Sunday, April 22, 2007

Valor is My Breath: The Joy of Intercession

Most Christians will tell you they believe in the power of prayer, but at the same time, most Christians don’t live like they do. So, having recently pointed toward intercessory prayer as the proper focus of spiritual warfare, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my own testimony on the subject.

Intercessory prayer has been a large part of my faith-journey since high school, but even I have difficulty keeping up the discipline. It’s easy to find oneself in a season where prayers come slowly, and answers to those prayers never seem to materialize. Recently I found myself in just such a place, and so I wanted to share the story of how God drew me back into the fight.

When I was in my junior year of high school, I read an article about a man who took a dare to pray for Africa every day for 45 days. Within the course of those days, this man, who had never been to Africa before, was able to travel to Uganda, and there met the president of that country, influenced him to show merciful justice to political prisoners, and was later requested to assist in the selection of government ministers. (The story is called “Uganda, a Bet, and a Prayer,” by Doug Nichols, if you want to look it up).

Inspired by this story, I decided to accept the same dare. I searched for the country that seemed to need the most help, and settled on the Sudan. At that point, Sudan was still struggling through its brutal 30-year civil war between the north (largely Islamic) and the south (Christian and animistic), with the slave-trade thriving in the midst of the horrors of war. It was a place where the Muslim world met Christian tribes in violent overlap, a place regularly ravaged by famine and drought. So I started to pray for the Sudan and for its leaders—President Omar al-Bashir and John Garang, leader of the south at that time—making this the central aim of my intercessory ministry.

After going to college and studying under Dr. Jon Arensen, who had served in southern Sudan for twelve years, I had the opportunity to go to Sudan myself. So in 2004, after more than four years of praying for Sudan, I set off alone to join a team of workers in the capital city of Khartoum. I lived there for three months while assisting on a linguistics project. It was around that time that we finally saw the resolution of the civil war against the south, or at least the best chance for peace that the region has had for many years. But those were also the days when the Darfur conflict began to intensify, and even now, despite belated international intervention, it still seems to go on.

The peace with the south was an incredible answer to prayer, but other than that, I saw little fruit from my years of intercession. But just because we don’t see the answers doesn’t mean that they aren’t coming.

A month or two ago I heard a story about something that happened in the Sudan seven years ago, just after I had first begun praying. This was a secondhand testimony, and unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of Christianity’s status in the Sudan, and especially in the north, I won’t tell the story in full. But it was the dramatic testimony of how God called a young woman through a dream from halfway across the Middle East to come and witness in the Sudan. So she traveled on her own all the way across the desert, and her journey carried her into direct contact with the highest leaders of Sudan. As a result of her warnings and witness, sweeping changes came to the capital city.

I had never heard this story before, but I can testify that I was surprised at the amount of freedom given to Christians in Khartoum (a city officially under a form of Islamic sharia law) when I came there in 2004. Churches worshiped openly, and there was even a multi-denominational open-air evangelistic campaign in the middle of the city. In addition, the radical Muslim politician who had helped raised the new Islamic government in Sudan, Hassan al-Turabi, was under house arrest during that time. If the secondhand testimony about the young woman’s witness is to be believed, all these developments can be traced, at least in part, to that meeting eight years ago. And that was when I had started praying.

I’m not saying that it was my prayers alone that effected these great changes. But I know that my prayers, along with the prayers of thousands of others who lift up Sudan and its leaders, were directly used and answered in those events. I have been a part of the work of God in Sudan. Mountains have been moved, and they are still moving. The shaky peace between the north and south is a miracle of incredible proportions. And I’m sure that even among the current bloodshed in Darfur, more miracles are happening.

I don’t know all of the theological answers as to why or how God uses our prayers in conjunction with his sovereign will, but I know that he commands us to pray and that he does, indeed, use our prayers. He has given us this incredible privilege of being an active part of his work in the world. Just as we can build up the kingdom of God among those immediately around us, so we can build up the kingdom of God half a world away. And that is simply extraordinary.

Some might object and say that intercession is a special gift given to only a few—‘prayer warriors,’ we call them. And it may well be a spiritual gift in its own right. But for those of us who don’t have the gift, we aren’t excluded us from the responsibility or the honor of prayer. I don’t have the gift of generosity, but that doesn’t give me permission to be a miser.

We are commanded (and shown by example) throughout the New Testament to join in intercessory prayer, especially in lifting up our Christian brothers and sisters around the world. This would be a difficult command if we never saw any fruit from prayer. But we have the promises of God that prayer does indeed bear fruit. The power to shake whole nations for the sake of Christ has been placed within our hands. It is a quiet and unglamorous role for ministry, but God uses it in ways that defy our imaginations. I expect that one of the brightest and most beautiful revelations of heaven will be in looking back at our earthly lives and seeing all the ways that God used our prayers to do his extraordinary work around the world.

It is my honor and delight to be bound in spirit to the awesome work of God in the Sudan. It is a road rich in tears and longings, but it is more than worth the journey. I can’t always see the fruit of my prayers, but I have seen enough to know that God is using them in breathtaking ways. I believe that he is still using those prayers, and I would urge you, brothers and sisters in Christ, to take up the call to pray. Adopt a community or people group or country of your own, and allow God to use you in active participation with his kingdom-purposes. When we get to heaven and look back at our lives, even if we served no other role in ministry, we will have the honor and absolute joy of seeing God’s work made manifest through our prayers.

Below I’ve added a poem I wrote about my own intercessory ministry a few months ago, as I was returning from a long period of prayerlessness. (Note: ‘Imminya’ is the personal name for God from some of my fictional works). More than anything else, it reflects the centrality of intercession to my spiritual life. It’s called “Valor is My Breath.”

I stand against the world now,
And valor is my breath.
Here I find my life, my heart,
Within this simple act.
I have broken my vows
And my commission,
But in this moment I return;
Now I take them up again,
And I will shake the world.
I cannot live without this task,
Cannot find my heart.
Here is where I come to life,
In a surge of faith unseen
And unlauded sacrifice.
Here I am courage,
Here I am strength,
Here I am the vicar of Christ
To a broken, bleeding world.
This is my battlefield,
And I have been idle too long.
This is the mission
That pleases You greatly.
So now I take up arms
Against the princes of this world,
And now I break their thrones.
This violent peace is my best defense,
And here I rest my heart.
Take this sword and use it well;
May each stroke be as Your own.
And in all the silent battles
That rage from this stout heart,
In every breath and battle-cry
May You be glorified.
Alone I stand,
But not alone,
For here You carry me.
Be Thou my tower and my rock;
Imminya, be my shield.