Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Prayer

I’ve never had a person refuse my prayer. “Can it hurt?” I suppose is the rational. But in an age of unfettered mammon and unbridled nationalism, does one need outside help? Yet when disaster strikes, the ubiquitous news’ anchor utters, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

These prayers then are said by whom? What is asked for? What might be their expectations?

In cultures and a generation in which church attendance plummets, atheist Christopher Dawkins and his faith-ridiculing buddies becomes the darling of late-night talk shows and secular assumptions rule our educational worlds, why does prayer even get a mention?

I wondered as I sat back and looked up around some 9,000 filling a modern hall, owned by Christians located in a Muslim country. Why would thousands from 60 countries meet to pray? Not only to learn more about prayer, to celebrate and engage in its joys and excesses but fill the Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta stadium with 100,000 on the final day of the world Prayer Assembly.

Prayer is tough, at least when taken seriously. Nothing is harder for me. I can preach, organize, write, exhort, study and create, but praying does not come easily. When my feet hit the floorboards in the morning, sitting in reflection and prayer is not my first choice. Getting something done is, which presumes praying is not. It is here the mistake is made.

Yet everywhere I see people grouping together for prayer: in homes, before the business day; online; in parliamentary groupings; towns, cities, regions have their annual prayer breakfasts. Different and varied. Noisy and silent. Bombastic and reflective. Take your choice.

The World Prayer Assembly in Jakarta in May, 2012 was a confluence of various streams finding their way into the delta of this remarkable moment and gathering. Hosted by South Korean—well known for their rigorous early morning hill-top prayer gatherings—and Indonesia prayer groupings, it felt like a four day prep rally on prayer. Its music, dance, drama and unabashed enthusiasm would please any self respecting Pentecostal.

The genesis of this world prayer was in 1984 in Seoul, South Korea. Vonnette Bright – wife of Bill Bright founder of Campus Crusade for Christ – led the first major late 20th century prayer hosted by the Lausanne Committee. However, it has been the Global day of Prayer, triggered by a construction magnate of South Africa – Graham Powers was converted in 1997 – that has pushed prayer to such a worldwide activity.

Prayer is the spiritual oxygen that sustains life. Prayer began in the earliest of times: they walked with God in the cool of the evening, moments with God. While a rift disjoined this intimacy, it didn’t preclude further talking with the Creator. Throughout the biblical text, all sorts of styles, emotions, and contexts provide models of good, bad and indifferent sorts. The one for me that eclipses the most outlandish of contemporaries prayers is Jonah: while languishing and protected from a watery grave, out of line with God’s call and completely out of line in attitude, he offers in part, this prayer:

But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.”

And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. 2:9-10

How preposterous this impertinent preacher speak with his Lord this way, especially given his disadvantage. To add to his high view of self, when set free, he grumbled about God’s mercy towards to Ninevites. Prayer in all forms, lengths and places.

I watched and listened during the World Prayer Assembly to prayers. The underlying mood matched my boyhood camp meetings. Joy captured the moment. For what greater joy – for those assembled from the troubled spots of the world, often living under the heel of a religious or secular majority who despise at best and persecute at worst – could there be than to be gathered to praise and pray? I applauded with thousands as 600 from China stood to be welcomed. Those from this region knew more than I, what it meant to meet in a Muslim dominated country where in some islands, Christians have been in very recent years – and occasionally still are – killed and churches burned down.

Workshops ran the gambit. Some bordered on triumphalistic, assuming that a few people here and there, exerting influence of faith, was evidence winning was almost done. Others are nurtured by the health and wealth heresy. Not surprising when people, struggling to raise a family in poverty opt for a message that says God will supply all your need according to his richness in glory, by Christ Jesus. Hard stuff those Bible promises.

It is within this burgeoning prayer movement that Christianity is unfolding in new ways. Sometimes its message is hopeful, other times disconcerting in its extreme. I’ve seen it in Toronto as well as Jakarta. Some have high jacked this profound longing for prayer, making themselves prophets and apostles. Others fill their coffers with the fleecing of their flock – a.k.a. TV audience – promising the rewards of God’s good promises.

Even so, we are in vortex of a spiritual windstorm. The activity of the Spirit in global activity creates all sorts of spin offs that while, on the surface, may at times seem disingenuous; it should not deter us from seeing the larger and more profound work at play.

