Why We Pray for the Local Authorities

Two weeks ago Manuel* sat next to me on the couch, weeping. This semi-secret believer’s brother-in-law had been disappeared by one of the powerful political parties. One week he was an important local official for this same party, the next he was publicly accused by Islamists of misconduct – and summarily disappeared. For two weeks his family had no information about where he was, or even if he was still alive.

I had met this brother-in-law only once. During a particularly stressful intercity move in the fever-heat of August, he had used his connections to get our moving truck through some rival party checkpoints on the road. In the process, he had grilled me rather directly on the nature of my work here, one of the few government officials to press me so hard on my identity that I could feel my face changing color. I answered truthfully regarding my official secular work, and yet also let him know about my personal faith and how, yes, I wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t changed me and given me a heart to serve others. With the help of the alternating shades of my face, I’m pretty sure he figured things out. In spite of this, he helped us – something I was deeply grateful for. Now I learned that he was at least imprisoned, perhaps even dead.

During his visit, Manuel, a respectable local man about ten years my senior, leaned on my shoulder and wept. We read Psalm 23 together, I prayed for him, and I listened as he pleaded with me to do something if at all possible through my political connections, of which I have none. For many local believers the belief runs deep that all Westerners have significant political clout that they could use if they really wanted to. Convincing our local friends that we are merely private citizens of our passport countries and strictly apolitical by choice has proven remarkably difficult. Yes, our home governments might grudgingly intervene if something happened to us – I say grudgingly because they repeatedly warn us not to live in places like this. But we have no such clout as to persuade anyone to intervene on behalf of a local political official who has been abducted, even if we thought such political intervention wise.

However, we pray every week during our church plant’s service for the local government officials. We do this to obey scripture, and because incidents like the disappearance of Manuel’s brother-in-law are stark reminders of the sudden danger that stalks almost anyone in this society should they run afoul of the powers that be. So when we gather, we pray for the government and those who wield political power to act justly, to rule wisely, and to serve their people (Micah 6:8, Romans 13:1-7). We pray for this so that the local believers may live quiet, faithful lives and that peace and stability might be granted for the sake of gospel advance (1st Timothy 2:1-4). The local believers are still getting used to this kind of prayer, regularly taking digs at the corrupt governing elite even as we ask who is ready to pray for them. We empathize, but also remind them of how bad Nero was, and then remind ourselves of the same truths when later that day we see the insane political news coming out of the West.

Tonight Manuel visited me again, requesting ahead of time that we sing some worship songs together. When he arrived, he shared the welcome news that his brother-in-law had been released. He’s much skinnier than he was before, bearing evidence of having been beaten, but alive, and back home with his family. I reminded Manuel that God had answered our prayers, and we spent an encouraging time singing together, studying John 15, and praying.

During our conversation, Manuel shared how just before his previous visit he had come very close to doing something dangerous, but suddenly felt redirected to come to our house instead for comfort and counsel. I’m thankful he did, or else he may have been summarily arrested/abducted as well. It makes me wonder how many close calls like this come down to a barely conscious obedience to subtle nudges from the Spirit. And if those nudges and responses would happen if we were not regularly praying for wisdom, and yes, praying for the corrupt local authorities.

*names changed for security

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I Have Become A Prayer Walker

Beware what you make fun of. You may someday find yourself having to eat your own words and attitudes – much to the amusement of your observant spouse. There are many things in Christendom I used to judge, things that I ironically now find wise and helpful for my current season of life and ministry. Prayer walking is one of these things.

I don’t know exactly when it became popular to prayer walk in evangelical circles. It first came onto my radar when I was a college student in the late 2000’s. Like many things that have become vogue in missions circles, I felt like I had missed the important initial conversations where everyone hashed things out and demonstrated that this was something biblical, healthy, and strategic. Instead, I started hearing all of the sudden about prayer walking as if it were a long-established Christian tradition that everyone knew how to do. I learned of prayer walking opportunities locally and even short term teams that traveled to other countries mainly to prayer walk the streets. I was a bit skeptical.

Are those people actually praying as they walk? Isn’t that a lot of money being spent on airline tickets for prayer trips when the beauty of prayer is that you don’t have to be geographically present for prayer to be effective? Does prayer walking become an excuse for not sharing the gospel?

Some of these questions still remain. And I still haven’t had that Introduction to Prayer Walking class that everyone else seems to have had. But I have myself stumbled into becoming a prayer walker over this past year. And I have found it remarkably helpful for my spiritual life.

The first step was coming across a one hour prayer plan on The Cripplegate blog. I was intrigued by this practical prayer plan from the 1970’s that I had never heard of. One hour divided up into twelve portions of five minutes, each a different kind of biblical prayer. I knew my prayer life was in need of some fresh structure and vision, so I filed the plan away in hopes of returning to it in the near future.

It was some months before I came back to this plan and decided it was time to actually try it out. As I experimented with it, I tweaked a few of the categories, cutting out some areas that felt like reduplication and adding in some new categories, such as lament. Here are my twelve.

