I keep dealing with something that I see others going through, too, and it needs confronting. I need to defend some people. Good chance for a language lesson for me to boot!
I always know when He has a word for this blog because it comes up over and over. The idea for this has been rolling around my head loosely for awhile, but I started to voice it in my last post and this week it gained teeth. It’s wrapped around a single word, but that word is one with fascinating depth.
I am always amazed by how little people seem to care about language. It is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, but we appear to take that for granted a lot. I go the other way, perhaps too much: I harp on my employees and friends about precision of language and being meaningful about communications. I imagine it’s one of the more annoying aspects of working for me, honestly. In our day-to-day lives how we speak is so determinant in how our names are carried, so critical to our sense of self. Above almost any other thing we do, we speak. We read, we sing, we talk, we write… having language is one of the fundamental components of being a person. It’s so important to us we try to teach other species to do it, too. How, then, can it appear so trivial to us? How are we so disinterested in the study of it? I think it’s just one of those things that are so interred, so basic that we see past it.
My right-hand man, the guy who leads my engineering team, is an incredible storyteller. He has some incredibly funny stories about his time on the police force and his retellings of those stories are hysterical. When I try to pass them on? Never as funny. The same words delivered in the same order produce different results based on things like tone, emphasis, and nonverbal cues… I can communicate the same information, but the part that produces the laughter, the part that transmits the joy, is reserved to him. Does that not stimulate you to consider why? To think about where else and how else it applies? It does me, and it’s probably the thing I spend the most time asking God about. Where my friend can tell entrancing stories, I can write powerfully; maybe you haven’t seen it in my blog, but I’ve written words that have stimulated others to action or even to tears. My friend lacks that; his writing style is curt, flavorless. How can the same language that services us both have such different manifestations? Carry such different characteristics? I find the subject truly fascinating, so today I want to delve into a couple such examples of crossed wires, and I hope they help you as much as they do me. By “hope” I mean “pray”, and by “help” I mean “convict”. I Love you!
I don’t know if the book of Acts is as overlooked in everyone’s Bible reading as it is in mine. It’s like there’s so much meat there I shy away because I’m not ready for the information overload. But the stories are so defining for Christians, so illustrative of our history and our culture. Take for example Acts 12. It begins with the story of the apostle Peter’s imprisonment by king Herod. The very first words in the chapter are “Now about that time”. About which time? Clearly we’ve picked up in the midst of something. Maybe it matters, so we should go back and get the context. Looking back to the end of chapter 11, starting from verse 25, we read:
“Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul.
And when he had found him, he brought him up to Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.
And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.
Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:
Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”
That’s a lot. We learn how the nametag “Christian” first came to be, we learn that there was a famine in the world, we learn that there are still prophets operating, and we see Paul (called Saul still at the time) in the height of his service with his buddy Barnabas, helping feed the people. I could spend days writing about these things, but for today they are just pretext to chapter 12 and that initial “Now about that time”. So it’s in these days, during this dearth, that Herod (that’s Herod Agrippe, by the way, not the one who was hunting baby Jesus 70-ish years prior) kills John’s brother and then imprisons Peter.
If you went to church more of your life than I have you probably know that Peter doesn’t stay imprisoned long before an angel comes to free him. And in the hubbub of that amazing story we overlook this incredibly important word, this word that may shake some foundational pillars about how you think about your faith. It’s found in verse 5. My pastor spoke about this verse in a recent Bible study session. There’s a thing the Spirit wanted me to expand on in his message, and it’s this incredible, powerful word. Verse 5 reads:
“Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.”
Peter was freed because people prayed for him, true. But what kind of prayer? Let me edit the punctuation a bit to highlight:
“Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made, without ceasing of the church, unto God for him.”
Prayer “without ceasing.” This was the King James translation. But the New Living renders it “the church prayed very earnestly”. Other translations say “fervently” or “constantly” or “strong”. All are good words, but none are what the verse actually reads. I’m not being pious or calling everyone else wrong, but well… they are. What does it matter? Isn’t it just one word? Well, you may have read a post I made awhile ago in which I harped that not one word in the Bible is wasted or worthless, that every one is for our education. And so it is here: this word is incredible.