Hunger for God and a felt-based faith knows no bounds. I have been raised in the world of Evangelical Protestant faith and its various public and home based spiritual outworking. I’ve seen a lot. My father took over a deeply broken and hurting church denomination in Saskatchewan, divided by heresy, driven by outlandish forms and expectations of prayer. My vocational life has lived in the Evangelical world where prayer is considered essential but not to the extreme. I watched “The Toronto Blessing” trigger concerns, enthusiasms and extra-biblical manifestations while providing for many authentic life and understanding of the love of the father.

While nothing much surprises me, I’m moved as I witness the breathing of the Spirit into peoples, regions and vocational sectors. Where this all goes we don’t know. What occurs in the process of spiritual resurgence is beyond our predications. But as I met in prayer with others, observing and reflecting, I noted six clusters of thoughts which define today’s prayer movements.

Existential thirst
Language used to describe a country fearful of its existence is referred to as “existential threat,” that is, deep within their national psyche a feeling that shapes all they do. I use “existential” that way – people so thirsty for spiritual life that they will go anywhere, to any group to alleviate their dryness.

Who are these people? From all walks of life, from all kinds of life experiences, from profoundly activist religious groups and from lifeless ones. I see old-line Protestants raised on the message, “be good and that will get you in heaven,” desperate for a fresh Spirit infilling. Or Roman Catholics, nominal and dead-like anxious to find new streams. More and more I speak with Pentecostals tired of hype, looking for new forms of spiritual journeys found often among early church fathers of Anglican and Reformed communitities where quietness and silence broods a mood to go deeper. Then mainstream Evangelicals rooted in modernity, their spirituality framed by doctrine and cognitive propositions are likely prospects for the Charismatic. There is no group where at least some languish in the system at hand, longing not just for what is new, but Spirit life that breaks barriers of deadness and stops the draining of the soul.

Evangelistic passion
Spurred by the commission of going into the entire world, framed by the promise that when the Gospel is preached in all nations, then the end of the world. This drive to pray for the unreached has been part of the eschatology – doctrine of the end times – of the church for over a hundred years. More recently focus on what has been called the 10-40 window highlights prayer especially for the Muslim world. Heightened by 9/11 and increased awareness of the world of Islam, prayer groups have focused on reaching the unreached.

Actualizing of faith
Religion offers the potential of two extremes: a tightly scripted doctrine defining what to believe and squeezed in on the other end by a religious system that waffles at best, unsure of its stance on faith and life. Either extreme snuffs out life. In the wide middle is the offering of faith. By that I don’t mean “belief” or “hope” but the making real of what is believed. The western world is locates faith in what we think is true. The wave of conversion in the Global South is triggered by faith actualizing into the real, the observable. It may be in healing or in the meeting of a specific need, but it is something other than mental affirmation.

Engaging the spirit world
Again our western mind operates in faith as if it were just an idea. The debate over liberal and conservative doctrine has been about ideas. The notion that spiritual war is waged in the “heavenlies” seems too spooky. It doesn’t take many conversations with church leaders in Africa, Asia or South America before you understand their environment of spiritual advancement is within the spirit world. Uncomfortable in identifying dysfunction or disunity as being something other than what we might identify in psychological terms or analysis, Christians in much of the world think otherwise. And it is within the realm of prayer that issues of spirit warfare is treated, often associated with intercessory prayer.

Embracing culture
Prayer takes on the life and ways of the people practicing it. In my first service in a South Korean Presbyterian church some decades ago, I was convinced I had ended up in the wrong church. When time came to pray, it wasn’t someone praying and everyone listening, everyone bowed their head, closed their eyes and prayed out loud. The noise was deafening. After a few minutes, the minister rang a small bell and everyone stopped. Much of contemporary praying is associated with praise and worship. And those forms fit the cultural world in which they live. While music in non-western communitities has historically been translated versions of our older hymns and choruses, today indigenous music, dance and forms have become the norm.

Every sharp rise in spiritual interest carries with it extremes. I wrestle with dismissing that which is extra biblical or outside of biblical logic. It is critical we evaluate what is going on. Yet historically new waves of spiritual life carry with it heresies and extremes. Listening to a text of biblical promise in a village void of clean water and no seed for spring sewing, it triggers praying with different emphasis and expectations than coming from a place where the biggest need is locating a new music minister.

As we wended our way out from the prayer assembly I knew we had felt a touch of the new wind of the Spirit, embracing peoples everywhere.

Brian C Stiller
May 2012