Inspirer and Hearer of Prayer: Teach Me to Pray

Though Laura-Jane Meas had originally set out to write about some of the many untold stories of God’s answers to prayer in the CIM-OMF community, her focus increasingly shifted to God, the One who answers prayer. She includes examples of what he has done, with the desire that they will spark remembrance in each reader’s experience.


 

Laura-Jane Meas

Laura-Jane Meas joined OMF in 2000, first serving as Youth Worker for Ireland, then in Sapporo and Sendai, Japan. She and her husband, Ho, who is Cambodian, have mainly worked among Japanese and international students. They together took up the role of Mobilisation Coordinators for Diaspora Returnee Ministries in October 2020. She and Ho have two sons, aged 12 and 6.

 

 

Inspirer and Hearer of Prayer: Teach Me to Pray

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 2 (May-August 2021): 19-25

This is the one for you.” Twenty-something years ago, our Bible College Principal placed Matthew Henry’s The Secret of Communion with God into my hands. I had gone to Bible College out of obedience, knowing God loves the world and wants people to know him. Compelled to cross cultures, seek his grace, and tell people about him, I prayed, but often felt something was still lacking. I have seen and know God answers prayer, but I have also felt a gap between dutiful, mechanical “prayer” and essential, life-and-breath relational prayer. Realising there are reams of untold stories of God’s answers to prayer in our mission community, I set out to write about some of his answers, but my focus has increasingly shifted to God, the One who answers prayer.

One of my last “real” pre-lockdown conversations was at a prayer breakfast, where joyful reunions merged with urgency, as the pandemic storm approached. We prayed about God’s work among East Asian people. One enthusiastic attendee was an elderly lady in whose home I had stayed overnight when visiting her prayer group a few months earlier.

Before I left her home, she ushered me into a room I had never been in, beside her front door. Holy excitement twinkled in her dimming eyes. “This is where I meet the Lord and pray. Here I tell him about everything,” she said, drawing me in. A magnifying glass lay beside a well-worn Bible. Small tables, chairs, and the arms of a sofa held orderly stacks of letters, prayer guides, maps, and photographs relating to God’s work worldwide. She was terribly unwell, but her personal discomfort seemed overtaken by anticipation of those morning prayers.

At the prayer breakfast, she grabbed my arm. “You have to get the word out about prayer!” she urged. “Who’s going to pray when we’ve all gone on?”

PRAYER AT THE OUTSET

God’s people need prayer. Communion with God is what we were made for, and through it, God works for the good of others and the fulfilment of his kingdom purposes. Typical of many OMF publications, in Praying Down the Mekong River we read:

Prayer should be the basis of all our work. Not only our workers, their teams and supporting prayer partners, but also any churches and believers around the world who are called to pray for these peoples should cry out fervently to God to see the vision fulfilled.[1]

Though we often talk about it, we don’t easily grasp prayer’s priority. After planting two churches and seeing much evidence of God’s work through salvation, growth, and innovation, Pete Grieg, the founder of the 24/7 Prayer Movement, describes how

Inwardly I was dying. I was just so spiritually hungry; I was desperate to get to know God better. I felt that we were really weak and shallow on spirituality and prayer.
Then I realised that prayer is the key to everything.[2]

Pastor, theologian, and apologist Tim Keller, too, describes “discovering prayer,” after many years, “as a matter of necessity.”[3] In God’s grace, throughout life’s journey, he continually calls us, giving opportunities to reorientate, discover, and engage him more deeply through prayer.

In April 2020, paralysed by COVID-induced strict lockdown, I lifted my eyes up from my Bible to a clean, aircraft-free sky. In that moment, I felt unexpectedly aware of the mighty connection to God’s throne, to the One who made, sustains, and rules everything. Though we are scattered across the globe, socially distant, and restricted, he provides portals for worship and communion at his mercy seat whether we are in prison cells, on beaches, in backyards, in offices, or on mountaintops. He connects us to praying friends around the world, and to the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1–2) eternally joined to Christ. As we freely interact with our Heavenly Father, through Jesus, his Spirit generously involves us in his work, even when “locked down”.

