Cross-shaped prayer

iron cross at Westminster

A picture taken in London just before heading to Scotland in January 2016–looking into the inner courtyard of Westminster Abbey

In January of 2016 Dave and I led a group of Wheaton Academy students on a trip to Scotland. It was a double-duty trip for us. We were praying for guidance; about which of two very different directions we should pursue. One of those directions was Scotland. We met with the UK field director of GEM (Greater European Missions) during that trip, and it was in many ways an exploratory time for us.

But we were also praying about moving into the city of Chicago, to live in a depressed neighborhood, for Dave to teach/work with underprivileged kids. It was strange how God used the wonderful, spiritually rich trip to Scotland to confirm that it was not the decision for this time, and Chicago is. One of the confirming moments came when we put on the program for an assembly at a Scottish public high school. We began with a video one of our students had made to introduce the team members and their home. After shots of Wheaton Academy and its grounds, the video moved to the downtown area of Chicago. One shot showed hundreds of people milling around the Bean. Watching it for the first time in that assembly, I suddenly got choked up. There were all those people, of all ethnicities and races and religions, gathered together to look at a reflective structure, but going home to segregated neighborhoods, going home to places sorely in need of gospel hope. Behind me in that auditorium sat rows and rows of students who needed to hear about Christ, and I was fervently praying for them, but my heart was pounding for the people of Chicago. When Dave told me—without my saying anything about my own experience—that he’d had much the same reaction when he saw the video, we knew God was stirring in our hearts.

Another affirming moment on that trip came in a coffee shop, where Dave and I had retreated while the students shopped in the area. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that time:

We were talking about a topic we’ve often discussed: why are some prayers—especially those for “small” things—answered, while others, particularly those for very necessary, very important things, seem to be ignored. This topic had re-surfaced because I told Dave how glad I was that a member of our mission team who’d felt sick the day before was fully recovered. I remarked, “Several of us were praying for her.”

He got a funny look on his face and pulled out the book he’s currently reading: There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago journalist. It follows the lives of brothers Lafayette and Pharaoh, two young boys who lived in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex just blocks from Chicago’s Loop that was a veritable war zone. Dave turned to a passage and gave me a preface before reading it aloud. Nine-year-old Pharaoh, seeking respite from the violence and drama of Henry Horner, has found a condominium complex nearby with green lawns and trees. He goes there to sit under the trees and simply be.

Pharaoh had long sought such a refuge. For a few months last spring, he’d attended Bible classes at the First Congregational Baptist Church. Washington Boulevard was lined with churches, but most of them now served people who had since moved from the neighborhood. Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner. Pharaoh grew bored with the classes and began to question whether there was indeed a God. He often prayed to him, asking that he let them move from the projects. But, Pharaoh would say, “I be praying but he don’t do nothing. Maybe there ain’t no God.” It was as much a question as it was a statement. (page 143)

Dave read the last line and then looked up at me. “I’m struggling with this right now. How can we pray for such relatively small things as someone’s upset stomach when people all over the world are living lives like this?” He tapped the page in the book. “And how does God see these vastly different prayers? Why are our prayers for someone’s stomach answered when a young kid praying not to be molested or sold for sex doesn’t get the answer they so desperately need? When a mom who has prayed for food to feed her family watches her baby starve to death? I don’t understand!”

I don’t understand either. Part of his question does have to do with God, to be sure, but Scripture tells me God is not indifferent to suffering, and Christ proved to me God is not indifferent to suffering. But we, the people of God, the Church, are the body of Christ here, so why is it that Pharaoh was left so abandoned? Where was the church? Why weren’t the churches of Chicagoland agonized by Henry Horner and the other housing projects? And the violence and hopelessness of areas like Englewood and Lawndale and Garfield Park? Why aren’t we agonized now?

I asked Dave to hand me the book. I wanted to look at one line in particular. I read it aloud to him. “Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner.”

