prayer

On Petrol, Providence and Prayer

I was a missionary in Africa once. In Botswana, to be specific. One summer, my very best friend brought her Sunday School class from Texas for a mission trip/safari. We spent the first week of their trip doing children’s camps in the villages where I worked. For the second week, we were off to Chobe National Park in northern Botswana and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Early on the morning of our departure the nine of us made our way to the airport with our oversized piles of luggage and supplies. We arrived to discover that our nine-seater rental van didn’t come equipped with a trailer hitch as we’d assumed, so American ingenuity married the folly of youth and we crammed all our supplies plus nine people (three of whom were great, strapping lads) into the van: three in the front seat which was made for two, four in the middle seat which was made for three, and two valiant souls who volunteered to ride, flat on their backs in the 45cm space between the luggage and the roof. (Incidentally, those two heroes—who hadn’t met before the trip—have now been happily married for nearly 20 years!)

With our fearless leader—that was me—behind the wheel, we set off for the bush, eager to taste the delights of rural Africa. The journey was meant to take 13 hours, which to us Americans was a perfectly reasonable one-day drive. We travelled, happy and carefree along the A1 toward Francistown, breezing through villages and small towns along the way. At Francistown, we turned left and followed the less populated A3 toward Nata. At Nata we had a little lunch and carried on, now into the 200 miles of unbroken “proper bush” between Nata and Kasane at the northern tip of Botswana. What a delight for my passengers to be hurtling through this barren landscape, ever on the lookout for elephants and giraffes, even here, outside the national parks! What a delight to be so isolated, so alone, so empowered by youth and ambition and ignorance of the dangers that could so easily overtake us if not for the petrol in the tank and the water in our jerrycans.

And what a moment of fear and trembling for me when, over two hours from our destination, with nothing but empty bush for 100 miles in every direction, the petrol light came on. Somehow in my youthful enthusiasm, I had neglected to fill the tank in either Francistown or Nata. We had about 45 minutes of petrol left for a 2-hour drive. My best friend, who was sandwiched next to me, shot me a look. I gave her one back. We said nothing to the others, but both started praying silently. Suddenly, our carefree adventure had become very, very real.

We flew on toward our destination: seven of us enjoying the scenery, two of us growing our first grey hairs. The minutes passed, the miles slipped by, the petrol levels dropped. We had been below empty for about an hour when I became convinced that we were driving on the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, at the two-hour mark, joy! The outskirts of the town loomed, and at the crossroads, the promise of petrol and salvation. Just as I spied the petrol station about 300 meters ahead at the top of an incline, the engine sputtered and I rolled to a stop. We were out of petrol.

“Alright, everybody out!” I said, and told them the story of how far we’d come on no petrol. My big Texas lads (and my little but hearty Texas ladies) weren’t daunted in the slightest. “Let’s get this thing up the hill!” they shouted, and with me at the wheel, the eight of them pushed that heavily laden metal miracle up the hill and into the petrol station. We’d made it. Only just.

It was just a matter of fuel. I didn’t have enough. I didn’t get it when I should have. I didn’t respect the bush and the dangers it possessed, and I didn’t take with me what I needed to get myself and my friends safely to our destination.

It has long been known that prayer is the fuel of mission. Paul knew that his mission was sustained by prayer, and urged the Philippians (1:9), the Colossians (4:3), the Thessalonians (1 Th 5:25) and the Ephesians (6:19) to pray for him. If he knew he needed prayer, how much more the rest of us?

The mission field is a dangerous place, and our missionaries aren’t just in danger from those who would oppose their message and cause them harm. They’re in danger from spiritual forces, from disease, from natural disasters, from temptation, from car accidents, from burnout, from relationship breakdown, and even from running out of petrol in the middle of the African bush in the dead of summer.

Is it possible that we’re sending our field workers out without the fuel they need? We expect them to have hardships, yes. The Bible promises that things won’t always be easy. But if we who stay home are claiming to be obedient to the Great Commission, but are not praying for those who Go, we’re kidding ourselves. Prayer is the fuel for mission, and it is our job to make sure our missionaries have the fuel they need. Otherwise, they may end up having to push their ministry up a hill in harsh and dusty conditions. Or worse, they may end up stranded and in real danger.

God was very good to us that day in the bush of Botswana. It’s never been more than a funny story about a silly 25-year-old American and a miraculous self-filling petrol tank. But it could have been a very, very different story. All for lack of fuel.

