forty days and forty nights

«the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. then moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. and he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.» ex. 24:17-18

«it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent lover of God» luke 1:3


it has now been forty days since me and hamish sat talking in his room, after cluster on a tuesday night, wondering what we should be doing about the lack of unity between ciccu and fusion. should we be rallying support amongst christian students; should be writing letters of protest to the president of ciccu; should we be complaining to missionaries who have been at cambridge in the past, that they might reproach whoever is to blame for the sorry state of imperfection which was facing us?

our complaints were:
– disunity between [student] christians in cambridge (specifically, ciccu and fusion);
– the timidity of ciccu (as seen in their reluctance to endorse 24/7 prayer), and the apparent absence of the Spirit of power [2 tim. 1:7];
– the apparent focus of ciccu on organising evangelistic talks, rather than lovingly evangelising people;
– the lack of fruit in spite of the evangelistic efforts of ciccu (and ourselves);
– our [mine and hamish’s] own lack of [experience/knowledge of] the Spirit;
and, not knowing who else to whom we could take our complaints, we took them to God and prayed.

and, not knowing exactly how this was meant to work, we laid hands on each other and prayed for the Holy Spirit. after we had been sitting like this for about ten minutes, tongues of fire had still not come down on us from heaven, and we had not suddenly started speaking in tongues and prophesying. and maybe we should have waited longer, and maybe we should have had more faith (but «i will show you my faith by what i do»), but it was past midnight and so we decided to go to bed, and continue praying three mornings a week (monday, wednesday, friday). and i shall point out that i am *not* saying nothing happened – for «there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit» and «he has made everything beautiful in its time».

so «there was evening, and there was morning, the first day» of prayer. and life continued as normal, by which i mean i was still falling short of the glory of god. culminating in a saturday where i felt as spiritually downcast as any point of the year 2008 thus far. but «the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit», and on sunday night at st barnabas i felt the Holy Spirit come on me with tears. so i cannot boast, for «Christ Jesus died to save sinners, of whom i am the worst».

and then life continued as normal, which is to say that there were not instantaneous miracles. praying for unity with hamish, it struck me that if i were to take the plank out of my own eye i should be going to wednesday night cu prayer and praise, and saturday night ciccu’s central bible teaching, neither of which i had gone to for some considerable time. so on wednesday i went to p+p, and it was good (to be there, at least). more precisely, it was ‘evangelism training’ with dave howarth, and a discussion of what we should title the pre-main-event talk which he would be giving. and when i say ‘discussion’, i mean i kept arguing that it should be about love, and i was politely ignored.

and on saturday i went to central, and it was also good. i found myself sitting next to lizzie, and once the service had finished – after establishing the necessary information (magdalene college/english/second year/stag) – we discussed the futility of degrees, and the pull of wanderlust, and the missionary possibility. i managed to persuade her to join me in continuing to the 24/7 prayer launch – whereas john young (who i also met for the first time) decided that of the three p’s prayer, pizza, and pillow, the last was the most irresistible.

the prayer launch was a quiet affair for which i arrived late, reading and praying through solomon’s dedication of the temple in 2 chronicles. and God’s reply: «if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will i hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.» this is at the heart of everything i have been learning recently, and i still think that the best thing that could happen would be for *all* the believers in cambridge to come «all together in one place» (as in acts at pentecost) to humble ourselves in prayer.

[there is a 24/7 prayer week happening at the start of next term, which could potentially be happening in the henry martyn hall. which is a place devoted to mission, and so would be an incredibly symbolic place for any world-changing prayer, and most especially it would be symbolic for all of the christian students in cambridge – whether involved in ciccu and fusion or both or neither – to come together in prayer and say «we want to be united in the Spirit and in truth, in the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; and we want to repent of our pride and our small-mindedness; and we want to die to ourselves so God can fill us with his Holy Spirit and use us to his glory». so pray that in spite of the apparent impossibility of the notion, ciccu would be a part of 24/7 prayer next term.]

