Reflection on Prayer and Current Events

As I traveled to various ministry locations during the past two weeks, several events occurred that reinforced my awareness of the importance of calling for fire when encountering significant life events. During a worship service at Oliver Creek Church of Christ, we prayed for a young family whose baby had been born prematurely. A soldier stopped me in an armory hallway to thank me for pulling him aside for prayer regarding a major life event that created great uncertainty for him; he told me that the difficult situation had reversed. Before a military chapel service at which a new senior chaplain would be installed, I prayed first with the chapel staff, and then with the new senior chaplain for the service alone. The first prayer focused largely on praise for God and gratitude for chaplains’ leadership. The second prayer addressed fear and nervousness in assuming a new role.

While I traveled and met with both ministry leaders (civilian and military) and military personnel, people in countries like Israel, the Ukraine, and the Netherlands faced threatening circumstances. Israel and Palestinian Gaza exchanged military fire. Ukraine’s civil war was exacerbated when an airliner carrying civilians (including a number of medical researchers traveling to an AIDS conference) was shot down over Ukraine. Prayers ascended across the nations for those hurt by these events.
We serve a God whose power and love transcend our ability to understand. So, as we witness or experience personal or national changes, sometimes our faith founders as we struggle to reconcile the sequence of events with our own worldview. We search for stability and for hope. We forget, at least for a moment, that God stands ready to receive our cry for help, our call for fire. A prayer from Psalm 135 reminds us:

“Your name, O LORD, endures forever, your renown, O LORD through all generations. For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Psalm 135:13,14).

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A Prayer of Praise and Petition for Peace

Prayers of praise recognize the power of the Creator God. In these prayers we confess his control. We admire the beauty of his work. We describe the beauty in our world; we marvel at the intricacy of design in our university.

The writer of Psalm 29 describes powerful forces in the natural world with colorful imagery. The voice of God calls these forces into existence:

“The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD cause the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory’”(Psalm 29:5-9 NRSV).

The writer states that God controls our world: “The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty” (Psalm 29:3-4). God’s majesty provokes praise and worship; the Psalmist already has urged that those who speak this Psalm “worship the LORD in holy splendor” (verse 2).

God is ruler of nature, the king of all we survey. Our adoration, our confession of his power, calls forth prayers for strength and peace. Some people, in contrast, view our world with jaded eyes. They see only flaws – disease, famine, destruction caused by tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. They decry humanity’s inhumanity, condemn rightly the cruelty which people often inflict on one another. They ignore the beauty of waterfalls, the majesty of the mountains, the lush grandeur of forests and fields of grain. Perhaps they live where human produced squalor and crime obscure this beauty. They have not seen it, so they deny that it exists. Recently, I drove through seemingly endless fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The expanse of vividly green fields punctuated by stands of majestic trees reminded me of the reality described in this psalm. We live in an amazing world. To be sure, there are ruptures in the masterpiece. I have seen decaying buildings in urban centers and polluted rivers. I have witnessed abject poverty in both Afghanistan and parts of Appalachia. I have seen the destruction that years of war exact on landscapes and people’s minds. Still, even in these most desolate places, children smile and, even where volcanoes have incinerated acres of trees, new growth emerges, restoring the desecrated beauty.

God, our Creator and Father, your power both amazes and frightens us. The majesty and beauty of your world inspires us. When we contemplate the complexity of this sphere, we marvel at how it could have come to pass. Rebellion against you, a struggle for our own primacy, blinds us to your glory. Strip away the veil. Help all to see fully the beauty of your love. Grant us the security of peace. Thank you, God, for all you have given. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Summons to Respond to God

God summons his people to court and accuses them of hypocrisy. That is the message of Psalm 50. God’s people brought animals to sacrifice to him, but they failed to obey his commands, and when they did obey, their heart was not in it. In this Psalm. God accuses his worshipers of joining forces with thieves. He rebukes them for slandering their brothers, and using their speech to deceive. Their actions do not reflect knowledge of the word; God in fact questions their right to recite his law.

The words of Psalm 50 indict many of us who profess to worship the God of the Bible through his Messiah and Son, Jesus. We may worship and study, but do we treat others justly? We may read the Bible, but also curse those who work with us or serve us at businesses. We may profess to honor him, but treat civil authorities with disrespect. Like the initial readers of Psalm 50, we too must pause to reflect on our actions and to examine our attitudes. God wants cohesion in thought and action from us; his two greatest commands, according to Jesus, are to love God and to love others as we love ourselves (a command that assumes that we love ourselves). With these thoughts in mind, I offer a prayer that responds to Psalm 50’s message:

O God, our Lord, you are the Mighty One. You speak and the earth must respond. You will not be silent; fire devours before you and a storm rages around you. You have issued a summons; judgment will begin with the people of God. Your creation testifies on your behalf, as do a host of witnesses, faithful worshipers who preceded us. You see within our intention, and expose our hypocrisy. You want us to learn from your word and to apply those lessons to our lives. May we love others as you love us. May we remember you and honor you with our actions. Forgive us and strengthen us. May our lips continually offer you a sacrifice of praise that is reflected also in the way we treat others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer When Suffering and Confused

The biblical book of Job poses paradoxes and disputes that confuse the ablest of scholars. A righteous man suffers total loss of possessions and is afflicted with a horrible disease. His friends and peers first sit silently and compassionately with him, then unload barrages of both trite folk wisdom and sophisticated philosophy that fail to resolve the suffering man’s dilemma or explain his plight. A younger man, Elihu, listens patiently, then contributes his own explanation. Job himself displays both valorous faith (“The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”) and anger (in summary, he wants an explanation for his situation from God). In the end, God rebukes the peers, ignores Elihu, and after giving Job a stiff taste of reality medicine, acknowledges his faith and humility under fire. He advises Job’s friends to request that Job pray for them. He restores Job’s losses.

