Praying for Relief

My life has been packed with travel, learning, teaching, and prayer in recent weeks. I have spoken to groups in Georgia, Tennessee, and Washington (the state). I’ve had a physical fitness test within three weeks of oral surgery (I do not recommend that anyone else try that). During one of our trips, my wife and I learned that my mother had had a stroke. I have learned more about humility and self-denial; I have marveled at how much less time I seem to have. I’ve read the prayers of Jeremiah again as well. His frustration, fear, and anger are obvious as he prays. The prophet served God faithfully, but continued to suffer. His pain, and the apostle Paul’s reflection on how God denied his petition for relief from a “thorn in the flesh,” help me to keep my pain and fear in perspective. Stories of abject suffering in other nations and violence in the United States open my eyes to blessings that I enjoy despite disappointment. Internationally, locally, and personally, it is time to call for fire, to request urgently God’s assistance, to pray fervently for rescue and for healing.

O God, our refuge and defense, we pray for courage and discernment in the midst of busy lives. Even as violence and conflict increase, opponents of your teachings scorn your calls for forgiveness and peace. They laugh at the concept of ethical and moral standards. Help us to recognize the blessings you give us, and to navigate successfully the labyrinth of moral choices that confront us. May we cherish those key relationships that give our lives meaning and substance. When we believe we stand alone, remind us of the love that surrounds and nourishes us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Moving from Prayer from Action

Nehemiah’s prayers give us insight on moving from prayer to action. His despair when he receives devastating news about the plight of Jews who have returned from captivity to a wrecked Jerusalem causes him to weep. Then he prays. In his prayer in Nehemiah 1, he includes the following:

1. Praise for God – “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands” (Nehemiah 1:8).

2. Confession of sins that he, his family, and his nation have committed – “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you” (Nehemiah 1:6). Sometimes we resist the concept of collective guilt, but Nehemiah groups himself with others in his nation in confessing sin while praying on others’ behalf.

3. A reminder to God of God’s promises to forgive his people when they repent and obey his commands. Note reminding God in our prayers also reminds us what God has promised and what God has done. Nehemiah prays, “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return tome and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people great the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my name” (Nehemiah 1:8-9). Nehemiah’s prayer reveals that he knows the story of God’s relationship with his people – he has read (or heard) the Book! He also reminds God that “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand” (verse 10). the saving God continues to care for those whom he has rescued.

4. He prays specifically that God will grant him success when he pleads his nation’s case before the king of Persia – “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man” (verse 11).

The second chapter of Nehemiah reveals that when the king asks Nehemiah what is troubling him, Nehemiah seizes the opportunity (after a lightning-quick silent prayer) and explains the wretched situation of his people. He then unveils a plan for his returning to help his people that establishes how long he will be gone, what supplies he will need, and requests security forces and letters of introduction. The king grants the request of this prepared civil servant. When God answered yes to Nehemiah’s prayer for help, Nehemiah was ready to act.

Nehemiah’s prayers and actions give us a template for moving from prayer to action. The template includes knowing God’s Word and his will, humility that allows confession, specific prayer, and preparing so that one can act quickly when God says yes.

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A Post-Labor Day Prayer About Work

“A man can do nothing better than eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This to, I see is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Have you considered your work as a way of serving, even praising, God? Several biblical passages address how work functions as service to God. The writer of Ecclesiastes attributed the ability to find satisfaction in one’s work to God. The apostle Paul counseled workers, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men;, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). He spoke primarily to slaves in that passage, but his thought applies to all who work for a living, especially those who are employed by another. The apostle prefaced those remarks by noting that the worker should work hard at all times, not just when being watched by the employer. Work should be done with “sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (Colossians 3:22).

How does this relate to calling for fire in prayer? Sometimes we do not find satisfaction in our work. One may work for a “toxic” supervisor, or be “under-employed” at a task that does not challenge his or her abilities. Many today search for meaningful employment; some have searched so long that they have given up hope. All these need to pray – for sustaining hope, for courage in addressing problems, for opportunity to work. Thank God for the opportunity to work, and pray that you will glorify him through your service. Pray for those who cannot work because of illness or injury, and for those who have not found work yet.