The word used in verse 5 that is rendered so differently among scholars is έκτενής, ektenes. This word cannot, I submit, be translated in anything less than a dozen words. That is because it is an incredibly deep, incredibly visual word. It is one of a few cases where a Greek word carries equal emotional weight to Hebrew. “How can that be?” you ask me. “You always say Greek is a utilitarian language, Shawn!” Well, yeah, but this word needs that emotional depth to carry its utility. You’ll understand why shortly.
The word ektenes is an adjective, so it’s describing something. To know what it’s describing we have to look at its root word: έκτείνω, ekteino. Ekteino is a verb, so it denotes action. Ektenes describes that action. So what’s the action? Well, not to frustrate you, but you have to know the origin of ekteino, too. It’s a combination of two words: έκ and τείνω, ek and teino. Ek is a preposition, and specifically it is the preposition “from”, but a really particular version of “from”: ek denotes origin. Sometimes it is rendered “out of” or “by” because it answers the question “where did this originate?”, but I like “from” as in “where are you from?” because it’s more illustrative. Teino is a verb and it means “to stretch”, but again it’s a specific kind of stretching. Teino is an almost militaristic grading term. It is perfectly illustrated by a few specific kinds of stretching: the stretching of a sheet across a bed, the stretching of a skin across a drum, and the stretching of reigns as you drive a chariot. We’re talking taut here; we’re talking strained. So ekteino means “to stretch from”, but that’s sort of a weird, non-impacting phrase. How can we clean it up and show you how powerful it is? Well, we can illustrate it. Actually, I already gave you the illustration: it’s the banner image for this very post. It’s a toddler reaching out desperately to be picked up by his mother. Let that marinate for a second before you keep reading.
The verb ekteino means “to stretch out the way a baby stretches out for his mother”. That means the word we started with, ektenes, describes that outstretched baby. But notice there’s no “from” there. Where is it that baby is stretching out from? The visualization of a baby reaching for his mom is a physical thing, but the idea conveyed isn’t so literal. It’s rather noting the sense of urgency, of need, of singular focus. That baby wants nothing save the touch of mom, can think of nothing else; the entire world is pale and dull, and he is in absolute anguish over need of her touch. He’s stretching from a need for comfort, for safety. What ektenes really means is “to be in a state of reaching out from a place of complete and singular focus and intent.” It does not describe the source, only the passionate reaching. And this is how we are given that the church prayed for Peter: stretched out to God, spiritually, emotionally, and perhaps even physically, with a singular and desperate need, in their case the desire to have their petition for his release granted. Does that mean they prayed with their arms stretched out as if they were asking God to pick them up? Or that we should do the same? Well… kind of, yeah.
I get how the translators rendered the word “without ceasing” or “constantly” or “fervently” or “earnestly”, but tell me any of those words give you the picture of what He’s telling us here. No, of course not; they are just shorthand, Cliff’s notes, that rob you of the emotional connection to this simple line of story. It’s like me retelling one of my buddy’s stories. You have the information, but not the impact. You have the knowledge, but not the understanding. Ekteino is used in Scripture when Jesus reached forth his hand to heal or when Peter drew his sword to slice off the ear off a guard who came to arrest Jesus. It’s important to really understand, to really grok, that what backs these actions is intense, visceral, consuming. Why? Because without that intensity it isn’t really prayer, it’s just chattering to God. We have to have focus. And it is in this that I see misunderstanding; it is in this that I see religion failing people.
Religion has trained people to the ritual of prayer, of praise, of worship; to the habits of church. It has made prayer a mandate, and thereby a chore, and thereby common, petty, and wasted. It has made people feel uncomfortable to admit they aren’t feeling it, it has coerced them into lying to themselves and each other. It has focused on the stretching, not the straining; the appearance and not the reality. I’ve stood in a room full of people pretending to pray or pretending to worship, and it brings me to tears to know that many of them don’t even see a problem with it; that’s just what church is to them. I, too, have found myself head down, eyes closed, mindlessly joining the words of prayer with absolutely no stretching forth for Him, and it convicts me greatly. That was never meant to be how we behaved. That leads to my second example.
James 5 says a lot of great things about prayer, but one of the biggest is the most cliched. From verse 16:
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
These are five pillars of who a Christian should be and we toss the words around with all the heft of “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”. Effectual prayer, straining-for-God-from-a-place-of-need prayer, can stop the sun in the sky, can stop the rain, can raise the dead. But religion hamstrung that. Why aren’t there more big miracles? Because there are less fervent prayers. But there’s more here to point out: there’s the beginning to deal with. “Confess your faults one to another.” That’s not a suggestion, it’s a command. Actually it’s two commands: confess to each other and receive each other’s confessions. But we don’t really do this much despite our immense brokenness.
