Prayer in Midst of Catastrophe

 

I have taken a break from posting for several weeks to concentrate on work and academic requirements as I continued to adjust to the recent death of a son. During those weeks, much has happened in the world. Outrage sparked riots in Baltimore after a young man died in custody of police. The grief and anger at perceived powerlessness that caused many to protest peacefully sadly gave others excuse to steal and destroy property belonging to others in their community. Lawlessness prompted mobilization of additional police and military personnel to restore order, increasing threat to life not only for the protesters but also for the uniformed personnel called in from other work to maintain order. One woman captured national attention when she spotted her son among the protesters and took action to correct him. A national discussion of race relations, police corruption, and parental responsibility ensued. A series of earthquakes wrought havoc in Nepal. Hundreds died, and communities collapsed. Humanitarian response happened quickly, although those on the ground may have wanted it still sooner. Typhoons, tornadoes, and floods also caused loss of life and property. Terrorists killed more people; they destroyed or destroyed historic artifacts. In the midst of all this trauma, other people grieved at the bedsides of dying loved ones or anxiously awaited a physician’s call to learn the reason for their physical discomfort. A common action occurred in each of these settings: People prayed. They “called for fire,” asking rescue from a power greater than themselves. When we pray, we confess that God exists, and that he can act to influence our environment. When we pray, we admit our inability to handle a situation without assistance. What each of the scenarios above attests is that when we pray, we should seek to recognize the needs of others. What we want may injure another. First responders sometimes die attempting to rescue. When someone is hired, other applicants fail. We must pray boldly, but pray also wisely and compassionately that we may listen and understand correctly what we should pray.

God of grace and mercy, forgive our foolishness. Sooth our pain. Heal our minds and our bodies. Restore relationships. Turn hearts to seek your will; motivate us to pursue peace when our hearts crave vengeance. Comfort us when we grieve. Empower us to seek justice in ways that will heal. Hear our prayer. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Prayer for God to Defend His Cause

Devastation surrounds the composer of Psalm 74. His mind recoils in shock as he remembers the ruins of the Temple of God in Jerusalem. The enemy had demolished the building. The Psalmist tells us that the invaders had not contented themselves with destroying the Temple. Intent on breaking the will of the Jewish people, “They [the invaders] said to themselves, ‘we will utterly subdue them’; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land” (74:8). He describes the act of destroying the temple in detail as he prays; this psalm is a fervent prayer by a pleading worshiper shocked by desolation of what he considered sacred. As he prays, he repeatedly calls upon God to “remember.” He tells God to inspect the damage to his Temple. He entreats God to “have regard for the covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence” (74:20). He challenges God, “Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day! Do not forget the clamor of your foe, the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually!”(74:22-23).

Key words and phrases resonate through this prayer:

Remember

Direct your steps

Have regard for the covenant

Arise

Defend

Do not forget

Perhaps the most poignant words are found in this confession and plea in verses 9-11:

“We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long. How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the fold of your garment and destroy them!”

The people of God can no longer hear the message of God. The challenges to faith, both physical and spiritual, have obscured it. They wonder how long the terror will last, and whether God’s poor can endure.

In the midst of this anguished lament, the psalmist gathers himself and speaks a stalwart statement of confidence in God. God still is “working salvation in the midst of the earth.” He has conquered foes in the past. He rules the planet and the universe, for he created their boundaries and seasons. God sustains.

In places on our planet today, people of God still witness the destruction of their places of worship. They may die for confessing their faith. In other places, “the foolish” still scoff at God. They question his power; they disdain standards of morality and laugh at the concept of his existence. Disoriented people of faith, shaken by attacks on the sacred may still pray as did this believer:

“O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!” (74:1-2a).

We may call upon God to remember. We may plead to God to have regard for his covenant with his people. We may call upon God to arise and defend his cause. As we pray, however, like the Psalmist we too must remember how God has rescued in the past, we ourselves must have regard for the covenant, and we must know God’s will, his scripture, and our culture well enough to compose a defense that will be heard, understood, and accepted by our contemporaries. The “dark places of the land [may be] full of the habitations of violence,” but we too remember how God broke through to reconcile, showing his love through the suffering of Jesus, giving us hope through his resurrection. God still works salvation in his world.