  1. Praise and Worship + honest assessment of my soul.
  2. Waiting on the Lord in silence
  3. Confession of guilt, sin, and shame
  4. Praying Scripture
  5. Lament, Burdens, and Brokenness
  6. Intercession
  7. Petitions
  8. Thanksgiving
  9. Song/Poem
  10. Contemplation/Meditation
  11. Listening/Watching
  12. Praise for what’s true + renouncing lies and unbelief

My former prayer life was heavily weighted in favor of petition, intercession, confession, and thanksgiving. This more holistic prayer structure breathed fresh life into my prayer rhythms and gave me a place to put biblical practices that weren’t really taking place elsewhere – things like lament and silence. Sometimes a new structure is all that’s needed to spur encouraging growth.

This prayer hour worked decently well for me when I was trying to do it alone at home, but eventually I had a hard time staying focused. I was also needing to incorporate more physical activity into my day – and learning that I had a woefully underdeveloped theology of the body. Truth be told, for many years I lived as if I was a disembodied spirit, not an embodied creation with a good, but limited physical body. I pushed hard for the sake of ministry, not really believing it was that important to take care of my physical health. Because of realizing all of this, I was chewing on whether or not there were ways to better glorify God with my body, and not merely with my mind and my relationships.

I had other questions. Why is walking with God the language the scriptures uses to describe Adam and Enoch’s spiritual disciplines? And is this only meant to be a metaphor? What effect would moving feet have upon focus and meditation? And what loss would come by not being able to easily write things down? What about the brutal Central Asian summer heat?

Sometime after returning to our region this past autumn, I decided to pull the trigger and try an hour prayer walk. Armed with my recently purchased Fitbit, I set the countdown for five minutes and walked out my front gate of my Central Asian row home.

The first day saw my soul deeply encouraged, and my body more tired than I had expected. My ability to focus with my eyes open and my feet moving was much better than I had expected. This was extra noticeable in the meditation on scripture portion – a fun surprise. Who knew that some degree of physical movement would be highly compatible with gleaning insights from a Bible verse? To be honest, I find I’m better at meditating on a passage when walking than I am when sitting down.

It’s now been nine months or so that I’ve been seeking to do this almost daily. And I continue to find it good for both soul and body. My current practice is to walk and pray in the bazaar, mixing up the empty streets with the more crowded. Because of the time of year, I try to stay on the shaded sidewalks as much as possible. An hour walk in 110s degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celcius) sun is no joke.

A few practical notes on what each of the twelve sections tends to look like:

  1. Praise and Worship + honest assessment of my soul – This usually starts off sounding like, “I praise you because you are fully alive and the source of life itself… and I do not feel fully alive today.”
  2. Waiting on the Lord in silence – Focusing my mind on the presence of God and on one simple true thought, such as “God is with me” or “I am in Christ.”
  3. Confession of guilt, sin, and shame – Not just sin and guilt, but where am I struggling with shame as well? That also needs to be brought to the cross.
  4. Praying Scripture – This is one of the trickier parts of the prayer walk. Using a Bible app on my phone has been key for this working. But sometimes I will find a spot to sit down so that I can better read scripture and pray it as I do so.
  5. Lament, Burdens, and Brokenness – One of my favorite new additions to my prayer life. It’s a daily chance to bring the things to God that are just hard for me personally (or have been in the past), as well as things like societal sins and tragedies. Five minutes a day of this has been remarkably life-giving.
  6. Intercession – Praying for others.
  7. Petitions – Praying for daily bread and things impossible.
  8. Thanksgiving – Remembering to rejoice in God’s specific and faithful provision.
  9. Song/Poem – A chance to engage my affections with truth put to music or verse, either by singing something myself or by listening to a favorite song.
  10. Contemplation/Meditation – Chewing methodically on a small passage of scripture to see what insights emerge, usually a couple verses at a time as I work through a book.
  11. Listening/Watching – More silence, listening to the sounds of God’s creation and anything else he might impress on soul or mind. Not demanding a certain type of clarity or word. Paying attention to the visible beauty of creation.
  12. Praise for what’s true + renouncing lies and unbelief – A daily chance to recognize the particular lies I’m wrestling with that day, and to apply God’s truth against them. “Lie: I feel like God is disappointed in me. Truth: He delights in me today and for all eternity.”

I decided not to write about this prayer walk rhythm until I had actually done it long enough to know I would stick with it and could vouch for it. Coming up on nine months of this now, I’m happy to commend this prayer structure as one good method among many for carrying out biblical prayers in all their diversity. It’s no silver bullet. You may find prayer walking through a structured hour like this not that helpful for you. But this method has been life-giving for me, so I share it here in hopes that it will be helpful for others also.

Photo by Balkouras Nicos on Unsplash

How the Baby Turned

We were on a short family getaway, staying three days at a spot where our Central Asian mountains meet a lake. It was early Autumn, still warm enough to swim during the day, but getting chilly at night. The pleasant winds of the fall were coming off the mountains, complementing the September sun which shone off the lake and the yellow-brown mountains. I’ve always loved the feel of fall in this part of the world – brief and subtle though it is. It seems to only last two weeks – a calm golden respite in between the burning summer and the freezing winter.

My wife was seven months pregnant with our third child – and the little guy was facing the wrong direction. He was breech. We were hoping to have the baby in-country, and to have a natural birth, uncommon though that is for most of the local doctors. So we were praying hard for him to turn, as it would too risky to proceed if he stayed head-up. We were also coming close to the deadline by which my wife wouldn’t be allowed to fly, so it was getting a bit urgent.

