Monday 20 February 2012

How to pray at the airport

For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 3:8

It is a very Chinese thing that we like to do: Whenever someone sets off on a journey - back to Hong Kong for the New Year celebrations, or off to a new place to start a new job - we pray for safety. "Lord, grant us journey mercies," is what we usually say, huddled together around the pastor at the airport. We pray for good weather. We even pray for the pilot. "God, please bless him with a safe and pleasant journey." "Lord, please bring her back safe and sound."

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is writing to a group Christians - young Christians, in fact - who are facing outward persecution, rejection and trials. And his greatest joy and longing is not for God to make life a little easier for them. In fact, he stops short of saying, "I told you so." Verse 4: "For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, just as you know." Rather, Paul's joy comes from hearing that these Christians have remained firm in their faith even as they continue to face these trials. Their ultimate hope is not present but future as they look forward to the personal and visible return of Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 3:13).

For Paul, his priority for these believers is not their safety. It is their steadfastness.

Now don't get me wrong. When someone gets news of cancer, we should pray for their healing. When someone has just gone through a bad break-up, we should pray for God's comfort. When someone loses his job, we should pray for God's guidance and provision. Our confidence is in a God who is sovereign. Our petition is before the Lord of the universe.

But the question is: at what point during that big prayer meeting, with the whole church gathered in earnest prayer before Almighty God, do we speak up and say, "Merciful and gracious Father, we do ask you to heal our brother X from his condition. But should this illness result in death, we pray that his true longing not be in this life, but upon his death and resurrection, in beholding Jesus Christ, his Redeemer with his own eyes." Say that aloud at a prayer meeting, and I guarantee you, your name will be brought up with the elder board. I guarantee you that someone will get upset. But isn't that, Paul's central focus here? That these believers stay faithful to God and continue to name Jesus as their Lord, even in the midst of suffering and disappointment?

Years ago as a student, I prayed for some friends visiting Cambridge as they boarded their bus, "Lord, if we do no see one another again on this earth, I pray we might meet again in heaven." They laughed and so did I.

How many people can you honestly pray that prayer for? As you say farewell at the train station, at the airport, or even at the breakfast table - that if this were your last goodbye on earth, you know with absolute certainty you will see one another again, face to face, in glory? For as much as the apostle Paul longs to see his brothers and sisters "face to face" (verse 10) and as he petitions God "night and day" for this reunion to happen in the near future, Paul casts his gaze further afield to another day - to that great Day - when all will see the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory with his holy ones.

Why not say this prayer aloud instead, the next time you're at the airport:

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
1 Thessalonians 3:11-13

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