“What if the churches were supposed to be the answer to Pharaoh’s prayer?” I asked. “What if they were supposed to pray about Henry Horner—along with all the personal requests they had—praying BOTH, until God so changed their hearts they were ready to act and intervene and enter in, even if in small ways at first? Until they served the people who lived right nearby rather than those who’d had the resources to move out?

“I know it’s not really an answer to your question, but I don’t think the answer is an either-or proposition. I think we should pray about all hurts, even the ones we see as small.”

I looked back at this journal entry a few times during the months that followed, as we prayed for both “big” and “small” and received guidance for all and then detours and then more guidance. For us the conversation was about the inner city and inequality in education and racial reconciliation in the church. But even more so, it was a conversation about prayer and change–heart change. And that’s a conversation for everyone. Not everyone is being led to the inner city, but all of us are being led somewhere, even if it’s right out our front door, even if it’s simply onto our knees.

Prayer opens our blinded eyes and guarded hearts to the needs we are meant to see, meant to enter into.

So I’d like to end this post with some words I read recently in The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright.

The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God. … Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? (The Challenge of Jesus, chapter 8, “The Light of the World”) 

Queen Margaret post up on Judy Douglass’s blog

I have a guest post up on writer/missionary/speaker Judy Douglass’s blog today as a part of her Kingdom Women series. I first learned of Queen Margaret when I was in Scotland in January, and I am still fascinated by her. Please follow the link above to read the post on Judy’s blog.

Guest Writer: Tyler Jackson’s poem “Beloved”

I don’t want a fairy tale that’s sweet on the mind, but fades when the book closes
I don’t need curled up pages, binded by hardback covers on wooden shelves
I want petals penned in stone
literature so smooth it’s like a lullaby
Scripture so strong it sets fire to hearts closed up by the world
I want words written on flames that dance through fields of roses
I want graphite to flow through pages like an evening spring
I want poetry to hit so hard it leaves scars on the very parts of your soul you’ve locked away
I don’t need illusions and alliterations to unlock the chains you bind to your feet
You’re a child of wrath, living within the glory of darkness
so unaware of the brightness
I want to show you a different world
where literature isn’t just princes and witches
I’ll show you pages that were written in the sky, bright like stars and timeless like the universe
God breathed they say
Sonnets of love and sacrifice
just stories they say
But I tell you, I don’t believe in fairytales
So give me a reason why we hold the rambles of man as greater than the words inspired by one greater than all
For He calls you Beloved, is that not more wonderful than all the praises of man?

Tyler, a very talented writer and photographer, is a junior at Wheaton Academy. She went with us to Scotland in January 2015. This poem was written as she reflected on her time in a country that has such a rich heritage of Christian faith but now has so few who believe in and follow Christ.

Scotland trip, final day

The last post I wrote was after our full day at Deans Community High School. The following morning we were at Deans for our last assembly, presenting the cardboard testimonies to another group of students. Afterward, our students hung out with several of the Deans students they’d attended classes with the day before. We finally broke up the party and trekked the students to the train station. The attendant didn’t make it to our car till about 50 minutes into our trip to Glasgow. When he entered, Dave and I motioned to him and he walked past the rows of students to get to us. “They’re all with us,” Dave told him. He looked back at the kids, each one either asleep or zoned out, and then turned back to us. “What’d you do, drug them?” he asked.

The students livened up a bit after we got off the train, and they had some free time at Buchanan Galleries (one of the major shopping districts) before we went to the People’s Palace, a museum that celebrates the lives of ordinary people in Glasgow. We returned to Livingston North in the late afternoon and went straight to a church in Linlithgow. We had a chance to hold a debrief meeting before the church’s youth—the same kids we’d danced with at the ceilidh the Friday before—arrived for a joint youth gathering.