O God, remember your people as societies scorn your will and terrorists seek to destroy our faith. Have regard for the covenant, and renew our memories of your acts on our behalf. Defend your cause. Remind us of our promises to you and revive our courage to act on what we believe. Help us to be faithful agents of your love in a world driven by cynicism and hatred. Help us to hear your word and to hold on however long we must. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer to the God Who Sees

“So she [Hagar] called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (Genesis 16:13).

Many women and men in our world experience physical and emotional abuse in places where they should feel safe. Like Hagar, many flee and sometimes find themselves in situations that are equally or more dangerous.  Sadly, sometimes we fail to “see” those who suffer. We fail to protect. We may deny their abuse. We need to be more like the God we worship, the God who sees and who looks after the outcast.

God who sees,

Help us to see. Open our eyes to injustice that enrages you and causes you to reach for your armor, asking why no man or woman has stepped into the breach to fight for your cause. We pray that we will discern deception that seeks to distract us from doing your will. Help us to hear. Open our ears to cries for help that arise from the harassed, the abused, the depressed, the unemployed. Help us to remember. Revive our memories so that we recall our promises to you and one another when we were baptized, when we wed, when we were employed. Remind us each day that we are your ambassadors. May we seek to reconcile rather than repel by our words and our actions. Help us to see the victims so that we may help, the opportunities so that we may serve, the challenges so that we may overcome. You see us as we are. Help us to see as you see, and to be who you want us to be. Thank you for seeing and for caring. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer for Less Disputing

More than two hundred years ago, five Kentucky preachers penned a document (“The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”) in which they opined that Christians should “pray more and dispute less.” Their words resonate with me when I read disciples of Jesus and disparaging one another’s character and integrity while they question motives and liturgical practice. Jesus prayed that his disciples “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 18:23). Such unity will not result from calling each other names. If we differ, let us correspond about what Jesus wanted from his followers, and let the writings of his apostles shape how we interact. Choices that a congregation or church leader make may shock us. Some changes in practice may trigger a sort of traumatic shock as they bring to mind past controversies and divisions. We will not achieve a greater unity by repeating either decisions or attitudes that fueled controversy in the past. Let us focus on the Christ who unites and forgives. Let us sing, pray, and share as his earliest disciples did. Let us show Christ to the world in our spirit, our relationships, and our disciplined obedience. Culture implodes around us as searchers hear bitter bickering rather than declarations of love for God and one another. Let us love God and one another the way that Jesus loved the sinners of his time – sacrificially. Pray hard, my friends.

God, you commissioned us to serve as your ambassadors. We have distorted your message; we garble your intent in our quest for acceptance and power. Help us to discern the cries for help demonstrated by hateful exchanges and arrogant pronouncements. Turn our hearts to you so that we may love one another and walk as Jesus walked. We may follow him in paths of rejection and suffering; help us to retain our focus so that we may remember that he who suffered so greatly in his obedience sits now in a place of honor by your side. Give us the words that will send your message to those who need it most. Give us the resolve to live, to serve, to worship in ways that please you rather than ourselves. You are our guide and our Shepherd. Bring us back when we stray from your purpose. Make us one in you as we pray more and dispute less. In Jesus’ name, Amen

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A Prayer During the Storm

I enjoyed an intense time of study and fellowship this past week. I spent most days (all day) in an intensive residence period with a small group of preachers from across the country examining the Exposition of Luke. Preachers from Georgia, Tennessee, Colorado, California, Oklahoma, Montana, and Arkansas built on preparatory research and reading of hundreds of pages as we learned from experienced professors/preachers/disciples. I attended an evening campus ministry interest meeting where a campus ministry discussed the challenges and joys of helping college students find meaning and salvation through Christ. On Sunday, I taught a Call for Fire session at Osceola, Arkansas, Church of Christ and preached the parable of the Good Samaritan. On Tuesday, I heard my friend Robert Perez speak about the parable of the Dishonest Judge after I led the songs “In His Presence” and “From Every Stormy Wind.” The latter song encouraged me while we sang. The last six weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster in which I have realized the truth of these words by Hugh Stowell about prayer:

“From ev’ry stormy wind that blows,
From ev’ry swelling tide of woes,
There is a calm a sure retreat;
Tis found beneath the mercy-seat.
There is a place where Jesus sheds
The oil of gladness on our heads,
A place than all besides more sweet;
It is the blood-bought mercy-seat.
There is a scene where spirits blend,
Where friend holds fellowship with friend;
Tho sundered far; by faith they meet
Around one common mercy-seat
Ah! There on eagle’s wings we soar,
And sin and sense molest no more,
And heav’n comes down our sous to great,
And glory crowns the mercy-seat.”