On the last full day of our time away, I decided it would be fun to do some multitasking. I had fond memories of swimming in this same lake in years past, but on the other side of the mountain from where we were staying. I recalled a place that even felt kind of like a beach. But to find it, we’d have to do some exploring. The multitasking was that we were in need of finding a new baptism spot for our local friends. A dunking was fast approaching, and just like every other time, we found ourselves wishing we had thought more ahead about finding a spot with just the right combination of privacy, publicity, deep enough water, and natural beauty. This particular kind of spot continued to elude us. And while kiddie pools have their own advantages, we were hoping for some better options.

For some reason I majored on the baptism piece when proposing the day’s plans to my wife and forgot to really major on the beach-with-the-kids part. She wasn’t thrilled with our family rest time being taken over in this way, but kept these thoughts mostly to herself. So we started off, winding around the switchbacks of the nearby mountain. After fifteen minutes we made it to the top with its stunning views of the lake and other peaks, then began the descent down again. My wife was already regretting having agreed to this plan. Mountain switchbacks are not particularly compatible with being in the third trimester.

Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, I found a dirt road that looked like it went toward the lakeside. But it dead-ended in a village, with curious goats and village children looking bewildered at our presence there. So we turned around and bumped back down the track toward the main paved road. Once again we found another dirt road that looked promising, but this one also dead-ended, disappearing into a pasture filled with boulders. We stopped to reassess and listened to the lowing of the cows and the grumbling of our children. By this point I could tell the physical discomfort and frustration of my wife at this misadventure was reaching a critical point.

“Let me try just one more road,” I said with a hopeful grimace. We found a gravel road this time that looked much more promising. I turned off the main road, hoping that this artery would be the one that got us to the shore. Then, amid the rumbling and vibrating of the car, we began to rumble ourselves and argue about what exactly we were doing on this misadventure.

As it turns out, I had (not for the first time) managed to synthesize several ideas in my own mind, and forgotten to kindly spell those things out for my wife. She was, understandably, frustrated by what this optional ministry jaunt was turning into. Breakthrough came when she realized that I was also really hoping for a special time as a family at this elusive beach, and wasn’t just out on a work task – and after I apologized and owned that I had failed to share as openly as I should have.

Then suddenly she gasped.

“What is it?!” I asked.

My wife’s eyes were wide and she had a curious look on her face.

“I don’t know, I just felt the strangest thing in my stomach… I think the baby turned!”

“Really?!” I asked.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure he just did a flip. I’ve never felt anything quite like that before. Must have been all the bumpy roads! Ha!”

The car continued to shake as we drove along and we began to laugh at ourselves. Of course God would answer our prayer right in a moment where we were feeling significant marital tension, out in the middle of nowhere on a misadventure.

All of the sudden, the road turned and crested a hill, and there below us was a muddy and rocky shore, sloping down toward the water’s edge.

“We found it!” And there was much rejoicing in our by-now-very-dusty SUV.

We proceeded to spend a sweet time together, swimming in the warm water, building castles out of rocks, and getting grossed out at the mud suction that pulled us in halfway up to our knees. Plus we had brought a picnic blanket and chocolate, which makes everything more pleasant. It turned out to be an afternoon full of good memories, after all.

Our third-born did indeed flip around that day, in an answer to prayer. An ultrasound later confirmed this. Though given unforeseen complications, he actually ended up being born through a C-section, an adventure of its own. But those bumpy roads and the baby flipping enabled us to move towards the birth with greater confidence that we were indeed supposed to stay in our country for the delivery, in spite of the unknowns.

We chuckle now as we remember this particular answer to prayer. Our God’s ways of answering his people’s prayers will never cease to amaze – and sometimes, even to amuse.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

God Said No to Their Prayers So You Could Believe

Last night we read 2nd Peter 3 for our bedtime devotions with our kids. Our brief discussion afterward focused on verse nine, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

As the passage points out earlier (v. 4), scoffers say that Christ is taking too long to return and therefore that his promise is not trustworthy. Even we believers can be tempted to feel that God is slow to fulfill his promise. So Peter helpfully points out first that time is different for God. “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day” (v.8). On the one hand, to God it’s been like a mere two days since Jesus was here on earth. On the other hand it’s been like 728 million years. Clearly, we need to be slow to accuse God of slowness given how little we understand of his existence related to time. In Job-like fashion, we’d be better to put our hand over our mouth here (Job 40:4).

But his second point speaks to God’s motive for his delay. God’s reason for waiting is that he is patient toward his people – “toward you” – and he desires all of them to be saved, that the full number of his sheep throughout history would come into the fold (John 10:16). In this context the any and all in this passage are referring to God’s beloved chosen people, known and set apart for him before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). God is waiting until every single chosen one, set apart in his heart from all eternity, has had the chance to exist and to repent and believe.

Now, since the first generation of believers, Christians have been praying that Christ return quickly, “Maranatha!” (Rev 22:20). And yet he has not returned. This delay feels slow to us, yet God has over and over again said “No” to these very good prayers. Why? On our account. So that you might live and believe. So that I might live and believe. So that the chosen ones in the unreached people groups of the world with zero current believers might live and believe. I am so glad that God delayed the end of the world so that I could be born and then born again! I am so glad that he has given my children a chance to live and a chance to believe – and likewise for my dear Central Asian friends. He didn’t have to. Yet out the depths of his patience he delayed for us.