O God, thank you for giving us strength and skill so that we may work. That work helps us provide food, shelter, and clothing for our families. We pray also for employers, that they may listen, that they may care, that they may encourage. Remind us that when we work at honorable occupations, we praise you, who created us with this potential. We pray for those who suffer financially or emotionally because they have no work. Grant them relief from their pain, and return them to work they will enjoy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Prayer for an Unjust Nation Threatened by Terror

He prayed while his contemporaries trusted in rituals and practiced a syncretistic religion that mixed elements of nature religion with nationalism and the worship of God. He prayed while a hostile nation sent its armies to eradicate cities and demoralize populations with sickening brutality. He prayed when he himself had announced that God was judging his people for their unfaithfulness.

The prophet Micah concludes his prophecy with a prayer. He recognizes God’s care and love for his people even as the nation staggers under the impact of military attack. He believes that God will judge the enemies who are punishing his people. He praises the character and reliability of God. He remembers, when it would have been so easy to forget, that God keeps his promises.

He reminds the Lord and his people of God’s historic care, that God is the Shepherd for a flock that needs to feed once more in fertile fields. He prays,

“Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things” (Micah 7:14-15).

Micah prays for Judah and Israel, but he prays also for their enemies. He prays, as we might expect, that the enemy will know shame for their actions, and that they will fear God. He prays that they will repent, that trembling, they will recognize the reality of Israel’s God, and in fear begin to worship him. To say that our God is awesome is to confess that it is frightening to be in his presence. Micah’s description of the enemies’ repentance describes their dread as they approach the Lord in reverence. As Hebrews 10:31 notes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” What Micah and the writer of Hebrews both understood was the holiness of God, a holiness to which he calls his people in both the Old and New Testaments. Micah prays,

“The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; hey shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you” (Micah 7:16-17).

Micah prays to God the Judge, but he also calls upon God as Savior. God abhors unrighteousness, but he also forgives in compassion. There is consequence for rebellion against God, but God will pardon. He has made promises to his people; God keeps his promises even when his people do not. God sees hope for the most disobedient. Horrible acts of genocide, commandeering of property, and religious persecution terrified Micah’s contemporaries when they heard about the enemy’s committing them. Micah prays with confidence that God will judge that evil, but that he will do so in a way that turns the hearts of the enemy towards obedience to God. Micah prays in a time when it seemed there was no hope for the recovery of true worship, justice, or fair treatment of the poor among God’s people, when seemingly barbaric enemies threatened their existence, and prays with hope. God will once again show compassion. He will cast out all sin, but he will show faithfulness to his people.

Micah calls for fire. He calls for justice against brutal enemies. He cries out earlier in his prophecy against unfair business practices and excessive reliance on ritual (Micah 2:1-3; 6:8). He deplores the plight of Israel as Assyrian armies advance. He prays that God will guide his people once more; he prays that God’s judgment will convert the nations; he prays that God will forgive:

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old” (Micah 7:18-20).

May we pray, as Micah prayed, that worshipers of God will practice justice and compassion that is consistent with the character of the God we profess to worship. May we pray, as Micah prayed, that the most barbaric terrorist will learn to fear God in a way that will teach them to love God and to love other people as they love themselves.