As I write, sleet and snow fall outside; a frigid stormy wind blows. My safety and warmth as I write reminds me of the confidence I gain as a disciple of Jesus when I praise, when I ask, when I confess, when I lament in prayer. This last week, my prayers ascended with others from our small community of scholars, reminding me that even when life seems lonely I am surrounded by caring brothers and sisters in Christ and cheered on a by “a great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before (Hebrews 12:1-3).

Sustainer of life, you are the God who stills the storm. We ask that you inspire faith and turn hearts towards you. Open doors of opportunity for your frustrated servants. Comfort us as we grieve. Protest as we travel and work. Reward our study with recognition of saving truth. Thank you for friends who encourage but also rebuke. They keep us strong. Thank you for your love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Praying with Reverence

Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out; they call for help because of the arm of the mighty. But none says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night, who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?” – from the words of Elihu in Job 35:9-10. Elihu’s role in the discussion between Job and his friends has been debated. Does he misunderstand Job’s plight and the reasons for it like Job’s older friends, or does he represent a proper perspective on Job’s actions? Whatever the case, his comments here regarding perspective in times of need or loss merit our attention. At times, we forget the blessings that God has given us. When we pray, let remember to thank God for what he has given even when we lament what we have lost. Elihu may not have understood Job, but he realized how pride shapes prayer when we hurt: We forget the blessings God has given, and focus on what we do not have.

Lord, We hurt, and we complain to you about our pain. Sometimes we blame you for our pain, ignoring our own culpability or the role that others have played. Help us to remember your love even as we lament our losses. Help us to believe even as what we hold dear is stripped away. Help us to hope when defeat seems certain. May we revere you as you deserve even as we lament. In Jesus name, Amen.

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Prayer that Glorifies God

In an age where rage and insult infest social media posts and where people get shot after blowing their horn at a potentially speeding motorist, it is easy to be captivated by the fervent and righteous outrage and to yearn to participate in it. Then, just I am about to unleash my own potently phrased angry outburst, I read what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2 about prayer and what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4 about how self-control affects prayer.

Paul urged that prayers be offered for all people. He expressly included heads of state and government leaders among those people for whom we should pray. Why should we pray for these people? First, “that we may live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). We pray for leaders so that society may be at peace. Second, we pray for these people, including our leaders, because God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Paul reminds that Jesus gave his life as a “ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). This is the reason men should lift holy (a reminder about proper attitude and behavior) hands in prayer “without anger or quarreling.” In other words, pray that God will turn the hearts of world leaders to himself, that he will help them find ways to break down barriers that divide while they govern effectively. Pray that he will cause perpetrators of evil, whether here or on the other side of the world, to awaken to the horror of their rebellion against their Creator and repent. Pray that he will mold them and us into the holy and loving family he wants his people, his church, to be.

Peter reminds us that we need to be self-controlled and sober-minded because “the end of all things is near.” He says that we must do this for the “sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). He then ties love of others, hospitality (without grumbling), speaking like a representative of God, and performing acts of service into this template of behavior and mindset. We must act and pray in a way that glorifies God. Living, acting, and praying in these ways demands that we curb our tempers, that we establish what is true before we castigate in speech or print, and that we conduct ourselves in the way that we expect others to act. Failure to be self-controlled will affect our prayers. I suspect we don’t want to experience the impact of that failure.

O God of peace, you call us to be ministers of reconciliation. That mission sometimes requires us to confront and to call to repentance. Give us the maturity to look hard at ourselves and our own behavior before we criticize others. Give us the wisdom to pursue truth and to admit the possibility that we may not know all the variables that drive decisions by our leaders. Help us to remember that that they, and our enemies, also are people whom you love and want to be saved. Help us to be instruments of their salvation. May we stop before we say or write words that will incite their anger against you and your people, unless those words will provoke a reaction that ultimately will cause them to glorify you when they realize that we truly spoke or acted with love and desire for their salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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