2020 has been a brutal year for the world. Even worse years have happened in the course of the last two millennia. Consider how apocalyptic it must have felt to be a Christian living in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the communities of Europe later annihilated by the Vikings, the Central Asian and Middle Eastern cities where the Mongols slaughtered every single inhabitant and piled their heads in giant pyramids. It’s said the Tigris ran red from the slaughter. Consider being a believer during the great plagues, chattel slavery, the world wars, or the horrific famines. In light of such suffering, it’s understandable that believers’ prayers would have been full of pleading and struggle. “Why isn’t Christ coming and setting things right? Where is he?”

Their questions had already been answered in the text of 2nd Peter. There are more yet to be gathered. A little American boy in Melanesia needs to be born in the future and to hear the gospel from his parents. His kids need to be born and hear the gospel (one has so far professed faith – pray for the younger two!), their friends in Central Asia like Hama and Tara, Henry, Darius, and others need to be born so that they can also become followers of Jesus. There are tribes and languages and people groups with as yet no gospel witness whatsoever. And yet they too contain a remnant, lost sheep that belong in Jesus’ fold. For their sake others will need to be born, to believe, to be sent, and to preach.

Have we ever thanked God for Christ’s return not happening sooner? Have we thanked him that for our sake he said “No” to all those prayers prayed by faithful suffering saints in previous eras?

We should pray for Christ to return soon. This is a godly and appropriate prayer. And yet if he continues to delay, we should not scratch our heads as to why that is. There are more yet to be gathered in. And the Lord will wait until he has secured every single one of them.

Photo by Samuel Martins on Unsplash

Of Providence, Car Bombs, and Appointments With Death

...it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. - Hebrews 9:27, ESV

On a pleasant spring evening twelve years ago, *Hama and I should have died, with Hama’s sister dying shortly thereafter. But it was not yet our appointed time. In that sense, even though death brushed past us in alarming proximity, we were invincible. Not because of any power of ours. No, but because God is on his throne, appointing for each man his time of passing into eternity. God keeps us from premature death through the mysterious workings of his providence. Seemingly random decisions and the prayers of believers become the means by which the great king and author works out his grand narrative and reveals his glory.

Hama and I were walking down one of main avenues of the bazaar, one named after a famous poet, like so many other streets in our mountain city. We were on our way to the cafe of a nearby hotel to study English together. Hama was thrilled to have a native English speaker for a friend again as he was worried his language, picked up while a refugee in the UK, was beginning to slip.

The spring weather was lovely on that late afternoon and I soaked in the sights and smells of the bazaar as we walked and talked together. The smell of tea on charcoal, shwarma sandwiches, and shops full of spices wafted up and down the busy street in the spring breeze.

Suddenly Hama stopped. “I think I’ve changed my mind. Maybe we should go to my house for supper first, then after that we can go to the cafe to study.”

I glanced ahead. You could already see the upper floors of the hotel looming above the shops, maybe five hundred meters ahead of us. We were nearly there. At the same time, Hama’s family lived in a neighborhood almost within the bazaar itself, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It wouldn’t be a long walk back in the other direction to his house.

“Sure, bro,” I said, “Whatever you want to do is good with me.”

We turned around and made our way back up the street and after ten minutes or so took a right into the winding alleyways that represented the fusion of the bazaar with Hama’s neighborhood. Streets just big enough for one car were framed by cement, brick and mudbrick courtyard walls, some crumbling. Others, in fading design work, still showed evidence of a bygone glory. I loved the sense of history in this neighborhood, a sense often lost in the construction boom of the rest of the city. As we walked I asked Hama what he had been reading in the gospel of Matthew since we had last spent time together.

“It’s amazing, bro, there’s no one like Jesus. Everyone who comes to Jesus gets healed!”

I smiled as Hama talked. There’s nothing quite like hearing a friend encounter scripture for the very first time.

“The lepers, the crippled, the sick, the ones with the evil spirits in them – Jesus is powerful to heal all of them! Our religion teaches us that Jesus performed miracles and healed people, but I didn’t know it was like this. Jesus is special, bro. He is different.”

We walked along as Hama shared some more and then walked in silence for a bit. A note of concern was in Hama’s voice when he began speaking again.

“Bro, my sister is about to die. You know, the disabled one, *Sharon?”

I had only seen Sharon briefly one or two times, but Hama had told me about her. She had been born with dark purplish markings all over body, but in spite of this had seemed to be a normal infant. However, when she was three years old she had gotten deathly ill. Somehow the illness had arrested her mental development and she had remained with the mental capacity of a small child as she grew into an adult. The other children in the neighborhood had mocked her mercilessly, so her family had learned to keep her hidden away indoors, as so many families in our area do if they have a family member who is physically or mentally handicapped. Sharon had learned the names of some family members and childhood friends, but after her illness was never able to learn another person’s name. Even though her condition made her an object of shame in local culture, nevertheless her family adored Sharon and doted on her, giving her generous amounts of sugary chai whenever she asked.

“Hama, what happened?”