the next day, after the evening service at barney’s, we had our now termly (although i did not previously come) discussion about the respective merits of ciccu and fusion, and the issues involved. it was brilliant – it turned out that actually barney’s is full of students very passionate about unity, and the ones who have been praying about it all have the same sense that ciccu is very afraid of doing something wrong, and for this reason ciccu is unable to be effective, but we should be involving ourselves in and commiting to our college cu’s and to ciccu as much as possible.

so the next morning hamish was banging at my door, and a little later we were at the henry martyn hall, slightly late for ciccu morning prayer (but nevertheless there). and being there for the first time, i was quite struck by how many of the prayers were of the form «God, please bring lots of people to the [insert name of apologetic/evangelistic talk here]», whereas what i wanted to pray was «God, i don’t care if people come to these talks, i just pray that they would come to know you». and so what i said was «God, thankyou for these talks and the chance they give people to hear your word, please help us to know who we should invite to them, and help us not to make our priority taking people to talks, instead of making jesus known to them, and help us to be persistent witnesses for you, filled with your peace and your love and your Spirit». or something to that effect. because there sometimes seems to be a step missing in the ciccu method of evangelism. because the yellow sheet i have about leading a christianity explored group has, in bold, the words «the centrality of relationships» printed across its middle, (and it quotes 1 thess. 2:8 «we loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us»,) but i think this is all too often forgotten in the rush to remind people to bring people to talks. because loving people like Jesus did is difficult (!) and the best training to actually try to do this is to be praying lots (and lots), and to be sharing not only the gospel but also our lives with people who do believe – so that it will be something that comes naturally. because henry went to a talk at the main event a year ago and reacted encouragingly, and then jo smithells asked me to ask him if he wanted someone to read through the bible with him, and i never did – until the sunday afternoon before this monday (which i was describing before loquaciousness got the better of me), when i asked if he wanted to read matthew and he agreed (and in many ways the fault is entirely my own, for ciccu played its part when jo – cu rep – encouraged me to talk to him).

that evening i was signed into the 24/7 prayer room from 12 till 1. i went alone, after having been to an art brut gig to belatedly celebrate kyle’s birthday. [which i will say was a most excellent gig, although not excellent enough to contradict the conclusion i have recently been coming to that actually – no matter what nic (who by some strange coincidence was also there) may say about secretly worshipping while dancing in clubs or at gigs – i prefer exulting in body, mind, strength and soul in churchly worship, than clubbing at fez or moshing to the sounds of the arcade fire. and – ask anyone – i very much like clubbing at fez. but it’s not a whole-soul thing, and so it is lacking.] and i lit a candle and knelt and prayed, and when my hour was nearly over i saw andrew from city life church reading the prayers on the walls of the room. and he talked about his home and i talked about my rootlessness. and then i left, added him as a facebook friend, and went to sleep.

the next evening i was once more headed for the prayer room, as nic was on security and had issued a rallying call for people she knew to join her in praying for cambridge. so ben ritchie (tall, bespectacled and – especially for a barney’s crazy person – very quiet, but truly a legend), hamish and i made our way from cluster into the cambridge night. and because of the hour or so which was still to pass before the eleven o’clock to which nic had called us, we wandered in a meandering manner, and as we wandered hamish suggested that we sing. for the vision we have had («so this guy comes up to me and says, what’s the vision, what’s the big idea? i open my mouth and the words come out like this: the vision is jesus…») is for cambridge-christian-student-dom to come together in rejoicing, so that we could «go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng». and so we three made up a tentative multitude, singing uncertainly (with regards to words if nothing else), wondering what the people passing us made of it all, trying to find a song that we all knew all the words too. that song – eventually found – was (and is, and is to come?) amazing grace, and how sweet the sound («as sweet as honey in my mouth» – perhaps not to people trying to sleep) that accompanied us at intervals as we walked down grange road, up kings parade, along bridge street and into portugal place.