This meeting unveiled so much. We knew our students were tired, and after more than 10 days of the trip, with a lot of late nights/early mornings, and miles upon miles of walking, this was understandable. But Dave and I had guessed that for many of them, the fatigue was also tied to the day before, the day spent entirely at Deans. The debrief bore this out. Many talked about the nervousness they’d felt about being in a public school, about being questioned about their faith, about spending the day with peers they didn’t know. But they also shared how powerful the day had actually been for them. We asked each student to share a “takeaway,” and I’d like to record here (without names) some of their comments.

-This was my first missions trip. I’ve known for much of my life that I was interested in working in missions in one way or another, but now—on this trip—I’ve seen God’s power at work as we’ve shared about Him, and I want to do this.

-It was refreshing to see the Holy Spirit at work and cool to see apologetics in action—outside the WA “bubble.”

-I’ve always been so nervous about talking about my faith, and that was a huge weight that was lifted off because I actually shared. It was great preparation for going to a secular college.

-This was different than other mission trips I’ve been on because we actually got to interact with other teens who don’t know Christ.

-I’ve been inspired to have more courage.

-This was very stretching.

-I haven’t had a lot of chances to be with non-Christians, and on this trip, I was—and we talked about faith.

-Going on other missions trips has never stretched me like this trip did. I want to look for other Gospel-sharing opportunities.

-We are spiritually and physically rich in Wheaton. I’ve been to places that are physically poor, but Scotland is spiritually poor. I had to pray for courage like I haven’t before, and God clearly answered.

-We had to trust that the Holy Spirit would work—and we saw Him do it.

-I’ve been in Christian schools my whole life, and meeting kids face-to-face who worship other things/gods was shocking. It makes me want to grow deeper in the Word so I can give answers.

-That was huge to have someone ask me about my faith.

-I learned that when I am truly genuine and vulnerable—when I take off the mask and really show my struggles—it builds connections.

-I was tested and couldn’t fall back on my friends.

-To share my cardboard testimony was terrifying, but in doing that, I saw the clear transformation that has been worked in me—I’m a “new me.”

-The spiritual warfare here is huge, and apathy is dangerous.

-It was hard for me to share my testimony with all of you, my teammates on this trip.

-This trip was hard for me. I’ve never gotten homesick before, and I thought we’d be doing more missions, and I thought that would pull me out of homesickness. But even when we were “doing mission work,” it didn’t make me feel good. As I’ve been thinking about that, God’s been showing me that it’s not about me, about my “feeling good.”

Every single student shared. The Scottish youth group arrived just before we finished, and Lorna, their youth leader, split the kids into small groups (with a mix of U.S. and Scottish teens), and led them in a wonderful time of discussion and prayer. It was incredible. They were sharing deep things with each other, and the time was rich.

It was late before we finished, and the kids still had to return to their host families and pack up. We left for the airport the next morning and arrived safely in Chicago with no lost luggage—or students!—the same evening.

We’re now four days post-trip. We were very, very glad to get back to our kids, but Dave and I are still discussing and thinking about this trip. We want to bring the lessons learned during it into everyday life, and we want to continue to pray fervently for Scotland. That’s our prayer for the students as well.

Scotland, days 8 and 9

in front of the beaches where the Chariots of Fire beach scenes were filmed

in front of the beaches where the Chariots of Fire beach scenes were filmed

In some ways our entire trip led up to these last few days. The students have prepared their stories of how Christ has transformed and rescued them; they’ve learned Scotland’s rich history of faith and its current low spiritual point through tours and speakers; and they’ve visited churches and youth groups whose members have expressed how very alone they sometimes feel.