“Sharon’s become very sick in the past few weeks. She was already really thin, but now she’s just bones. She hasn’t eaten anything in days. She’s lost her ability to speak, even to us, and her good eye has clouded over. A doctor came yesterday… He says she’ll be dead within the week. He said there’s nothing we can do.”

“I’m so sorry to hear this, bro,” I replied.

We walked on in silence for a little longer. Then Hama, seemingly without realizing it, began recounting once again how Jesus had healed the crippled, the blind, the mute. As he spoke I felt an urge, a thought, growing more and more powerful and clear in my mind and in my chest.

You need to ask to pray for Sharon tonight.

Doubt and anxiety rose up in me parallel to the strength of this impression. Nevertheless, the thought grew stronger.

You need to ask to pray for Sharon tonight.

But I don’t know how to do that! I protested inwardly. Sure, I had read lots of missionary biographies and even heard some first-hand accounts in Melanesia of God’s power to heal when believers pray for the sick. But I had never seen it modeled. And I was feeling reluctant to go out on a limb like this when my friend seemed so close to following Jesus. What if nothing happens and he comes to doubt Jesus’ power? What if I just make myself look like a fool? What if they get offended when I pray in the name of Jesus?

But the leading was irresistible now. I had to yield.

“Hama, do you believe that Jesus really did all those miracles that you’re reading about?”

“Yes, of course I do!” Hama replied.

“Do you believe that Jesus is alive and powerful in heaven now?”

“Yes, both of our religions teach that Jesus is alive in heaven and powerful.”

“Well,” I swallowed, “Do you believe that Jesus is powerful to heal your sister if we ask him to?”

“Bro… I, I don’t know…” Hama responded with a sigh.

“If it’s OK with you, can you ask your family if I can pray for her tonight? Jesus asks us as his followers to pray for the sick and sometimes he answers our prayers for healing.”

“I can ask bro, but I’m not sure what they’ll say.”

Shortly afterward we arrived at Hama’s family’s home. He and his newlywed wife lived in the upper floor and his mother and three sisters, including Sharon, lived on the ground floor. Hama’s father had been killed by a previous dictator when Hama was just a boy. Even though he was the youngest brother, he had the strongest leadership skills and often functioned as a leader in the household, depending on the day and his mother’s moods.

Hama’s family shouted some greetings to us as we went up the external staircase to the upstairs. As customary, they were full of polite greetings and hospitality in spite of the grief they were feeling inwardly. Hama’s wife, Tara, looked genuinely happy to see us. She was pregnant, probably early second trimester, and terrified of losing the baby after a previous miscarriage. Though I didn’t know it yet, a fear was growing inside of her that they would lose this second child because her husband was angering Allah by studying the Christian Bible. But on this night she just seemed happy and relieved that we had come for dinner.

Tara took out a spray bottle and sprayed a mist over some flat bread she had stored (to make it tender) and put the pile of bread in the middle of the table cloth she had placed on the floor. As we sat down, cross-legged at the edges of the cloth, Tara placed bowls in front of us, full of chicken broth, tomato/okra soup, and lightly fried rice. We began tearing off bits of flatbread and scooping the rice into our mouths. I was not regretting our decision to come back for this home-cooked dinner.

About twenty minutes into our meal all of our mobile phones started ringing at once and getting inundated with text messages. We pulled out our simple Nokia phones and started reading the texts and answering the calls. A tense and nervous air had descended on the house. Clearly some kind of emergency was going on. As we processed what we were reading and hearing, Tara quickly turned on the TV.

There had been a car bomb. It had detonated at the front of a main hotel in the city. It was the very same hotel where Hama and I had been planning to study. The entire front facade of the hotel was shattered, including the cafe where we would have been sitting. Tragically, a security guard had died. He, along with the suicide bomber proved to be the only casualties.

After reassuring various friends, family, and coworkers that we were OK, and finding out that they were OK too, Hama and I looked soberly at one another. We very well could have died had we not decided to turn around and gone to his house for dinner instead.

Shaking our heads at the craziness of the whole situation, I leaned forward toward Hama.

“My friend, we could have died tonight. You should be dead right now. You’re not. That tells me God has a reason for saving your life tonight. He has a purpose for you, something that needs to happen before you die.”

Hama nodded his head in agreement, watching the flashing news reports with a glazed expression.

“I think you’re right, bro… I think you’re right.”

The evening wore on as the entire city took stock in the wake of the car bomb. Locals were furious that a Palestinian youth had been the bomber. What was he doing all the way over here in our corner of Central Asia? For our part, we were totally engrossed in the phone calls, texts, and news reports. Tara was shocked to hear that we had narrowly escaped being victims of the bomb ourselves and lots of wide-eyed rapid conversation took place between her and Hama which I wasn’t able to follow. She was of course happy that her husband had not been blown up, but she was also understandably angry that he had almost gotten himself blown up. Nevertheless, she put some chai on for us and soon had served it.

While we were sipping our chai I was reminded of our plans earlier in the evening to pray for Sharon. The evening was wearing on.

“Hama, do you think we could still pray for your sister tonight?”

Hama suddenly remembered our earlier conversation and took a moment to think over my question.

“Yes, let me go downstairs and see what they say.”

“Hama, please tell them that I have to pray for her in the name of Jesus. I mean no disrespect, but I am a follower of Jesus and I must pray for her in the way that he asks his followers to do so.”