i will not try and give a detailed account of all that was said in the prayer room that night – xanna has a notebook in which she wrote if you’re desperately interested. (and now i feel like the old testament writers saying «and as for the other events… are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of israel»). hamish read the passage from kings where elisha’s servant comes to tell him that they are surrounded by an army, and elisha prays that his eyes be opened to see the armies of chariots of fire protecting them, and nic said she’d had a vision of that same passage during the summer, before she knew where the story was from. and we were encouraged. there were tears, and there was laughter; and there was singing and there was prayer (continually!); we prayed for healing and for the Spirit, and though there were no tongues, God was with us.

at about three in the morning, i left the prayer room. and returned to my room and realised that i hadn’t finished my quantum mechanics example sheet. and attempted to work at it for some hours without great success, and then fell asleep without handing anything in. and this is maybe less a case of «the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak» than a demonstration of the point that praying a lot will interfere with your work – but i must do the «work that my Father has given me to finish» (which being a missionary kid, works on both levels).

wednesday evening cu, and the theme was thankfulness. and we gave thanks, and we rejoiced.

after cu me and hamish had arranged to meet with dave howarth – student-worker from stag, and our ‘college guest’ for the forthcoming week – about our plan to eat and read through the sermon on the mount with various friends altogether, and talk about it in an unstructured way. and his initial reaction was quite discouraging – «i’m not sure this is a good idea – what they really need to hear is just the gospel, clearly explained» (and while i agree most passionately with the importance and centrality of jesus dying for our sins, i think that a ‘gospel’ that tries to simplistically pretend that this is all there is to it, and this is all that is worth talking about, misses the point – and i do not mean this as a criticism of dave, i have since prayed with him at various times and places, and eaten lunch with him, and his heart is in the right place) – but at the point where it looked like we were not going to agree, we prayed, and there was then a distinctly greater ease in our conversation. and it was agreed that we would read indeed through matthew 5-7, and dave helped us elucidate our motivation: «to make jesus christ known».

then on to the prayer room! with wilson and chris and a guitar, and again as we walked we sang. and xanna heard us singing the closing verse of amazing grace and ran up to open the door before we had even knocked. as we entered, some magdalene girls were finishing praying. so we asked them to stay, at least for one song: «because at churchill, we’re into rejoicing». there was singing, and there were psalms, and we shared the stories of our lives (which are the stories of our faith). and «we were delighted to share not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well».

friday morning, me and hamish went to robinson to join dave for robinson prayer breakfast, having met him on tuesday in the prayer room, and wanting to encourage him. because eating together and praying together should be things that are natural to us, because they are so important. i then returned to college to talk about biblical things with jamie, who had started reading through the bible-in-a-year with karen at about quadruple pace. and i asked him if he wanted to pray, and we prayed, and when i heard him pray «jesus, change my heart» i rejoiced, and couldn’t help myself from hugging him. there has been debate as to whether at that point he was a christian (he is now, most certainly (: ), and i am eagerly awaiting hearing his testimony-proper which he wants to give to the cu next week, but at that moment i was convinced that jesus would not let him go, and i was happy. in the evening i cooked henry pasta, and we started reading through matthew. ignoring paul’s advice to «avoid foolish controversies and genealogies», we started with the genealogy – skimming over the stories of the old testament as we read the names – and managed to get about half-way through (the genealogy, not the whole of matthew). that evening i went again to the prayer room. and the over-riding theme was humility, as we tried to «still and quieten our souls».

having decided to fast the next day from dawn till dusk, i awoke while it was still dark, had breakfast, and cycled to the river. where the air was fresh and icy, and the sky was brightening, and all was beautiful. then i returned to my room and attempted to work. and as per usual, i found myself distracted, but this time by thoughts of heavenly things rather than earthly things, and intermittently i read bits of the bible, and i prayed (for while peter clyde’s question is «is it possible to pray genuinely with other people?», it is only very recently through praying with other people – particularly in the 24/7 prayer room, but elsewhere also – that i have learnt to pray on my own), and i read the vision. and i found myself incredibly moved. i wept. for all the people in churchill who don’t know Jesus – and i don’t know how to say this without sounding like some parody of an evangelical cartoon, so i will say not too much more. and as i was fasting i can say that on that day «my tears have been my food day and night».

