Saturday, 2 April 2016

Praying and doing - which comes first?

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. Nehemiah 4:8-9.

It was Oliver Cromwell who, during the English Civil War, is supposed to have told his soldiers: “Put your trust in God – but keep your powder dry”. (Wet gunpowder, I assume, is useless.)

A perfect blend of the “spiritual” and the “practical”. And that blend, that same balance, is demonstrated in these verses from Nehemiah.

A bit of background… It’s about 450 years before Jesus, and the Persian king Artaxerxes has given Nehemiah permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the ruined city, especially its gates and walls. He and the small number of Jewish people living in the city set about the task with enthusiasm.

But – there is opposition: “They…plotted to come and fight against Jerusalem…” Never mind who “they” are (you can find their names in verse 7 if you are interested); what matters is that Nehemiah and his people found themselves and their work seriously threatened.

So what did they do? They “prayed… and posted a guard”.

Note the order: prayer first, action second. But both were vital, two sides of the one coin.

Getting this balance right is still a challenge for us today. 

There are Christians who are so “spiritual” that they would never dream of missing a service, a prayer-meeting or a house-group. Wonderful! But if you ask them to roll their sleeves up and get stuck into some practical task you won’t see them for dust. “So heavenly-minded they’re no earthly use” is a bit of a cliché, but it’s not that far from the truth.

And there are others who are wonderfully practical, real activists, always busy about the church. But they can often be so busy that they never find time to nourish their relationship with God through worship, prayer and scripture. The danger is that in time they end up without any relationship with God at all, pretty much dried up or burnt out.

God calls his people to co-operate with him: to pray, of course, but to work too. He doesn’t say “All right, just leave it to me, I’ll do the necessary.” (So much for the “let go and let God” school of thought.) But neither does he say “Right, I’ve brought you to salvation, now you’re on your own.” (Just as well!)

The challenge, then, is obvious: Have I got the balance right?

In my time as a minister I’ve known Christians who, setting out on holiday, will pray “Lord, give us a safe journey” – and then drive like idiots. I’ve known students who will say they’re trusting God to help them succeed in their exams, but never get down to any solid work. I suspect there are churches which pray earnestly that God will cause their church to grow, but who are conspicuously weak when it comes to the day-to-day business – I might even use the word grind – of service, witness, mission and evangelism.

God is a gracious God, but why should he bail us out of our laziness? That’s not faith, that’s presumptuousness.

I wonder if you have ever heard of Simeon Stylites (that’s pronounced Style-eye-tease, by the way)? He lived in Syria about 400 years after Jesus, and he was so convinced of the evils of this world that he felt called to separate himself from it as far as possible, and to devote his life to prayer and the contemplation of God. He became a hermit.

But somehow he could never get away far enough, so he ended up (wait for this) living on top of a pillar (the Greek word for pillar is stylos, hence his name). Year by year his pillar got taller and taller and he ended up living there for – would you believe it – thirty-seven years.

To be fair to Simeon, he was always glad to welcome adoring pilgrims who flocked around to talk to him – they could get to him via a step-ladder (which is also how he received his food from admiring local people). Ten out of ten to Simeon for his extraordinary zeal and “spirituality”. But surely his desire to serve the world by effectively separating himself from it was misguided, to put it mildly.

The old catch-phrase says that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of it”. Which sums up beautifully the example set for us by Jesus himself.

And I’ve always liked the story about Paul in Acts 27-28. He and his friends have been ship-wrecked on the island of Malta, and they’re on the beach shivering with cold. So what does Paul do? – go aside and have a prayer-session? No, he helps to gather wood to build a fire.

I think Nehemiah would have liked that! I hope we do too… Get the balance right! Be a pray-er, yes, of course. But be a worker too.

Loving Lord Jesus, you prayed and fasted more than I can begin to imagine. But you were also a carpenter and a washer of feet. For you there was no distinction between the “spiritual” and the “practical”. Help me to be like you! Amen.

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