Hama nodded and went downstairs. Some lively discussion ensued, but he soon emerged again and told me that the family had agreed, and that they were very thankful that I would consider doing something like this for them.

We went downstairs and into the room where Sharon was laid out on a foam mattress on the floor. If they had not told me otherwise I would have assumed that she had already died. Her body was skeletal. Her skin, the parts that were not the purplish color, was a lifeless grey. She stared up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes and clutched a blanket to her chest with bony hands. She was in her early forties, but I could have been looking at a deathly ill ninety-year-old.

I asked Hama to translate some more for family, who had already begun crying as I knelt down next to Sharon.

“Please tell them that I’ll just put my hand on her hand and simply ask Jesus to heal her.”

I prayed quietly in English to myself, holding onto Sharon’s bony hand. The first time nothing happened. I began crying as well. The second time nothing happened. I prayed a short, third prayer and looked up. My heart sunk. Nothing had happened.

“Hama, please tell your family that sometimes God says yes, sometimes he says no, and sometimes he wants us to keep asking. Maybe this is not a no. Maybe he wants us to keep asking. I’ll keep praying tonight and ask some of my friends to pray also. All we can do is ask and wait for God.”

We went back upstairs and I sat, confused and disappointed. I heard some more commotion downstairs. When I asked what it was I became even more discouraged. The family, desperate as they were, had invited the local Islamic mullah to come and also pray over Sharon. Then I heard shouting and doors slamming. The mullah had attempted to beat Sharon with his cane in an attempt to drive out a demon. The women of the family, not about to put up with that nonsense, had in turn driven him from the home.

“Well,” I thought, “at least they’ll see that contrast tonight.”

Later that night when we said goodbye, Hama’s family thanked me profusely. They could see that my tears and prayers for Sharon had been genuine, even if they were ineffectual. The contrast with the mullah’s cane had clearly left an impression on them. Perhaps that was God’s only purpose in this strange encounter, a chance to show Christian compassion?

After I made it back home I sent out an email to some prayer supporters, updating them on the situation with Sharon and asking them to join in praying for Jesus’ power to be displayed, whatever that would look like. Then I went to my room and opened my Bible. For the next couple hours I worked through the gospels, pausing on each account of Jesus healing someone.

“Lord, you did for that person, would you do it again for Sharon?”

Around 1:00 a.m. I had a strong urge to focus on praying for Sharon to be able to speak again. Shortly after that I fell asleep.

When I awoke, the first thing I did was reach for my trusty little Nokia phone, hoping to see a message from Hama. There was nothing. I spent all day distracted in my work, chewing on the mysteries of God’s providence and human suffering. I kept checking my phone in hopes that I had somehow missed a call. But I had resigned myself. God had said no and Sharon would die.

Around 7 pm, I noticed something flashing in the bottom corner of the phone’s small screen. When I looked into what kind of notification it was, I was informed that my phone was out of memory and that I had a new text message waiting once I cleared up some more space. Frantically, I deleted other messages and opened the new one. It was from Hama, sent early in the morning.

“Bro, Jesus healed my sister! Please call as soon as you can.”

I called up Hama right away and asked what was going on.

“Hama, why didn’t you call me? I just saw your message now.”

“I had no credit, ha! Bro,” Hama said, “Jesus healed my sister!”

“What?! How?!”

“Around 1:00 in the morning, all of the sudden she sat up and asked for some chai! We all jumped out of bed. We couldn’t believe what was happening. She’s been eating and drinking all day and we are just laughing and talking about what happened! Bro, you prayed and Jesus healed my sister! When can you come and see her? You have to see her!”

I was taking a trip out of town that evening, but a couple days later I returned to Hama’s home to see Sharon. The family was ecstatic and Sharon was sitting up in bed, eating and drinking and talking in her unique, child-like way.

“Ever since that night, she hasn’t stopped talking! She talks all night long and now we can’t sleep!” laughed one of Hama’s sisters. “Would you please pray again to Jesus to get her to shut up?”

We all laughed until we cried.

“But seriously, as a family we did want to ask if you would pray for her again. She is still blind and before she had one good eye. Would you pray that she would be able to see again?”

I agreed. Then I proceeded to pray, this time with a much greater confidence. But just like the previous time, nothing seemed to happen.

“Well,” I said, “Maybe God is again saying that we should keep asking. We will keep praying for her.”

Sure enough, two weeks later I got another phone call from Hama.

“Bro, her cloudy eye has cleared up and she can see again! Jesus did it again!”

God had granted Sharon another season of life. It would prove to be brief. For six more months she ate, drank chai, saw her family through her good eye, and even learned my name, the first name she been able to learn in forty years. Then she died.

Hama hadn’t told me that she had gotten sick again. I was a little upset at him for this. But he responded that the family didn’t feel right about telling me. They knew I would want to pray again. Perhaps they felt like God had already granted them two miracles and it was ungrateful to ask for another.

God had intervened to save Sharon’s life through the prayer of a doubting nervous believer. He had intervened to save Hama’s life and my life through a seemingly random decision to turn around and eat dinner before we studied English. Both of these miracles resulted in death delayed, not death dismissed. It was appointed for Sharon six months later. It will be appointed for Hama and I one of these days as well, though now we look forward to it together as brothers in Christ. God’s providence in these things is beyond me, but I recount these things as they really happened. I haven’t had the same kind of near death experience nor answered prayer for healing in the twelve years since. It was simply God’s mysterious kindness that they should both fall on that particular spring evening.