the next day was barney’s mission sunday. there was a man from om; his message: «you can’t just get india out of your system!». everyone should go to india. anyway, after the service us who are students gathered together, and i was prayed for as i was giving my testimony in the evening. i was trembling slightly and felt people laying their hands on me, and i could still feel hands pressed against me when the prayers had finished tightly and i opened my eyes, but there was no longer anyone touching me.

i spent most of the afternoon sleeping, half-hoping for some vision so that i would have a clear message to preach – but though i felt very aware of God’s presence, i had no prophetic word put on my tongue. and i made my way to the bar, and there were christians and there were cakes, and there was a gaggle of springball commitee members who i had asked (as a commitee member) to come and listen to me. and dave gave a talk entitled «is being good good enough for God» (in spite of my previous protests about the necessity of the focus being love), and i talked about «my experience of God’s love» (at least according to the poster – this was the compromise): dave talked about the prayers of the pharisee and the tax-collector, and i gave a brief account of my life, and the common message was «get over yourself, trust in jesus». but the springball gaggle spent the whole time standing just outside the glass doors separating the buttery from the bar, and it *really* annoys me that in spite of all our attempts, we are failing to make jesus known; in spite of our cake, we are failing to express the message that God loves the world.

monday, the first day of ciccu’s main event. and also, the first day of me, hamish, jamie, john pennefather, john ahearn, carl, and kai (henry and ayo were otherwise occupied on this particular night, but have since joined our band of merry men) eating and bible-reading together. having now had five of these not-exactly-bible-studies, i have realised how little i know about how to ‘do’ bible studies. i would like to say «and in spite of this, they work!» – but actually a lot of the time i feel like we’re banging our heads against walls. (this is not to say that i have not seen God working in surprising ways: john (first P, then A) volunteering to cook, jamie suddenly countering ayo’s contrabiblical arguments with a very passionate and equally unexpected defence of the undeniable truth and coherence of God’s word, ayo dashing away at the end of one evening as he voiced his eagerness to go and read isaiah (or, it turned out, ezekiel) immediately). what we do is this: we eat, we say a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, we read the passage, we talk about it. we started with matthew 5, then 6, then 7; then psalm 22 in parallel with mark 15; then isaiah 53. as they have continued and become more of a fixed event we have started to plan a little more (ie. a little), and frustrated with the tangents that are liable to be travelled we have introduced a little more structure. the plan now is to read through mark – with less talking, more bible. because «the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating soul and spirit».

meanwhile, as we were starting doing these, the ciccu talks were happening. i went to one, on a tuesday lunchtime, without inviting a friend. (so what then is the point? but actually i don’t think this talk would have in itself saved the soul of anyone that i know. ) as i sat in the pews of holy trinity waiting for the talk to begin, and eating my sandwich i talked to the woman next to me: a canadian who works with historical scientific documents – darwin’s letters, newton’s theological writings. she became a christian after she started reading the writings of mediaeval christian thinkers, whilst studying for a liberal arts degree. anyway, it was an interesting conversation – there was little memorable about the sandwich or the talk, however.

the week finished – life ended, as the ciccu wits would put it – without much incident. oh, except for an email from andy, our churchill cu rep, rebuking us for the lack of a single churchill christian going to friday’s talk. and i think andy has led us fantastically and his motives are right, but i disagree in his opinion of the importance of these events. and the next night a pack of churchillian believers did go – but surely the point isn’t that believers go? and i think our evangelistic priority should be relational rather than [phil, can you coin for me a word that means ‘taking-people-to-talks’, and ends in -al?]. because not only is this a more loving – and so truer and more effective – witness, but i actually think there are more people who will say yes to eating and reading the bible together, than who will say yes to going to a ciccu talk. and i am clearly not saying that we should put less focus on the bible and more focus on relationships (although i am saying we should put more focus on relationships), for which is more ‘bible-focussed’: talking about the historical reliability of the bible in the abstract, or reading the bible?

