping the tree cling to life for a little longer, helping the tree lay down the stores of energy it will need, deep in its roots, to last out the winter.  A tear line appears between the leaf and the tree, until the leaf is finally blown off in the wind or simply falls under the force of its own weight. Some leaves will even cling there until spring, when the growth of a new bud coming through will finally push the old leaf to the ground.

This year I’m thinking again on the cold months, that tear line at the base of the leaf, the things that must happen for the seasons to change. The old, once gone, makes ready for the new to arrive. In some trees the new bud can be seen at the place where the dead leaf falls, small promises of a spring waiting to arrive.

I haven’t been able to write much of late and I’m sensing a change in the things God is doing in me and around me. The kinds of words I used to write fall like dead leaves on the page. I’m wondering what I should do, wondering what will come next. At home we make a few changes in the schedule and time is freed up. My impulse is to fill it but I think God says, wait.

There is a pruning at the end of a season. A removing of all that is old, done and finished with, then there is a winter wait.  Some pruning is painful and other pruning comes as a relief. All pruning is good for the tree and its future growth. When the old wood is cut away the tree looks very bare but we wait. It will grow back again. This is faith. Remain in me.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

John 15.1-4

I do not know what is coming in the seasons ahead but for the first time in my life I really intercede. Where I used to pray for others (list style) at the end of my worship and thanksgiving I now pray longer and without excuse at separate times of day, calling down blessings on surprising people in far off places.  And all I can say is, Lord teach me to pray. People I do not know in places I shall never go to, “I’ll pray for you” takes on a new meaning. My own roles at home and church seem to change, less labour of the hands and more pouring out of the soul. A dear neighbour is desperately ill. I sit with a friend and we talk about a family issue that rattles on, no end in sight. The international unrest of the summer spills over into the autumn and visiting preachers in church tell stories of the pastors, persecution and the people far away who are in prison or worse because of their faith.

Pray without ceasing.

1 Thessalonians 5.17

The Chrisitians of Baghdad: acquainted with grief

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This week I wrote about Canon Andrew White and the situation in Iraq.  Reading the news this morning, the on going sadness of the Middle East, I remembered him in my prayers alongside a verse from Isaiah, “a man of suffering and acquainted with pain”, Jesus and his followers alike.

Yet Jesus was not just a man of sorrow and neither are we. Our God who does draw close to those who suffer, has demonstrated in Jesus that there is no human pain or suffering great enough to overcome the eternal love and power of God.

Andrew White is leading a church surrounded by powers that seem determined to wipe Christianity from that place forever. He is a man who has put himself in touch with the extremes of human suffering and every last terrible episode in the history of that war torn place.  Living there amongst the ordinary people of the city of Baghdad, pastor, friend and advocate, he commits himself to a heavy schedule of speaking, fund-raising, international peace work, mediation and the day to day business of church with its cycles of prayer, worship, feeding the poor, providing medicine and bringing the love of Jesus to a hostile world. Himself a man of sorrows in his own failing body, he bears the symptoms of a MS. Himself aquatinted with grief he takes on board the loss common in that place, identifying so closely with the Iraqi people, he brilliantly represents the ultimate and original man of sorrows not only in the pain but also in his stunning ability to speak hope and faith into every terrible event.

Andrew White writes this,

“At St. George’s we begin every service with the words: “Allah hu ma’na wa Ruh al-Qudas ma’na aithan.” They mean, “God is here, and His Holy Spirit is here.” This simple phrase sums up my understanding of faith under fire – that we need not live in fear because God is present and with us at all times.

When we turn to Jesus and make him the Lord of our lives, we are allowing the kingdom of God to come in all its fullness … to be a real person of faith we cannot view or attempt things from a human point of view . We have to see things as God sees them and allow Him to work through us to accomplish that which in human terms is impossible! This is the essence of supernatural living – hearing God and living in obedience to him, even when it doesn’t make logical sense.”

Andrew White’s book, Faith Under Fire, is a great read. It is part biography, part theology, part encouragement. He says that he has learnt to be cautious about the stories he tells and the ways in which he tells them, such is the degree of terror his community have seen. But he does share enough of the story for us to see a remarkable man with a remarkable God living out the gospel in partnership with others, in a way that is truly incarnation-al.

I would like to give away a copy of the book on the blog this week. To enter the give-away please comment or like on the blog or on Facebook.

If you have friends and family who may like to win the book please share this post with them.

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Please continue to pray for the Middle East.

 

 

The Vicar of Baghdad

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When I teach a lesson on Canon Andrew White I start with my favourite picture of him, the one from the cover of his book ‘Faith Under Fire’, a story of what the Middle East has taught him about God.