At the time I thought that this would be the last step in Hama professing faith in Jesus. Surely after such a display of power, alongside of his study of Matthew, Hama would immediately profess faith. But to my surprise, Hama stopped speaking about Jesus altogether for the next six weeks. A battle was going on in his soul. Jesus had revealed his truth and power. But would Hama surrender and risk everything?

*Names have been changed for security

Photo by Jeff Kingma on Unsplash

The Mustard Seed Faith of Hungry Pagan Sailors

“How about it, Christian?” taunts the captain. “You say your god is great and all powerful, so why can’t you pray for us? We’re starving to death, and there’s little chance of our ever seeing a living soul!” It’s hard to know whether the captain would have spoken Irish or Latin to Patricius [Patrick]; but Patricius, though his Latin is abysmally awkward at times, has a good ear for dialogue. Here is the original, which gives us an excellent idea of how ordinary men used the tongue of Cicero: “Quid est, Christiane? Tu dicis deus tuus magnus et omnipotens est; quare ergo non potes pro nobis orare? Quia nos a fame periclitamur; difficile est enim ut aliquem hominem umquam videamus!”

“From the bottom of your heart, turn trustingly to the Lord my God,” the visionary instructs them, “for nothing is impossible to him. And today he will send you food for your journey until you are filled, for he has an abundance everywhere.” The young man’s sincerity affects the weakened sailors, who, bowing their heads, try a moment of faith. The sound of a stampede attracts their attention; and as they raise their eyes, a herd of pigs hoofs it down the road in their direction. Not just food, but the best food of all!”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 104-105

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The Gospel for Sandwich Delivery

“So, you go to seminary school. What’s that all about?”

There it was, the opening I had been seeking for months. Handed to me out of nowhere while I did the dishes at the restaurant sink. I blinked, then stammered, and went for it.

While in college, I had gotten a job as a delivery driver for a local branch of Jimmy Johns, the sandwich shop chain that prides itself on “freaky fast” delivery. I didn’t know how much of a cross-cultural experience I was in for. Because the area of our restaurant was full of hip bars and nightclubs, I worked mainly the nightshift, delivering sandwiches to famished partiers at the bar or those having just returned home, as long as they didn’t pass out before I made it to them. There were many quiet hospital staff deliveries as well, but also the runs where inebriated twenty-somethings requested that I toss the sandwich through their second story window and they throw the cash down. They were too drunk to make it down the stairs. My manager kept our shop temperature at near-freezing to deal with the recurring problem of the intoxicated coming in to buy a sandwich and falling asleep at one of our tables. The freezing temperature trick was actually quite effective. But I, as the only Christian working in that restaurant, did not feel very effective.

My American coworkers were all unchurched or post-Christian, most were drug users, some were alcoholics, others were LGBTQ or living with their partner. On more than one occasion, coworkers were arrested for drug possession. I, on the other hand, was a missionary kid who grew up in Melanesia, spent time in the Middle East, and was now going to the undergrad of a Southern Baptist seminary. I hung out with refugees and believers from many cultures, but I had the hardest time knowing how to connect with the younger, unchurched crowd from my “own” culture. There were many times I wished for my dad’s counsel, who had passed away many years before. He had grown up an unchurched American, was radically saved, yet never forgot how to connect with the partiers for the sake of the gospel. When I hung out with internationals, bridges to spiritual conversation seemed to overflow like the facial hair of an Assyrian monarch on an ancient stone relief. But when the topics of conversations were about parties, sleeping around, slasher movies, and hiphop artists I had never heard of, I just found myself at a loss.

Discouraged, I returned to the kinds of prayers I had lifed up many times in settings where I was insecure in my identity and didn’t know how to get to gospel conversation.

Lord, you know I want to share the gospel with my coworkers. But, I just don’t know how. I don’t know how to find a door in the conversation. But if you make one, I will step through it. I could force one, but somehow that doesn’t feel right. Would you turn the conversation? Would you help me?

I can’t remember how many times I prayed this prayer while I did the dishes, mopped the bathroom floor, or returned from another 3 a.m delivery in my beat up ’95 Honda Civic. How could I share the gospel with Middle Eastern Muslims and yet be so clueless when it came to people my own age in my own country? I kept on praying, tried to work hard, reported all my tips (much to the confusion of my supervisors), and tried to listen well. Sooner or later a door would open.

Then late one night, a slower shift than usual as I recall, a kind lesbian coworker asked me about seminary school. God had opened the door. I don’t remember much of the conversation that followed, but I know that I got a chance to speak of my faith in Jesus and my motivations for studying the Bible. My coworker must have spread the news of our strange conversation around, because it wasn’t long until some kind of switch flipped and all my coworkers started asking not only about seminary, but also about why I didn’t under-report my tips, and (scandalous!) why I was waiting until marriage to sleep with my fiancée. This final topic evoked quite a bit of interest, not unlike a team of anthropologists encountering a member of an unknown tribe for the very first time.