After God administers the reality check with a brusque summary contrasting his knowledge and power with that of limited humanity, Job responds:

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6 NRSV).

Job submits with humility. He repents of his challenge to God and acknowledges God’s power. He requests forgiveness (that is the meaning of the “dust and ashes”). He has experienced soul-shattering physical suffering; his wife urged him to curse God and die, yet Job pursued truth and justice, assured even when he challenged God that God was in control.

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Prayer for an Undying Love

“Peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Ephesians 6:23-24).

This benediction, or prayer of blessing, ends the book of Ephesians. Earlier in the chapter, the Apostle Paul had encouraged Ephesian Christians to stay alert and to pray, incorporating prayer into their spiritual armor. Now he prays for them, requesting that they will know peace and will receive love with faith God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ.

Conflict had followed the introduction of the gospel to Ephesus. When Paul had preached in the synagogue for three months, a group from within the synagogue objected and publicly maligned the Way, or Christianity (Acts 19:8-9). Later, a group of craftsmen instigated a riot against the disciples of Jesus; Paul’s preaching had converted so many that the craftsmen’s idol-making business had decreased noticeably (Acts 19:23ff). So Paul’s prayer for peace fits the congregation’s historical context.

The mention of faith recognizes that patience and perseverance will equip the disciples to overcome local opposition. The double petition for love cries out for attention. Paul’s petition on their behalf requests faith accompanying love. Then Paul follows that petition with a blessing for those “who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.” Love sometimes fades when tested. Love-motivated obedience may degenerate into task-focused obedience. This concluding petition and blessing present an intriguing comparison with Jesus’ words to the same church in Revelation chapter two. First, the Lord says, “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3). The opposition continued; the church remained faithful despite it. Faith had endured. However, then the Lord says, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:4). Somehow the Ephesian had maintained faithful obedience, but had lost the necessary foundation of love.

Paul models his earlier exhortation for the Ephesian saints “always to keep on praying for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). He prays that the church will know peace, and that God will strengthen their faith and love. The letter from Jesus to the same church that is recorded in Revelation chapter 2 suggests that the church remained strong in faith under trial, but lost its love. This warning to a mature congregation alerts us to the importance of love in obeying Christ. May we obey Christ with an undying love.

O God our Father, As you encircle us with your love, so may we love you and one another. Grant us peace and love with faith. We pray that we will maintain faith when tested, as did the Ephesians, but also we pray that we may grow in love even when under attack. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Prayer to Our Strength and Our Shield

“Praise be to the LORD, for he has heard my cry for mercy. The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song” (Psalm 28:6-7).

A positive answer to prayer produces joy. Whether a friend recovers from an illness or you get a new job, it’s time for celebration. Psalm 28 begins as a prayer of desperation and fear. The psalmist pleads with the Lord to hear him: To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit. Hear my cry to mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place” (Psalm 28:1-2). After asking that God will punish those who “show no regard for the works of the LOrd and what his hands have done,” the psalmist exults that God has granted his request rescue. He rejoices that the LORD is his strength and shield. He exclaims that he will give thanks in song. We often do the same, singing songs of grateful prayer to God, thanking him for loving us, thanking him for saving our souls.

He concludes with an exclamation of praise and a prayer that God will continue to guide his people. Perhaps these words are his song and prayer of thanks to God,

“The Lord is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one. Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever” (Psalm 28:8)

I will speak at Oliver Creek Church of Christ in Bartlett, TN on Sunday, June 22, at 5:30 pm and at Harding School of Theology’s chapel in Memphis, TN on Monday, June 23, at 11:00 am. If you’re nearby, you are invited. Pray hard.

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Yearning for God in the Night

“The way of the righteous is level; O Just One, you make smooth the path of the righteous. In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul’s desire. My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:7-9).

The words above are from a prayer in the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah acknowledges that God pursues justice, that his discipline teaches righteousness to wicked people. When the righteous encounter injustice, they remember that God seeks justice and call on him to act. Isaiah prophesied during the reign of King Hezekiah, who led his nation back to God and consulted with the prophet. He also advised predecessors of the king who were more skeptical about God’s care for his people. This prayer calls for God to act in ways that will inspire right living and mindset.

Isaiah waits for the Lord. He yearns for God and seeks him. At times we hesitate to pray because the act seems so inactive! When we learn to wait when we seek anxiously, we pray with the confidence and faith of Isaiah. We turn from our own sin. Then we see the majesty of the Lord.

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