Would you feel comfortable walking onto the stage at your church and saying “Last night I watched a movie where two girls had sex and it really turned me on and I don’t know how to process that.”? Think you’d get a welcoming openness and sincere offers of help? Or would you feel awkward glances and a desire to never go back there again? How about one person? Would there be one person in your congregation you’d feel comfortable going to? Then how can you be comfortable going in and saying “I just don’t feel close to God right now and I am angry and sad and I don’t want to be here today.”? What if it was your pastor needing to say one of these things?
We are so damned judgemental to each other. It is wrong, wrong, wrong. Satanic wrong. Yeah, I said it. I’ll say it in person. Tactlessness and coldness are two of my many, many flaws, but I speak truth here. There are far too many Christians using church as a social stop to gossip and tear down rather than to support and build up, despite the fact that support and healing are half the point of its existence! Church is one place where we should have no need for secrecy, for hiding, but the vast majority of us show a glossier, happier, better us to our congregations. A fake us. It should not be so; church should be for being comfortable to show your brokenness and seek help healing it. If you don’t agree then you’ve been lied to and abused by religion.
The Greek word for church, έκκλησία, ekklesia, is a compound word made up of έκ and καλέω, ek and kaleo. Ek is the same ek — “from” — that I described earlier. Kaleo is rooted in κέλλω, kello, which means “to urge someone to do something”, but kaleo refers to the person being urged. Kaleo is a verb meaning “to be called”. So the noun ekklesia literally means “those called forth from the world”. Every time we attend church it is to celebrate that we are called out from the world and spend time in a more perfect society separate from the world’s weight and pressure, to rejuvenate each other before a week spent out discipling. How absolutely deplorable that we’d instead use it as a place to propagate the world’s perverse practices of shaming, hiding, gossiping, and lying.
There are so many hurting, sad, scared, ashamed people in the body of Christ who are desperate for help, but the one place they should feel most comfortable seeking that help is the place they most feel pressured to hide it and show a good face. How utterly upside-down, how completely death-worshipping. It’s no wonder we can’t pray properly when we can’t be our honest selves! Brothers and sisters, we must change it! If, like Jesus, we have to carry whips into the place to drive out the snakes, then by the instruction of God we must. We cannot allow habit and tradition to continue to pervert our sanctuary, to block the Kingdom of God from its citizens.
To us all I say: find your “from”. Don’t join the prayer cult of empty words and empty facades. Forget all the pomp and circumstance, the position and prancing. Decide, today, right now, to go to church as you, not your act. Decide to pray honestly and from your heart. Stop, breathe, reach your hands out to God, straining for every millimeter you can extend, and focus on what you really want from Him: His leadership. His peace, His healing, His heart, His guidance are ours at the asking if we ask genuinely, deeply, and free of fanciful imaginings. Drown out the noise and the nonsense: we are the citizenry of the Kingdom of the Lord God of All Creation. Our king and our brother, Jesus, awaits us, and the Spirit waits to lead every open heart to Him, at all times. Do not let the lies of the demon hold you outside! Confess your sins and receive the sins of others. Pray a new straining-heart prayer of intercession for them that you might both be healed. Take back the body of Christ; become the white blood cells that will purge all disease and restore health. Become the ekklesia, become the Army of the Kingdom.
Father, I remain in awe of Your grace to grant me this voice. I hope so deeply that I have used it correctly, that I have given words that might allow You to speak to others. I ask that You protect those who feel the need to put on a mask, that You comfort their hearts and free them from the noose of peer pressure. I ask that You help us to pray fully, to feel Your presence in our supplications and know the power of true prayer. Help us to fight the tide of hypocrisy, deceit, and condemnation that haunt our congregations. Rebuke those demons that would shield from us the glory of Your Holy city. Stir in us a renewed sense of citizenship power. Remind us what it means to be the ekklesia. I pray sincerely for the hearts of the wounded, that they might know that they are not alone, that if no one else on earth sees their pain that You and I do. Let them feel the Love of their Father, their Brother, and little ole me. Today I reclaim my part of the City. In the name of Your Word, and my Brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen!