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Intercession without the groans

Dave Andrews

'Spiritual warriors' have got themselves a bad name in some quarters. Shouldn't true prayer have more to do with active compassion than fighting anything? Dave Andrews on reclaiming and reframing intercession.

FAndrews1.jpgWhen I was in Afghanistan, I met a friend who had been asked to host a party of US 'prayer warriors'. They had allegedly been led by the Lord 'to Latitude 33º 00' North and Longitude 65º 00' East' to 'intercede against the spirit of violence that had been unleashed' in the country 'when the Devil fell to earth in Kabul'. But on their way home through the Kyber Pass at the lawless northwestern border town of Darra, my friend noticed they couldn't wait to leap out of the jeep to try firing the latest AK47s manufactured there.

That kind of 'intercessor' frankly frightens me to death.

When I was in India, I woke up one morning to find the city of Delhi on fire, and Hindu mobs rampaging through the streets, tracking, surrounding and slaughtering thousands of defenseless Sikhs. I immediately phoned some Christians I knew round town to ask what they were going to do about the communal violence. They told me they were all going to gather at the church to 'intercede' and 'come against the spirit violence unleashed in the streets' in prayer. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. By abandoning their Sikh neighbours to seek sanctuary in the church, they showed the huge gulf between 'claiming the blood of Jesus' for protection, and being willing to shed their own blood like Jesus did.

I don't think we can depend on 'intercession' like this to save many lives.  
When I returned to Australia, one of my wife's cousins told me about a hairdresser we both know, who asked his pastor to 'intercede' for the new business he had recently opened at great expense in a shopping mall. The first thing the hairdresser asked the pastor to do was to come and 'bless' his shop. Which he did. The second thing the hairdresser asked his pastor to do was to go around the corner and 'curse' his competitor's shop. Which he also did, 'coming against' those purported 'powers of evil.'

I find that approach to 'intercession' quite diabolical. Don't you?

In fact, I think we need to review the whole idea of 'intercession'. The word 'intercessor' literally means 'a person who gets involved with someone who has got themselves into a predicament, and pleads on their behalf'. Like Christ 'who always lives to intercede for us.' (Hebrews 5:27) Note that the intercessor is not one who 'comes against' anyone, but one who comes alongside - like the Spirit who helps us express desires we cannot articulate. 'We often do not know what to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us in a way that our words cannot express.' (Romans 8:26).

I believe we need to learn to intercede in the same way for others, reclaiming and reframing intercession as the capacity to feel and express deep empathy in a way that those for whom we are praying can relate to as compassionate, empowering and helpful.

Not surprisingly the perfect example of intercession is Jesus, as in John's Gospel:
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, the one you love is sick'. On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 'Where have you laid him?' he asked. 'Come and see, Lord,' they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!' Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 'Take away the stone,' he said. 'But, Lord,' said Martha, the sister of the dead man, 'by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.'  Then Jesus said, 'Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?' So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.' When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, 'Take off the grave clothes and let him go'. (John 11:1-44)  

There are many intriguing aspects of this story, but I want to focus on those which model a Christlike way of reclaiming and reframing the process of 'intercession'.

Firstly, intercession always starts with coming face-to-face with a tragedy in the lives of others. In this case it was the death of Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary. Notice that intercession only erupts when we move from dispassionate observation to compassionate participation in the agony at the heart of the tragedy.

When Jesus got up close and personal - truly, deeply, and intensely personal - with the agony at the heart of this tragedy, he wept empathically with Martha and Mary. All intercession is essentially empathic prayer, with and for those whom we love, which articulates the longings of their heart in the language of their heart. With tears running down his face, Jesus prays Martha's and Mary's prayers to God, out loud, so they can hear him and say 'Amen' from the depths of their hearts.

And, because of intercession, something changes. In this case there was spectacular change - Lazarus was raised from the dead. More often than not the change that takes place is not nearly so spectacular. But when we pray change does take place.


It's an approach to 'intercession' I find beautiful. And the more fascinated I become with Christ's approach, the more I teach Christian community workers to view the whole of their work as intercession: embodied empathic prayer experienced by the people we work with as profoundly compassionate and empowering. Seeing our work as 'intercession' rather than 'intervention' means that while we use logframes and other management techniques to enact our prayers, we trust in God to answer them.

I not only train Christian community workers to view the whole of their work as 'intercession', but also to look for specific opportunities to put it into words. I invite them to think of a particular person and remember a time when they became acutely aware of their pain. I invite them to re-imagine the scene, to see the person, to hear their story, to touch their tragedy, to taste their agony, to feel their pain. Then I invite them to imagine that, at that very moment they were most empathically immersed in their pain, Christ walks by. Seeing the pain on the person's face, Christ stops, and asks them gently if there is anything he can do to help them. The person doesn't know what to say to Christ, so he or she turns you and says - 'You tell him!' At that point I invite the community workers I am training in 'intercession' to think of what they could say on the person's behalf. Something which would express their feelings in the words they would have used if they had said it themselves, so that when they were finished, the person could sincerely say, 'That's it, mate! That's it!'   
Once my community workers have practiced this, I then encourage them to look for opportunities to intercede with people in the context of their work.

