When the going gets tough...
Posted by Mission Catalyst at 15:10 on 25th May 2010
The tough get – praying?
Army chaplain Rev Jonathon Daniel gives a fascinating insight into how soldiers pray on the frontline – and what can be learnt from his experience of connecting with non-Christians.
Back in the spring of 2008 it was just another normal day in Basra, Iraq – another day when rocket attacks were just a normal and inevitable occurrence. Life continued but the thought was always at the back of your mind that the next rocket could land just too close.
Somewhat predictably, the alarm boomed out eerily across the base, causing the adrenalin to yet again course around one’s body. Following the deaths of three civilian contractors in a recent rocket attack, just a couple of hundred metres away, everyone dived for the ground with a renewed vigour, only too aware of the indiscriminate and unforgiving nature of these attacks.
The rockets landed, some flying overhead and those falling close to us causing the ground to shake and debris to land on the sunshields above.
I prayed, as I did every time one of these attacks took place.
Thankfully, no-one was killed or injured in this attack but the change in attitude brought about by the recent deaths was made evident by the number of soldiers who later informed me of their new found prayer life.
Crying out to God
As you lay on the ground, only too aware of one’s blatant vulnerability, waiting for the incoming rockets to land, making a quick call to God seemed a very reasonable ‘action on’. “So, why did you pray?” I asked. “Well, there’s nothing else I can do Padre – just hoping the Big Man upstairs will look after me. I just want to get home in one piece.”
For some reason these non-church attending soldiers found some comfort and hope in reaching out to the ‘Big Man’.
The harsh environment and the realisation that your cherished life really was at risk of being ended, and the fact that you had absolutely no control over the outcome of the attack, made people go to places they wouldn’t normally go. Something deep inside causing them to cry out to God (that really Big Man upstairs!).
You were rudely confronted with the uncomfortable truth that you were not invincible, and somehow this brought about a ‘God’ moment. Deep, deep inside, brought about by a combination of circumstances, there was an awareness of the reality and need for God.
There was a real hope that the Big Man might have some kind of control – “Maybe there is something in this God stuff after all, Padre?” (Words quoted from a soldier who had survived an insurgent attack where a bullet had passed through the rucksack he was carrying on his back).
I often categorised the soldiers’ prayers as being ‘Titanic Prayers’.
At these vulnerable moments it looked as though the ‘ship of life’ might go down with all hands lost so any form of lifeboat was acceptable, even ‘lifeboats’ you hadn’t previously acknowledged as having been there, well not to your mates at least.
Place these generally young soldiers into a situation where all the usual sources of support were taken away and it seemed that it somehow became more acceptable to pray to God, even if this was just some form of insurance, just in case he really was there.
This Padre hoped that their new-found prayer life was as a result of hearing one of his passionately preached sermons. However, back in the real world the realisation dawned that this was not the case. This ‘reaching out to God’ was surely the result of some deeply ingrained awareness that there was someone bigger than them involved in this mêlée that is life.
Space for God
So, what can we learn from these experiences in this far away land – this place where the ‘typical’ youth of today are exposed to experiences that are not the stuff of a night out clubbing in Manchester or Liverpool?
These same young men who, when returning from the military operational theatre, roam the streets around our churches in the UK, yet never venture inside unless they’re forced to, due to a funeral, wedding or christening?
Well, firstly, there is the encouraging realisation that God isn’t such an alien concept to ‘those’ young people as we might have previously thought. There really is space in their lives for God. It’s just that their space and their understanding of God often doesn’t fit comfortably with our way of doing Christianity.
Our Christian sub-culture is often light years away from the lives they are living. Jumping through the ‘hoops’ we have created in our churches probably asks more of these young people than asking them to step into a war zone!
The old believing, belonging, behaving expectations that are often held to so dearly in our churches have to change – dramatically, radically, totally! The concept of our churches being ‘safe places’ where everyone who dares to venture in should immediately behave as we want them to, is to condemn our churches to a slow, painful and God-dishonouring death.
Freedom in Christ might translate as freedom to behave as you already behave whilst you explore the possibility that the Big Man might actually be relevant to you. It might challenge our safe places but hey, there’s a gospel to proclaim!
Relationships are key
For me, probably the biggest learning point at this particular section of the interface between Christianity and ‘the rest of the world’ is that relationships, presence and visibility are absolutely key.
People won’t ask you to pray, or tell you about their prayers, if you are invisible to them. They won’t communicate with you unless you are alongside them, in every situation that life throws at us.
Only when we gain access to the innermost aspects of people’s lives, only when we travel the journey with them can we expect to be given a listening ear. And only then can we begin to understand where they are coming from, instead of just wanting to condemn their actions. Only when we have earned the right to be with ‘them’ at the most painful and challenging times of their lives might we win the right to talk about our faith in Christ, or pray with them.
Somehow we have to commission our congregations to go out of the churches and live life with the people we are trying to reach. Let’s face it, most of us Baptist ministers haven’t got the time to get to know everyone in a local community, maybe some of us haven’t got the skills/gifts to do this anyway?!
So, maybe our main task should be equipping: equipping those who are already out there, day in, day out, at the interface, interacting with the community in ways which most of us ministers will just not get the chance to do.
Giving our people permission not to attend every church activity but to break out of the sub-culture and live relational, visible, tactile lives. I realise, of course, that this is nothing earth-shattering. Indeed this idea of equipping those in our congregations possibly even reaches as far back as the first edition of the Mission Praise songbook.
But my experiences of Christian chaplaincy in a secular setting are telling me that somehow we’ve got to refresh and renew our commitment to, and passion about ‘enabling missionary disciples’.
Revd Jonathon Daniel trained at Spurgeon’s College from 1996-99, was Minister of Willingham Tabernacle Baptist Church, Cambridgeshire from 1999-2007 and is currently serving with the British Army as Chaplain (Padre) to the 1st Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.