so, wanting to talk about this, and feeling very passionately that «the harvest is plentiful», and that if only people would get in pairs (like the seventy-two) incredible things could start to happen, i arranged to meet andy and katie on sunday afternoon. by coincidence (but «all things work together»), i saw hannah as i was coming out of lunch, and because i was talking to her, followed her into karen’s room. where i suggested that they join me. at which suggestion, karen – who had just woken up, and has been disillusioned with cu (but if you can, ask her, for her account of what happened will be more interesting) – got very annoyed. and started criticising us for being so concerned with talking about doing things instead of just doing them, and for living in our little christian bubbles and being too afraid to let ourselves be vulnerable. the criticisms were somewhat valid – they were also quite harsh. i asked if we could pray, for if i have learnt anything over these past weeks it is that this (somehow!) works. karen refused, criticising us for just closing our eyes and reciting christian clichés instead of actually talking to God when we prayed. «what’s the difference between having a conversation and praying? God’s here anyway – you don’t have to close your eyes». hannah started crying and left the room. i persisted. karen continued to rebuke me. and what she said was true, and i was cut to the heart – in a way that a gentle rebuke would never have managed. and i too cried. this softened her and we prayed – my eyes closed, hers open.

she then agreed to come with me to talk to andy and katie: «but not to talk about ‘strategies’; to focus on God! then everything will naturally happen – bring a guitar!». so the two of us arrived in andy’s room with a pile of songbooks and a guitar, and i ineptly tried to lead us in worship while andy and katie looked bemusedly on. eventually, andy stopped me and asked what the point of it all was. i assumed that the new plan (for wont of a better word) had failed, and so fell back on the original plan: talking about getting sent out in twos. but karen was having none of it (or perhaps she was also falling back on the original plan – only hers, not mine) and started criticising the failings of the cu. and it should have descended into all-out argument and ended in warfare. except, about three-quarters of the way to all-out warfare, we sat on the floor together and prayed. somehow it ended with us breaking bread together, and really feeling like we were one body. and i think it was there that the healing of karen from the bitterness of two years of mental and spiritual attack was finished. hers is another testimony i want to hear.

the next day: ciccu morning prayer, which i have been to consistently since i started going. and ciccu suffers at least as much as any organised christian *thing* from frequent formulaicism, and there are definite times when it feels like people are just going through the motions because we feel like we should – but there are people in ciccu who are vibrant and passionate and overflowing with the Spirit – , and there is much to be said for the structure of it.

and in the evening, praying over the city from the vantage point of castle hill. this has become a weekly event since the culmination of this term’s week of prayer. i love it: the moon and the stars displayed in bright array over the rooftops, church spires emerging at frequent intervals to point towards the heavens. it is always bitterly cold, and i often tremble. there is sometimes singing, there is sometimes silence. i had never been to the top of castle hill before the first of these – it is now perhaps my favourite place in cambridge.

the rest of my week was largely taken up with preparation for the springball which took place on friday night. and after it had finished at three a.m. on saturday morning, i – as a commitee member – still had to work until eleven, restoring the college to its pre-ball state. i managed to escape to castle hill to pray at about dawn. and the sky turned from murky black to pale blue, and the sun stayed hidden behind the morning mists. i slept for a few hours in the afternoon, before i was awoken by hamish (as per instruction) in time to make my way to ciccu central. it was churchill’s turn to share news of our college goings-on, and so we had assembled a (not quite multitudinous, but better than nothing) handful of people to walk down together in joyful singing throng. we got there late, but «there is a time for everything». and the passage was psalm 42, which (together with 43, they should be one psalm, and it seems to me important to ask God to «send forth your light and your truth» before it finishes) has been the anthem for these last days, and as the preacher spoke i was torn between agreeing passionately with everything that he said, and feeling that he’d only expressed but the most insignificant fraction of the words’ meaning.

the next day, sunday afternoon at robinson, a group of barney’s radicals (plus dave – honarary member (: ) gathered to listen to jim yost talk about luke 10. and what jesus-style evangelism means today. if you’ve never heard it, it is an amazing sermon. email dave and ask where it can be found. and afterwards, with a conviction that had been growing in me over the preceding couple of weeks, i picked up on the point mr. yost had ignored: going out «two by two». because i passionately (ask anyone who was in the room) think that *everyone* should try and find one person who they can be completely honest and accountable with, and commit to praying with them on a frequent and regular basis – and that if this were to happen, things would naturally spring out from that prayer. if me and hamish have done anything over the last few weeks, this is the secret: that «two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work; if one falls down, his friend can help him up… though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. a cord of three strands is not easily broken.» and the third strand is God. so, if you are reading this *please* find someone you can be partnering with. for «do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?»

another week passed, with prayer in various places interspersed with work and life. coming into café on thursday night i found sam in debate with jon and ben, and left with the hope that he and andrew D could offer to cook for them and read through [insert gospel here]. another pair! oh yeah… :)

saturday morning, there was more prayer afoot atop castle hill regarding the possibility of a boiler room starting in cambridge, followed by more discussion in xanna’s room about that. then me and hamish returned to churchill, where we sat on a bench talking and praying. and talking and praying with people who walked past. this is something that people should do more often. we should be posting watchmen on the benches of churchill. (but first, twos!) then prayer and planning at tom’s house for next term’s 24/7. at which nic suggested to me and hamish that we go out before church the next morning and give breakfast to homeless people.

thus it is that we come to amazing story #[natural number dependent on your amazement level]: on the way back we stopped at john lewis to buy thermoses, for to carry hot water to give people coffee. a thermos from john lewis costs nine pounds. hamish was about to buy two (do the maths…), and as he walked towards the cashier, he found twenty pounds on the floor. «jehovah jireh, my provider…» – or coincidence?

then back to college, talking and praying with andrew D about harvest field stuff. then a few moments on my own. then prayer square. then ciccu central. this is becoming a dull list, but at central i was talking to john young (who is ciccu-president-to-be). and i mentioned the fusion/ciccu leadership discussions which a little bird had told me about. and i asked him how they were going. and what he said wasn’t exactly encouraging: «fusion don’t seem to understand what evangelism is». but what is (very!) encouraging is that we prayed, there and then, and on thursday morning (which is now tomorrow, because of the sloth of my writing the number of days since me and hamish started praying has now exceeded that significant forty…) he is cooking bacon butties, and hamish and i are joining him for breakfast and to pray about unity. which brings us to a very neat conclusion, because it is the desire for unity that kicked off our praying, and i think the last forty days have been a preparation for discussion and prayer with the ciccu president. which was one of our options to begin with, but not something we were ready for. are we ready now? as ready as we need to be – for it is God at work, not us.

there is more i could go on to say: in the evening we went to the house of the ‘oldies’ – and i will write more to the general public about the conversation that came out of that in due course. feeding breakfast to the homeless was challenged and rewarding and will be done again – if you want to join next sunday, meet outside sainsbury’s at 8, i think it should be a weekly thing. in this last week that i have described i stumbled a little in my walk, which is probably good, because i need to know how imperfect i am.

i have written this because i want to encourage the people i know – i have written it to no-one in particular, because it is to everyone – because i think that cambridge has seen a long time of christian disunity and spiritual dryness, and i think that now «a cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea». and my prayer is still that God would be pouring out the Holy Spirit on this place, not just in the trickle that i have so far witnessed, but in thick black heavy clouds of rain.

last night i was praying in hamish’s room. and the ground shook. and yes, these things happen every thirty years or so, so the chances aren’t so slim that sometime in your life you’ll feel one. but i believe that even faith as small as a mustard seat can move mountains.

love peter

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