God had graciously opened the door, and then he kept on opening it. I got to share the gospel many times with my coworkers. They wanted to know what the Bible really said about being gay and about drugs and they even wanted to know about my experiences sharing the gospel in the Middle East. Coworkers started talking amongst themselves about their beliefs and their upbringings, even when I wasn’t involved in the conversation. They started joking that my presence alone caused everyone to start talking on cue about God and Jesus, “like some kind of #!@/ reverend of Jimmy Johns!” Through these conversations and friendships that developed we even got to set up a meeting between my pastors and a local chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance where we were able to share extensive gospel truth.

Truth be told, I don’t know if any of my coworkers have come to faith from that strange season of sandwich delivery. My hope is that some of the seeds planted will one day sprout to life. I don’t even know that I learned much about how to connect well with my unchurched American peers. But I saw yet again how gracious God is to us when we approach him as needy evangelists, full of desire and yet just not sure how to share the gospel effectively. I still find myself often praying that prayer, most recently while meeting with a local teacher in the middle of the month of Ramadan, as we sat together in a shady green garden. He wanted to talk about politics and culture. Somehow the conversation spiraled in to rich gospel content. Just like Jimmy Johns, God had done it again.

Lord, if you will turn the conversation, if you will open the door, I will step through it...

p.s. If anyone living in areas with a strong bar scene wants to start up an evangelistic ministry, there is a great opportunity to be had once the bars close early in the morning. People are hungry, lonely, need caffeine, and want someone to talk to. I’ve heard of this kind of outreach happening in N. Ireland, where booths are set up to offer tea, coffee, food, and conversation, but not heard of anything like this yet in other countries. Once the ‘Rona dies down, could be a promising field for ministry. I’ve never felt so alone as a believer as I did in the middle of the night in the bar district. So many needy people, yet all the faithful were asleep.

This One Only Comes Out After Three Years

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

This week I heard more fully about Harry*, a friend from our former city whom I thought had fallen away from the faith. Three years ago he left our fledgling church plant, furious that we insisted on Jesus being the only way to God and that true believers must also hold to this truth. His mother was very sick at the time, which added personal fuel to the fire. Harry’s departure, full of anger and insults and personal attacks, was so extreme that I thought he was gone for good. Or at least that he had demonstrated his faith to be a farce. But I kept praying for him over the last three years, helped by the example of George Mueller and his simple, persistent records of prayer requests and answers. Nevertheless, I was shocked and then excited this week to hear that Harry had not only started coming back to the church again, but had actually repented to my teammate in tears for his conduct and words three years ago. He confessed that since then, God’s hand has been heavy on him. This is a stunning confession. In our context, it almost seems harder for a professing believer to repent of his sin and reconcile than it seems for someone to come to faith. Harry’s remarkable about-face has encouraged me afresh to keep on praying for my friends who have fallen away or flamed out. As John Piper has said, we always resist the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is powerful to overcome that resistance anytime he pleases. May the Spirit continue to be pleased to overcome Harry’s resistance – indeed, my own resistance – to his glorious work.

St Patrick’s Breastplate

This ancient Irish prayer was written either by Patrick or by one of his early Irish disciples. Notice how Trinitarian this prayer is. Notice how Christ-centered it is. Notice also how holistic it is – there is no sense in which the spiritual realm and the physical creation are against one another. Both belong to God and are on the side of the Christian. Notice the clues that show how real the persecution and danger still were when this prayer was written. The author reminds himself that he is not alone, but that he stands in a long and honorable line of spiritual beings and faithful believers. He constantly reminds himself that the true reward that matters is that which comes on the last day. As he preaches God’s word, he calls on all the power of God to protect him from enemies within and enemies without, among whom were the still-dangerous Celtic druids. The author doesn’t pretend their power isn’t real, but contends that the power of God is greater. Ultimately, the author trusts in the presence of Christ in the midst of the many dangers he faces. This is the kind of prayer we need to be writing in today’s contexts of persecution.

I arise today; Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity; Through a belief in the threeness; Through confession of the oneness; Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today; Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism; Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial; Through the strength of his resurrection and his ascension; Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today; Through the strength of the love of Cherubim; The obedience of angels; In the service of archangels; In hope of resurrection to meet with reward; In prayers of patriarch; In predictions of prophets; In preaching of apostles; In faith of confessors; In innocence of holy virgins; In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today; Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun; Radiance of moon; Splendor of fire; Speed of lightning; Swiftness of wind; Depth of Sea; Stability of earth; Firmness of rock.

I arise today; Through God’s strength to pilot me; God’s might to uphold me; God’s wisdom to guide me; God’s eye to look before me; God’s ear to hear me; God’s word to speak for me; God’s hand to guard me; God’s way to lie before me; God’s shield to protect me; God’s host to save us; From snares of devils; From temptation of vices; From everyone who shall wish me ill; Afar and near; Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils; Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul; Against incantations of false prophets; Against black laws of pagandom; Against false laws of heretics; Against craft of idolatry; Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards; Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today; Against poison, against burning; Against drowning, against wounding; So that there may come to me abundance of reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ on my right, Christ on my left; Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise; Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me; Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me; Christ in the eye that sees me; Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today; Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity; Through belief in the threeness; Through confession of the oneness; Of the Creator of Creation.

Patrick or one of his spiritual descendants; Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 116-119
Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash