Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How Do You P-R-A-Y This Thanksgiving?

Christian workers are among the persecuted
in the war-torn Middle East.
Another Thanksgiving season is here.  But this one seems different.  World and national news of this past year has reported that thousands of people have been abused, martyred, or driven from their homes.  It seems that God has begun to act on a global scale in an unusual way.  But this is not the first time.  Recall that God touched the tongues of those building the tower of Babel, diversified their language, and caused them to disperse across the globe (Genesis 11).  

The “forced migration” from Babel is only one of many instances in which God has caused or allowed mass migrations.  Recall the exodus of at over one million Jews from Egypt as recorded in the biblical Book of Exodus.  Centuries later, God judged the decadent nation of Israel by allowing a 70-year exile of many of the Jews in the territories of Syria, Babylon (modern Iraq) and in Persia (modern Iran).  Now, the same God is working, in 2015, to move thousands of people from one continent, or even from one hemisphere, to another.

Today, when thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ, young and old, are being martyred, imprisoned, or driven from their homes because of their faith in Christ, what is God asking His people, who profess faith in Christ, to do?  I believe He calls us to become involved, beginning with prayer.  After all, the death by stoning of the first martyr named Stephen in the first century was only the first in a long continuous line of Christians being persecuted and martyred because they refused to renounce faith in Christ.

hat is God asking of me?  I find His answer in the commands recorded in the New Testament during the first century on behalf of those who suffered persecution:

Remember those in prison,
as if you were there yourself.
Remember also those being mistreated,
as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.
                                         --  Hebrews 13: 3

Ouch!  This command is very clear!  Downright penetrating!  It declares that we are to IDENTIFY with the imprisonment and mistreatment of our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.  But why do I so often forget to remember?  And, how can I be more faithful and fervent in prayer for those under persecution?  Think along with me as I try to answer these two questions.

Why do I so often forget to pray earnestly for the many innocent children and adults who are suffering persecution for their faith?  For one reason, I have a good “forgetter.”  I can forget anything--from taking out the garbage to just being sensitive toward Abby in times she needs me.  Truth is, I tend to think of myself and my goals before others. 

There is another reason that I forget to pray for those under persecution:  I am blessed and surrounded with conveniences, but these can become distractions.  It is often hard for me to maintain focus in “prayer communication” in the midst of other forms of communication so much a part of my day--telephone, e-mail, text messages, and social media.  Nothing wrong with any of these as long as I don’t let them fragment my time line and interrupt concentration on a given task, especially prayer, reading, and reflection.

Please don’t get the idea that I’m already a saint of all saints.  I’m still working on how to be more faithful and fervent in prayer.  Here are some essentials that I’ve begun to incorporate into my prayer ministry on behalf of the persecuted as well as those in positions of power to make a difference:
1.   I try to be informed through daily TV and online news/commentary and websites of Christian ministries serving on behalf of the persecuted (see websites below)
2.   I am encouraged by weekly prayer with fellow believers, a time to share both new requests and answers to prayer.
3.   I am blessed with a brother in Christ who regularly keeps me accountable in spiritual disciplines including prayer.
4.   I try to maintain an up-to-date prayer list that includes particular needs of those under persecution.  For example, many have been praying for Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned for his faith in Iran since 2012.
5.  Abby and I financially support responsible Christian ministries because we believe that where [our] treasure is, there will [our] heart be also (Matthew 6: 21).

Notice that my list includes WHAT I try to DO to maintain a disciplined prayer ministry for the persecuted Christians.  However, it doesn’t directly address the more basic issue of WHO I am in my DOING of prayer.  Does God really hear my prayers?  This concern brings us to my second question:  How can I be more faithful and fervent in prayer for those under persecution?   My short answer is this-- I must develop an intimacy with God in order to share His heart and compassion toward those for whom I should pray.  But how can I do this in the midst of my world so full of good things, and the inevitable distractions?   I’ll begin my answer with a story.

Sr. Pastor Dan Wingate participates in community prayer vigil.
Abby and I are blessed to be a part of a community in which local churches are committed to praying for those suffering persecution.  The pastors of approximately a dozen churches in Wooster, including our church, West Hill Baptist Church, have worked together, in 2015, to plan and lead two community prayer vigils.  The first prayer vigil was held on August 2.  The second one was held on November 22 and was attended by approximately 300 in spite of the near-freezing temperatures and wind.
As we left our warm car and walked with together to the shelter of a nearby pavilion, I felt unprepared for joining in corporate prayer--especially to pray for brothers and sisters under such great duress while mourning the death of family members or friends at the hands of ISIS; others having been displaced from their homes; and, still others fearing for their lives in the Middle East and Africa where Islamic extremist threats are most common.

Since Sunday’s prayer vigil, I’ve been reflecting on what God would have me do to be a more effective prayer warrior on behalf of the suffering.  This effort is “a work in progress” and I will share it briefly so that perhaps readers can add helpful insights from your wrestling with the same challenges.  Although I know there are no “easy formulas,” I am using the acronym P-R-A-Y in my effort to be more disciplined and fervent in prayer:

First, I must decide by an act of my will to give P--Priority to prayer.  I must submit my will to the commands of Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 6: 18 and context), the example of Jesus, and the power of His Spirit.  I begin by setting aside a good PLACE and TIME as Jesus did by habit according to Mark 1: 35.

Second, my time with God must be centered on R—Reading and meditating on His Word.  I must remember that the Scriptures are “God-breathed” and intended for me (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) and as I read and meditate (Joshua 1: 8) on them, my mind and spirit are engaged so that I can “speak back” to my Heavenly Father in prayer in line with His will.  The man and woman of faith must have this communion with God regularly, and desire to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).

Third, when we read and meditate on God’s Word in which He reveals Himself personally to us, A—Adoration and confession should be our response.  I need to get better at discovering the character and heart of God in Scripture.  He reveals Himself most obviously in the many names He uses—e.g. Jehovah, Elohim, Creator, Savior, Redeemer, Good Shepherd….and dozens more.  How rich our communion can be as we reflect on the “Great I Am” Whose breath arouses our spirit and speaks into our mind and soul.  And, my response is adoration, but also confession of sin as I recognize the blessedness of being poor in my spirit (Matthew 5: 3) in the face of God’s holiness.

Finally, as my prioritized time/place in prayer allows for my reading/meditation in the Word and my response of adoration/confession, my mind and spirit will Y—Yield in submission to God. Now, my supplication and intercession on behalf of others can be expressed in the prayer of faith (Hebrews 11: 6; Romans 8: 26-27 and context).  Jesus taught us what it means to “yield.” He said, …if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9: 23).

The “Yielding” part when we P-R-A-Y may be the hardest, perhaps because it depends so much on the prior three parts—priority, reading/meditation, and adoration of God.  But as much as I must depend on God’s Spirit for all parts of P-R-A-Y, I am encouraged to realize how very much my Helper wants to produce in me the fruit of yielding—of “denying self.”  Paul teaches that the fruit of the Spirit includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…(Galatians 5: 22-23).  Perhaps we can say that yielding or denying self, especially self-control, is both a fruit of the Spirit and the kind of obedience that provides more fruit (John 15: 5), including love, joy, and peace.

I feel like a first grader in the “classroom of yielding” or of denying self.  My flesh cries, “how morbid; how boring! Why not do this instead?  It’s much more fun and fulfilling.” Therefore, as a result of the teaching of our pastor, Dan Wingate, I am now considering how fasting, the commitment to denying myself for a time those things I most enjoy in order to P-R-A-Y with greater mental and spiritual focus for needs like the persecuted church of God.  This fasting is not of the kind Jesus chose as recorded in Luke 4, although there is a time and place for that, too.  See for examples, Nehemiah 1 and Daniel 9. 

If the Bible records instances in which individuals enter periods of extended praying and fasting as noted above, there are also instances where short prayers, sometimes called “arrow prayers” (e.g. Nehemiah 2: 1-5) are offered to God.  Likewise, I believe fasting can be practiced for days with very limited water and food.  But, fasting, like the practice of “arrow prayers”, can be incorporated into a disciplined lifestyle of private denial of things we normally partake of including certain food, beverages, entertainment, or activities.  In such fasting, we would determine under the direction of God’s Spirit to surrender something for a time as a “sacrifice.” The nature of biblical fasting is not to enter into an extreme ascetic denial without a God-honoring goal.  Rather, such fasting can be part of reinforcing the “denial of self” so that we can each more effectively complete Jesus’ command: denying himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9: 23).  

To the extent that I follow “P-R-A” to Y—Yield, I have experienced a sweet communion with God.  Some of you will have to share your experience with fasting because, as I said, I have not consciously applied fasting with the purposes I have outlined above.  I am aiming to try this in the days ahead, being careful not to violate Jesus’ other teaching in Matthew 6: 17-18 of not making a public show of it.

Yes, another Thanksgiving season is here.  But, this one seems different.  The world has changed much in the past year, and much for the worse it seems.  On this Thanksgiving, God may be calling His blood-bought children to dig deeper than "thankfulness" as a driving force for fervent prayer.  I believe God is calling us to P-R-A-Y as I have described with a focus including thanksgiving for what God has done; but then, moving beyond thanksgiving to adoration of God for Who He is.  Prayers of adoration to Almighty God invite His Spirit to lead us willingly to Yield in submission, to deny self, and take up our cross, willing to follow as an obedient disciple of Christ.  Many of our brothers and sisters are already facing life-threatening spiritual warfare, and it seems to be headed our way.  I hope my thoughts on prayer will make us better-prepared disciples.

Links to Responsible Ministries on Behalf of the Persecuted:
Samaritan’s Purse:
Voice of the Martyrs:

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