Group in front of the "old course" at St. Andrews

Group in front of the “old course” at St. Andrews

group at St Andrews ruins

at the ruins of St. Andrews cathedral

Yesterday and today, our students were able to do their small part to step into that need. Yesterday morning we visited Deans Community High School here in Scotland. Rob Bell is the chaplain at Deans and meets with students each week. Both the administration and students know and respect him. Because they do, we are welcome to do assemblies and school visits there. In assembly we showed the video of our school (prepared by TJ Tyrrell) and then Grace and Jacklyn explained their cardboard testimonies. On one side of the cardboard testimony is a statement expressing a deep need, hurt, or struggle; on the other side is how Christ met that need and transformed the student in the process. After Grace and

This was a mine dug under the Saint Andrew Castle. We all crawled down into it.

This was a mine dug under the Saint Andrew Castle. We all crawled down into it.

Jacklyn explained and showed theirs, the other students then shared theirs silently. Here are a few:

“Before Christ, there was no meaning to my life/With Christ I have a purpose.”

“I used to think God would only love me if I was perfect/Now I know God loves me even with my imperfections.”

group in chapel at St. A's

group in chapel at St. Andrew’s

“I used to HATE how I looked/Now I know I am made beautifully in God’s image.”

“I felt worthless/Now I know God values me and made me for a purpose.”

“I used all my talents to make others notice and love me/When I use my talents for God, I feel His love.”

“I was controlled by fear/now I am made bold through Christ’s freedom”

“I used to feel unlovable/now I feel consumed by Christ’s love.”

The vulnerability of the students was bold

and beautiful, and the students at Deans responded. We left the school following the assembly yesterday, but today we
spent the entire day there. We did assembly for a different group of Deans students and then paired our students up with Deans students and sent them off to classes. They talked

following our day at Deans

following our day at Deans

about cultural differences and personal likes/dislikes but many of the Deans students also asked about our students’ belief in Christ. Some even went with their partners to Religious Education classes, where the teachers opened up the floor for the students to discuss
different aspects of the Christian faith. Dave and I were in Religious Education classes all day; in three of them the teacher invited us to the front of the class and allowed us to field questions from the students. Nearly every single question led to us sharing some aspect of the Gospel. They asked about our favorite parables, how we know the Bible is true; why the God of the Old Testament seems different from the God of the New Testament; how science and religion deal with origins; Scripture’s views on abortion, etc. In one of the classes, our students Abby and Jacklyn joined us and answered quite a few of the questions,

post host-family supper--all guests, including the piper in the middle

post host-family supper–all guests, including the piper in the middle

and in the final class, our students answered all the questions, and Dave and I just listened.

By the end of the day, our students were exhausted. Most were really encouraged, though a few felt that their conversations with their new friends hadn’t gone as deeply as they’d hoped they would. But that gave Dave and I the opportunity to remind them of God’s timing and the Holy Spirit’s ability to use even the things we consider very, very small.

serving at host supperWe had our host family dinner tonight at Rob and Louise’s church, eating the traditional Scottish meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties (turnips and potatoes) and celebrating a Burns supper a bit early (it’s celebrated on January 25th) with a bagpiper and a recitation of Burns’ poem “To a Haggis.” We are very, very thankful for these families who have welcomed completely unknown teens into their homes and cared so well for them.

I need to backtrack to yesterday. Following assembly at Deans, we headed up with Billy the bus driver to Saint Andrews. We enjoyed a fairly sunny day (the first since we’ve arrived) in this small town with its legendary golf course, beautiful university (where Prince William and Kate both attended and met), lovely cathedral and castle ruins (our kids acted like they were on a playground!); and quaint streets (lots of bookshops!). On the way back to Livingston we got Anstruther’s famous fish and chips (so very good, but I almost couldn’t believe I was putting that much grease in my stomach!) and then enjoyed a game and snack night back at Rob and Louise’s house (they are incredibly hospitable).

Please pray for tomorrow. In the morning we will hold our last assembly at Deans (for yet another group of students), and because many of the Deans kids met our students yesterday, the cardboard testimonies have the potential to be even more powerful and impacting. Please pray that the seeds sown—some of them unknown—will take root.

