It was one of those defining moments in my faith journey and life. I was fairly new to Cape Town and excited to be a part of a Christian prayer march through the streets of the city. It was the mid-nineties. Thousands of Christians gathered and we worshipped as we walked down Adderley Street towards the Parade where a service of sorts was to be held. I was at the back of the crowd, and came across a homeless man lying in the street who had clearly just had a fit or seizure of some kind. Thousands of people had literally passed him with their eyes on the sky, singing a worship song about ‘lifting our eyes’ or something of the sort. It was not that nobody had done anything that shocked me the most, but that it seemed as if nobody had seen him. I was shaken up, moved and upset – it became a turning point for me.
I had spent two years of my early young adult life on a music and drama team that had gone around South Africa in ‘90 and ‘91, singing about Jesus and the freedom he brought to all, and doing drama in churches and malls six days out of seven. And praying … a lot! Whilst around me my country was burning. Yes, it was a racially mixed team which was unusual and life changing at the time, and yes, it was not a wasted experience, but it was so removed from the realities of what was going on in South Africa. Children were in prison. Extremists were being…extreme. Violence threatened peaceful negotiations. Believers were segregated. The last throes of apartheid were in full force. And I…was praying and singing, completely unaware of what was going on around me. I look back on those years with some shame and sadness.
On that day of the march, I recognised an uncomfortable truth about my faith journey. I had spent my Christian years to date praying, but with my head in the sand; without being salt and light, or getting my proverbial ‘hands dirty’. I had spent hours interceding, but with no real understanding of what the real issues were in our nation at the time. As I left the march that day and tended to this suffering, vulnerable man on the side of the road, I vowed never to get caught up with my eyes in the clouds again. And as so often happens, I swung too far to the other side – a pendulum wanting to get as far away from its opposite extreme as possible. I threw myself into action with a frenzy that, I suspect, was fueled by an attempt at compensation for the years I had had my ‘eyes on the clouds.’
I served and fought and acted and started projects and ministries and … burned out, but that is a story for another day. The point is – so averse to the ‘spiritual pie-in-the-sky-ness’ of the Christian marchers that I saw that day, I threw off the awareness of the spiritual dimensions of suffering, injustice, poverty, greed, materialism, power and the status quo. And started battling these ‘kingdom issues’, in a one-dimensional way – hence the burn out, disappointment, anger and despair that followed. In more recent years, I was more deeply exposed to a community who believe that one cannot do one without the other, and who have discipled me in excellent development practice and intentional spiritual engagement, under-girded by a deeper understanding of the Kingdom that Jesus spoke so much about. I am grateful for the awakening to the transforming power of the whole Gospel, and how God invites us to be integral in what he is doing in the world.
Craig Stewart, my friend and colleague at The Warehouse often reminds us that if poverty were not multi-dimensional, all the effort, money, time and brains that focus on it around the globe would have solved it long ago. Poverty, injustice and the division that we see in our world cannot be tackled in any one-dimensional way – it is way too big for us. The values of the Kingdom of God are in direct opposition to the way the world’s system works. That is why it has been called by some the ‘upside-down kingdom’ – the values are opposite. Greed versus generosity. Superiority verses humility. Status and image versus inner security. Hoarding versus stewardship. Power versus equality. But intercession has a bad rap in some circles for some of the reasons I have mentioned. I have heard some strong responses to people committing to pray about something – “Don’t just pray, do something!” When we come up against the spiritual forces of darkness that perpetuate poverty, injustice, division and all the nasties that go with these things, we dare not do it without intentional, committed, communal intercession. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ extra.
I have learned that for my heart to change, for me to see light coming to the dark places around me, and for me to join God in what he is doing in bringing his Kingdom to earth in the now, I need to humble myself and admit that I cannot ‘fix’ things. I need to be in on-going commune with God, allowing those times and spaces to be the source for action that he leads me into. I need to remember that a spiritual battle wages on and that is the source of the things that break my heart in this world and cause so much suffering. Greg Boyd, an influential teacher in my life, says, ‘If it’s got skin and bones, it ain’t your enemy, ” reminding us that our battle really is not against people or even their ideologies, but against the powers and principalities of this world.
How do we hold this in balance with being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good? It’s a start to keep in mind the truth of the whole of Scripture that shapes us; here we learn that we do not fight against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12) and that faith without action is dead (James 2:17). I have learned that these are not two truths in opposition to each other, but that they work together – like breathing in and out, keeping us alive. I believe that intercession is part of ‘loving my neighbour, ’ whether they are in Angola, in parliament, at the robot, or in the office next door to mine. I have also seen that out of intercession and prayer flows compassion and action, and … usually, a call to obedience that draws me into closer relationship to God and others.