A community healthcare worker, whom we'll call John, told me about his efforts to try to find a way of practicing intercession with two of his clients, both prostitutes. We'll call one Jenny, and the other Jane.

Jenny moved to Brisbane when her marriage broke up. She arrived at John's community health centre and John arranged some emergency assistance for Jenny and her family. But Jenny became frustrated with living on welfare, and told John that she wanted take up a job she had been offered, as a sex worker with a local escort agency, in order to get more money to support her family. Jenny asked John if he would respect her choice to be a sex worker and support in her choice of work, by helping her to keep free from sexually transmitted diseases.

This request presented John with a very difficult ethical dilemma. On the one hand, as a Christian, John was committed to sharing in Jenny's struggle to regain the dignity of 'choice' in her life; but on the other hand, as a Christian, John was committed to advocating healthy lifestyle choices, which - as far as he was concerned - did not include prostitution! John felt that the best thing he could do for Jenny was to try to encourage her to change her mind. So John spent an hour begging Jenny to consider a range of other alternatives.

But he failed to persuade her. Jenny's argument was that she would be providing a necessary service to the community, and that John should support her in providing that service as safely as possible. John said he wanted to help her, but couldn't condone prostitution. So Jenny left. And John has never seen Jenny again. Not a successful intervention. Not a chance for intercession.  

Jane presented herself at John's community health centre with pelvic pain and vaginal discharge. Jane told John that she was a 'working girl', and she needed him, as her doctor, to help her to cope with the occupational hazards of her work, like the STD she had presented with. With Jane, John was face to face with the same ethical dilemma that he had been confronted with by Jenny. He didn't know what to do with Jane.

But he knew he didn't want to do what he had done with Jenny. Since the day Jenny had left his centre, John had been troubled by regret over his response to Jenny. With Jane walking into his office the way she did, John felt he was being given a chance to redeem himself by caring for a prostitute more appropriately. He decided that this time round, he would not take the moral high ground as a Christian; this time round, he would climb down from off his moral high horse, join his patient at her point of pain, and simply do all he could to help her, as Christ would.

So John told Jane that he would respect her choice of work and he would support in her choice of work, by keeping her free from STDs, as she had requested him to do; but he wanted to remain in dialogue with her about her work, and the impact that her work had upon her as a person. He assured her that he would be there for her, whatever she decided to do; and that he would be there for her, particularly, if what she decided to do got her into trouble.

Weeks went by. John saw Jane a number of times about a range of medical issues. And whenever they met they talked. Gradually John got to hear more and more of Jane's story. In many ways it was just like Jenny's. Like Jenny, Jane's marriage had broken up. Like Jenny, Jane had two kids to support. Like Jenny, Jane felt 'working' was better than welfare. And like Jenny, she said she was providing an essential service to the community.

But Jane was not Jenny. Her story was her own. And as he listened, Jane told John about her struggle to keep 'working', and to keep looking after her children, at the same time; she knew her lifestyle was unsettling them, so she sent the kids to be with their father for a while; but he was preventing her from having access to them, because of her profession. Her life was starting to come unstuck; but she was tough, and she was determined to tough it out.

One day Jane turned up and collapsed into a chair across from John. 'My dad is dead', she said. Jane had had a love-hate relationship with her alcoholic dad. On one level she was glad he was dead. But on another level she was sad about his death. John tried to enter into her sense of loss, and share her feelings of grief as best as he could. Jane responded to that support by bursting into tears, crying; 'I am so useless. I couldn't relate to my dad. I can't care for my own kids. I'm fucked!'

John wasn't sure what to say. But eventually he said, 'Would you mind if prayed for you?' She shook her head. 'No', she said. So, very carefully, John reached out and held Jane's hand, and cried out in a loud voice; 'Oh Christ, we're so fucked up. Jane's fucked up. And I'm fucked up. But we'd like to believe that you can help fucked-up people like us!'

Jane could scarcely believe her ears. Here was John, the straight-laced Christian community health worker - whom she had never heard swear - praying the prayer of her heart in her own words. John says he was almost as surprised as Jane was. But after they got over the shock, they talked for a long while together about the possibilities of putting the pieces of her life back together again. On the way out, Jane burst into tears again, and John gave her a big hug in front of all the startled clients standing round the community centre.

John saw Jane a few weeks later. After her dad's funeral she had gone to stay with her mum in a country town. While she was there she decided to quit her work, reclaim her kids, move back home with her family, and start her life all over again. Which is what she did. And that's what intercession can do.
So let's reclaim 'intercession' and reframe it as embodied empathic prayer.

Dave Andrews