Scotland, days 4-5

The students on the "new" Stirling Bridge

The students on the “new” Stirling Bridge

It is one thing to study “why we believe Christianity is real” as part of an academic class; it is an entirely different thing to study it when you are fairly certain someone will ask you that question—genuinely—in just a few days.

We spent most of Thursday in orientation sessions, first hearing from Ian Leitch, one of the original members of The Heralds (the Scottish gospel band of the 1950s/60s), which eventually became The Heralds Trust. For the last 40-odd years, Ian has been presenting and defending the Gospel in Scotland and around the world. The kids listened attentively, though most of Ian’s jokes went, as he said, “over their heads.” I liked them, though. For instance, when Ian was talking about Mahatma Gandhi’s belief in Christ as merely a good teacher, he said he remembered when Gandhi’s brother came to Scotland. “Mahatma Coat, remember him?” he asked the kids.

The kids just looked blank. Oh, well.

Following Ian’s presentation, we met with an American couple, Jerry and Elizabeth, who are here in Scotland using the arts, specifically drama, to encourage and minister to the church and to enable the church to reach out to the community. They talked specifically with our kids about Scripture reading, about allowing the meaning and power that is in the Word of God to shine through in their voices. A few brave volunteers stood up to read a passage of Scripture. Jerry and Elizabeth gave them pointers, and then they read the passages again. Huge improvement, and it was wonderful to hear Scripture read in a vibrant way by young people.

In the afternoon, we spent a short time at the nearby mall, but then we returned to the church to practice the testimonies, music, and dramatic reading we will be giving during the church service and youth service we will be leading on Sunday morning and night.

We worked till evening and then went to the local bowling alley. It was a fierce competition between the teams (not really), and my team came in second (which surely had very little to do with the fact that we had the bumpers in our lane put up—and no other team did. Claire had a great rebound shot perfected—off the bumper about halfway down the lane and right into the side of the lead pin.

This morning we met up with our bus driver, Billy, who is from the same town as William Wallace (of Braveheart fame—though, as we learned today, it is NOT anywhere near historical accuracy). Billy, of course, is named after Wallace, as are a very large number of boys born in his town. He drove us to the Wallace monument, where we climbed up the hill to the monument and then up the monument’s 240-something steps. The top parapet was closed due to high winds (as a chaperone, I was just fine with that), but we learned all kinds of interesting facts about Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge and his eventual martyrdom at the hand of the English king. His sword (or at least its replica) was MASSIVE!

We briefly stopped by Doune Castle (where Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed and, more recently, the Scottish show The Outlanders), and we saw the approximate site of the bridge where Wallace defeated the English. Then we were off to Stirling Castle. It brought together a lot of the history we’d been learning over the last few days, but I think the kids enjoyed most the rooms that had been remodeled to look as they would have when James IV and his wife actually lived there (and if you’re a Scot reading this, and I’ve got the wrong James, PLEASE forgive me.)

We learned a few new words from Billy, one being dreich, which described the weather of the day: drizzly, windy, cold. Others: kil (relating to religion), loch (lake), glen (valley), inver (mouth of a river), ben (high point).

Then, finally, the highlight of the day: a caleidh with the members of a Scottish youth group. A caleidh is a traditional Scottish dance party, generally held at a wedding. But we did it with teens, and it was a blast, and they all mingled and danced and talked (when they needed a break from the dancing, which was quite energetic). Besides the traditional caleidh dances, we discovered our young Scottish friends are quite fond of the music from Grease and a few other oldies our kids had clearly never heard (including one of my favorites: “I’m Gonna’ Be (500 Miles)” by the Scottish band The Proclaimers). But YMCA was, as always, a big hit; our kids requested “Hoedown Throwdown” (a new one for the Scots); and we closed out the night with “Auld Lang Syne,” written by the Scotsman Robert Burns.

A grand night! And it set the stage well for next Wednesday, when we will join the two groups of youth again to have a more serious time of Bible discussion and fellowship.

Good night, all.