Let’s not risk our missionaries’ lives and ministries because of a lack of fuel. We have a responsibility and a call to pray. Let’s commit to pray for them and give them the fuel they need, not just to make it from day to day, but to flourish in even the most barren of places.

Photo by Jacques Bopp.

Is More Prayer the Answer?

Raise your hand if you understand how prayer works. Now look at your hands. If one of them is raised, I’d very much like to meet you, because I have a few questions for you. I just don’t get it. I know it does work; I have some ideas about why God has asked us to pray; but I haven’t the foggiest how it actually works.

How is it possible that I can pray day after day for something—something God has commanded us to pray for in scripture, and something that I know He wants even more than I do—and yet, after years of praying, my very godly request still hasn’t been fulfilled? And yet sometimes, I can pray for something once…just breathing out a prayer…and it happens! The arithmetic just doesn’t add up. The system doesn’t work. It makes no logical sense.

I’ve been reading lately about some of our Christian brothers and sisters in a part of the world where becoming a Christian is dangerous, and where leading others to Christ is, if not always a death-wish, at least a prison-wish, an ostracism-wish, a disowned-by-your-family-and-everyone-you-know wish. Yet, even with all the very real threat hanging over their heads, they’re seeing spectacular things happen. Hundreds, thousands of people are turning to Jesus. Entire communities are leaving their old religious system and becoming Christians. And then those very new Christians are turning around and venturing into new places, hostile places and reproducing what they’ve experienced at home.

And how do they do it? You guessed it: prayer.

They pray and fast weekly for their friends and neighbours who don’t know Jesus. They gather monthly (if not several times a month) to pray ALL NIGHT, interceding for people in their communities. They gather every day at midday to pray as churches or ministry teams. They pray on their own for hours each morning. They regularly have family devotionals and prayer time.

Why? Firstly, because Jesus asked us to. But perhaps more practically, because it’s working! They’ve seen what happens when they pray. They know that God is at work when they pray. So they pray more. And God works more. It’s all very dramatic and obvious what’s happening in those dangerous places, and perhaps the results are more obvious because the risk is greater and the pray-ers are more willing to take that risk because, when you weigh it all together, the payoff is astonishing.

I don’t know how prayer works, but it is clearly part of God’s equation. Which makes me wonder…should we be taking a leaf out of their book? We want God to do amazing things like that here in the UK as well as around the world. We want him to push back our very Western brand of darkness—the apathy, skepticism, materialism and self-satisfaction that blind people to the light that Christ has to offer. Is what we might consider an extreme commitment to prayer the key to seeing God move in larger-than-life ways?

I’m going to stick my neck out and say no. It’s not following a particular pattern of prayer that enables miraculous things to happen. Our brothers and sisters in dangerous places don’t wake up in the morning and start ticking “morning devotion with family”, “midday prayer meeting” and “fast for two meals” off their daily to-do lists. They wake up in the morning hungry for God and desperate to see his love poured out on their friends who don’t yet know him. That passion drives them to prayer, to fasting, to bold evangelism, to selfless devotion to discipleship and mentoring. The supernatural element of prayer is undeniable—we’ve all seen prayer work in ways we can’t fully explain or understand. But following a prescribed pattern of prayer that “works there so it must work here too” won’t necessarily produce the same results in every situation.

What we need is a hunger for God and a desperation to see his love poured out on those who don’t know him. That passion will drive some of us to wildly committed prayer and fasting. It will drive others of us to give generously, even sacrificially, out of our abundance. It will drive still others to teach and encourage and spur God’s people on toward greater and deeper commitment to Christ. And still others it will drive to leave what is familiar and go to the next village or the next hemisphere to boldly share Christ’s love.

Our brothers and sisters in dangerous places don’t sit around praying all day. With the rest of their day they risk life and limb to share Christ with religious leaders, to bring the gospel to villages and towns where Jesus isn’t known, to encourage believers in far-flung and isolated places, to smuggle Bibles across hostile borders. Their passion for God fuels their prayers, and their prayers provide the shield and the power for their bold movements in spiritually hostile places.

So whether or not we ever find out how prayer works, let’s do it, and do it boldly and passionately. God uses it in ways we don’t understand to do amazing and miraculous things. But let’s also cultivate the kind of hunger for him that can only be satisfied by an all-night prayer meeting or a three-hour devotional. Let’s care so much about those who don’t know him that bold evangelism is the only appropriate course of action. That’s when our prayers grow hands and feet, and that’s when things start changing.

 

Photo by Lesly Derksen on Unsplash.