In my travels I often minister in places where people’s expectations of God’s intervention to bring healing or any kind of transformation are low. This is usually because they’ve suffered big disappointments: praying for friends and family who haven’t been healed but remain ill or in pain, or have died and not been resurrected.
Disappointment naturally leads people to accommodate to the status quo. We too often adjust our theology and practice to make room for prayers not being answered. On a recent trip to England Gracie and I ministered in a church that had been through some major trials and big losses, including the death of their beloved pastor from cancer five years before.
I was speaking on Acts 6-8, one of my favorite sections of Scripture these days—and was struck in a whole new way by the realism and idealism in this story. Acts 6 begins with the apostles’ selection of seven people “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to serve widows at an early church version of a soup kitchen. The apostles feel called to prayer and ministry of the word, and lay hands on these seven to serve in keeping with Jesus’ way of indiscriminate love.
I continue to be amazed to read how the first of the seven, Steven is consequently “full of grace and power, performing great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8). Then right away in Acts 7 he preaches a mega sermon that enrages his audience to such an extent that they stone him to death and widespread persecution of Jesus’ followers results.
Such a big blow to these first Christians, who’d already been through so many devastating disappointments. Jesus’ betrayal by one of their own and his arrest and execution were fresh in their memories. His resurrection certainly brought radical hope, but Jesus then left them in his ascension.
Gathering and waiting was not in vain. The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, and frightened, timid apostles were transformed overnight into bold witnesses. But persecution followed swiftly: arrests, threats, beatings, orders to not speak in Jesus’ name again. Acts 5 ends with the apostles going away from their flogging “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name” (v. 41).
The apostles laying on of hands leads to empowerment for healing and preaching, which leads once again to martyrdom and unprecedented persecution that scatters the remaining six table servers throughout Judea and Samaria, leading to house-to-house searches, arrests and imprisonment (8:1-3). As I was preaching a verse I have mostly overlooked struck me as critical for my English audience:
“Some devout people buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him” (8:2).
Loud lamentation over Stephen shows how seriously these early Christians took their disappointment and pain. Lamentation, the public and private expressions of grief, of disillusionment is essential. I wondered whether this community needed to give louder voice to pain, to complaint, risking the loss of faith to receive faith anew.
I invited people suffering from deep disappointment and despondency to come forward for prayer and was surprised by how many came to the front, some of them weeping. As Gracie and I began to pray the Holy Spirit came strong and people were being visibly touched. People were comforting and praying for each other and the love of God was so tangible and deeply moving. The presence of God was so strong that many people where not able to remain standing.
After a while Gracie and I both received some words of knowledge for healing and we invited people with various conditions to come for prayer. Person after person was being healed as we had people praying for each other and Gracie and I ministered to many.
I’ve been recalling many examples in the Gospels where people who come to Jesus expressing their grief or honest assessment of their lack of relief are met with Jesus’ apt response. I feel inspired anew to bring my uncensored laments, complaints and needs before Jesus, and am finding my expectations for his saving touch increasing together with an intense longing for God’s realm to come here and now.
It’s important to note that lamentation is not a technique that guarantees immediate breakthrough. After loudly lamenting Stephen’s death, things don’t get immediately better. Saul does house-to-house searches and drags people off to prison (8:3). But in the next story Philip, the second person ordained to care for widows, flees to Samaria where crowds hear his preaching and see miraculous signs.
“For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city” (Acts 8:7-8).
Persecution leads to scattering, which brings God’s strong presence to the excluded Samaritans and soon to the African continent through Philip’s next encounter (8:25ff). Philip's dramatic faith adventure continues as the Spirit transports him to his next assignment, inviting us into ours.