And the lesson gets off to a good start.  It’s not the dog collar that wins their attention, it’s the bullet proof vest. After all these children know from the past that my stories of faith usually end in a violent death: Oscar Romero, Manche Masemola and Martin Luther King. I have found: the story is always a winner if it ends with a gun.

But this story does not end with an assassination and still they love it.

I’m telling the children the story of how Andrew White had achieved his dream job of working as a paramedic at the prestigious St Thomas Hospital in London when he experienced, out of the blue, God calling him to become an Anglican priest.  So he puts his medical career on hold and took himself off to theological college, where despite his impatience with some of the more formal parts of his training, he grew in faith and developed a deep love of the ancient places of the Bible world, a passion for the Middle East, its people and their diverse faith;  Christians, Muslims and Jews.

He was soon working out of one of England’s great cathedrals, heading up an international work of peace and reconciliation, a special envoy of the ABC, motivated and sustained by a love of the gospel of Jesus, Prince of Peace. Young, successful, full of energy, driven by passion for God he became the Vicar of Baghdad, the pastor of Iraq’s only Anglican church.

And then at thirty he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. On the day that his second son was born the medics told him that his symptoms were the first signs of an illness that he is destined to struggle with as he continues in his work in some of the world most dangerous war zones.

He wrote this,

“One afternoon a doctor came to inform me that I had multiple sclerosis. It was devastating news. That very afternoon Caroline (my wife) went into labour and was admitted to the same hospital. That evening I was taken by wheel chair to the delivery suite and witnessed the birth of my second son, Jacob. I have often since described that day as one of both tragedy and splendour. In many ways it was indicative of all that was to follow, my life frequently swinging between grief and exhilaration.

My surprising RE class, pre-adolescent, moody, restless, un-churched and largely anti-God are completely charmed by this man, not because of his faith, or his ground-breaking work in the Middle East peace process, but won over because he is ill and he perseveres in his work despite debilitating illness. Many of my pupils come from chaotic home lives, many are the new poor of modern Britain, some will become the NEETs, pregnant before they leave school, in trouble with the police over soft drug habits and alcohol problems that will lead to them not finishing school. But it seems they are maybe more acquainted with one aspect of his life that I am. Could it be possible that they have seen a higher than average incidence of illness and disability and it has hit them hard? They watch a video and hear him speak; not one person laughs or even comments on the defects in his voice caused by the MS. They listen as if he is one their own.

Anyone who follows Canon Andrew White on social media cannot help but form an impression of the heart and soul, a small empathy for the place he has been and the people he has known. His love for Iraq and its people has rubbed off on those of us who have heard his stories.

So how can we not pray when ISIS are at the gates of Baghdad and Andrew White has enough internet to message home that the streets are empty and people are afraid. At home in war torn Baghdad for nearly twenty years, accompanied by military and body guards wherever he goes. Canon Andrew White tells us that the people are afraid.

On Monday morning I checked the news pages before I read my daily Psalm.

The news story form the BBC has not changed since the day before.  It is difficult to follow the course of events: ISIS 50 miles from the city, five miles from the city, one mile form the city, at the gates of Baghdad. The news sources are failing and I think of Abraham and how he prayed,

Then Abraham approached God and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?

Genesis 28

Does God, in His great power fail to stop the stop the hand of violence because we failed to pray?  Is God really asking that I bend my knee and lend my voice in some unrehearsed prayer for a far of people who, for all I know, could already be dead?

The God of my poor evangelical heart, He answers all my prayers, yet I am nervous in the face of the world’s cruel sufferings and wars. Confident words of the Psalmist they stick in my throat. This happy saved soul, this seeker of truth, with a nose in a book and a worship song playing on repeat,  finds her heart laid bear to a dark world that can only be faced with the help of God.

The Psalm for the day is Psalm 16,

Keep me safe, my God,

    for in you I take refuge.

Keep him safe Lord, for in you he has taken refuge.

Keep his people safe Lord, the children, the women, the Christians of Iraq, all the people of Iraq, all those who call on your name and all those who hardly dare.

Keep the enemy form the gate, in you they have taken refuge.

Let us be brave and pray, with all the prayers we  can muster.

On Wednesday the Canon is encouraged. ISIS are 50 miles away and his mind is now on pursuing his work in the north of Iraq where the people have suffered so much.

I have a copy of Andrew White’s book, Faith Under Fire, to give away on the blog today.

All you have to do to have your name entered into the draw is like or comment on the blog, like or comment on Facebook and please share this post with your friends.

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I would like us to cover this man and his work in prayer, I’d like us to surround, saturate and overwhelm him with something that is beyond anything we could ever ask or imagine because, the stark truth is I’m not a great prayer warrior and I know precious little of that secret place, but I think that this week something amazing happened in Iraq against all expectations happened in Iraq.

And for that I thank God.