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Praying Through the Rain

It rained today. The forecast called for thunderstorms; for a short time this afternoon rain descended in a downpour. We needed the rain. Grass in the neighborhood lawns was turning brown. Water levels in area ponds and rivers were noticeably lower. However, I run several days a week, but I do not run during thunderstorms. After the downpour, a soft steady rain continued. Since there was no lightning, I ventured out for a short three mile run in the rain. I had a peaceful run today; I saw only five other runners and a few cyclists. As I navigated between puddles on the asphalt trail, I looked through the forest towards the river flowing nearby. Earlier this week, two deer walked across the trail right in front of me; yesterday, I startled a rabbit as I galloped past. I saw no animals today. As I jogged, I reflected on news stories of the last week – revelations of religious persecution, a Christian university president’s divorce, continuing impact of budget cuts on our government. Each of these stories, I realized, reported people experiencing pain, loss, and disappointment. Even the budgetary constraints change families’ plans, sometimes because they end employment. Each story told of people who need other people to call for fire on their behalf. They need our prayers. As I ran through the rain, I thought too of several tasks I must achieve in the next month to stabilize ministry and income. I need your prayers, too.

In Psalm 123, one of the Psalms of Ascent, the psalmist pleads for God’s mercy. He compares his dependence upon God to that of a slave upon his master, or a maid upon her mistress. He prays, “Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt” (Psalm 123:3). Perhaps you and I have not endured much contempt lately, but some of the people I mentioned earlier certainly have. Whatever our current situation, we all share this: We need God’s mercy.

So pray that the devastated family members of people who lost their lives because they believed in Jesus will know consolation in their grief. Pray for all who are considering divorce, that they may know reconciliation, or at least peace and safety. Pray for those who now look for a way to support their families financially. Pray for communities torn apart by suspicion and fear. Keep looking forward, focused on Christ. Keep running in faith. Notice subtle reminders of God’s love and his provision for you. And remember, as a saying I once read reminded, “Before the rainbow must come the rain.”

“Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us….”

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A Reminder of Early Christian Prayer

Monday evening, my wife and I attended the Convocation that opens the academic year at Harding School of Theology. The evening included several prayers led by faculty, staff, and students, songs of prayer, and addresses about prayer. Dr. Allen Black delivered the keynote speech, which considered the theme of prayer in the New Testament books of Luke and Acts, two books penned by the same author. Both give great attention to prayer in the lives of God’s people (The Call for Fire Seminar Facebook page has a link to the event where you may find audio links to the evening’s messages). The early Christians, like Jesus before them, prayed regularly and often, individually and in community. Student officer Steven Gaines noted, with attribution to a professor, that one should not pray unless they are prepared for God “to do crazy things.” “Crazy” is used there in sense of much more than we can imagine. When we are caught in dark times in our lives, it is easy to imagine that God does not care. But the Bible consistently asserts that God is at work for us in those darkest hours, preparing us for works of service.

God who restores, bring light to darkness. Renew fellowship where it is shattered by violence and distrust. Comfort the hurting; inspire the cynical. Turn our hearts toward you and align our values with your values. Remind us to listen to the recounting of what you have done for your people. Open our eyes to see you activity on our behalf today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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God Has Given Us a Heritage

Songs encourage us with inspiring lyrics. Among my favorite hymns as a young man were songs that pointed me “to a rock that that is higher than I” and that reminded me that God is our refuge and an ever present help in times of trouble. Recently I read Psalm 61. It contains these themes. The psalm also reminds that I do not pray alone. If I pray as one of God’s people, he has given me the “heritage of those who fear [his] name” (Psalm 61:5). Hebrews 12 speaks a similar message as it reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, heroes of faith who have served God before us. Their example gives us the boldness to stay focused on Christ when temptation arises or when trials multiply. We share a heritage with those heroes of faith. They feared God; they gave him the reverence he deserves. They remained faithful in times of testing, even when threatened with death. When we pray, or we sing, of God’s power to save, we remember those whom he has redeemed, and marvel that their number includes us. Yes, God has given us the heritage of those who fear his name. He is our Rock; he is our Refuge. May we live with such conviction that future generations will rejoice that they share our heritage, the heritage of the forgiven who seek to help others find the path we have found, the road to salvation.

Hear our cry, O God who calls us to mission. You have given us a heritage, a lineage of holy men and women whose example shows us how to persevere in the darkest times and how to excel in the brightest times. Help us to be worthy of that heritage. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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