During a recent online prayer meeting, I noticed a colleague in Asia express his total dependence on God for the matter we were praying about. Touched by his prayer, I later asked about it. He said:

Partly it’s about having enough life experience to really feel, rather than just know in my head that certain things are never going to happen by my own effort (in the case of my own life, or our ministry) or by the effort of the church more broadly (its own transformation or evangelistically). But it’s also come from a growth of in-heart understanding of God’s glory and holiness, so that I am more bothered by things that are not as they should be before him—again, whether in myself, or the church, or the world.

Another colleague in Japan—inspired by George Müller’s biography—has felt increased conviction about prayer “before all other things.” With the onset of the pandemic, her family started a daily fifteen-minute, after-lunch prayer time, praying about what God is doing locally, in Japan, and throughout the world. The call to prayer comes from many angles, but the Holy Spirit himself calls and draws us to pray.

Prayer had no small part in our Fellowship’s beginnings, and remains the unchanging, necessary preparation for any ministry initiative. Our founder Hudson Taylor and his sister Amelia, as young, new Christians, “entered from the very first into the Lord’s yearning over the lost and perishing.” This, biographers Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor write, had much to do with their rapid spiritual growth as young believers.[4]

After they returned to England from China (1860–1866), in the later part of their so-called “hidden years,” Hudson and Maria “prayed over every line”[5] as they wrote China’s Spiritual Need and Claims, calling people to pray, support, and go. Prayer gatherings in their home went hand in hand with the birthing of the CIM and the sending out of “the first twenty-four.” The CIM’s principles were rooted in the conviction that God answers prayer.

Hudson Taylor … had seen [God] … quell the raging of a storm at sea, in answer to definite prayer, alter the direction of the wind, and give rain in a time of drought. He had seen Him, in answer to prayer, stay the hand of would-be murderers and quell the violence of enraged men. He had seen Him rebuke sickness in answer to prayer, and raise up the dying, when all hope of recovery had seemed gone. For more than eight years he had proved His faithfulness in supplying the needs of his family and work in answer to prayer, unforeseen as many of those needs had been.[6]

PRAYER IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

As we journey with the Lord we serve, we each identify unique, specific ways and times he has answered prayer. We need to keep telling what he has done, as we give him glory for his salvation, his provision, his protection, his building of his church. Perhaps these few examples will spark remembrance in each reader’s experience.

Prayer in crisis

Phyllis Thompson delighted in telling the stories of how God moved people to prayer and action in his worldwide purposes. In Proving God, she tells of a young London bank clerk, Frank Parry, who in the 1930s was asking God daily for leading for his life. God led him to China, where, in 1941, he took charge of the CIM Finance Department. During “a long financial siege,” as his team prayed for guidance and sought solutions for seeming impossibilities, the Lord led them to a pathway of great personal risk and sacrifice—buying gold instead of currency to ensure their colleagues would be provided for. When war broke out, God enabled German missionaries who were not interned, “with … earnest prayers, and with care and love,” to “scour Shanghai for the most nourishing, tasty, yet inexpensive food they could buy; packing it into separate cartons, one for each interned CIM missionary in the Shanghai area; and send them monthly into the internment camps.”[7]

The Forty-niners with staff and visitors at Chungking Language School, China’s Millions (March 1950): 31. May and Alfie Johnstone are leftmost in the fourth row.
 

May and Alfie Johnston were among the “49ers” who entered China in 1949 but had to leave just after their second Christmas in 1951. As dangers increased, with colleagues arrested and soldiers constantly outside their house, May was overwhelmed, fearful for the safety of their baby. She writes:

Then one evening, as I knelt beside our bed the Lord spoke to me. I definitely heard his voice, so clear that I turned round to see who was speaking. ‘I brought you to China,’ he said, ‘and I can take you out again if that’s my will. But remember, whatever happens, I am with you.’ My heart was stilled, the fear disappeared and peace came.[8]

May and Alfie went on to experience God’s faithfulness as they helped set up a chain of Christian bookshops in the Philippines, acknowledging the constant encouragement and strength they received through the prayers of faithful supporters.

Prayer for all our needs

Today, God’s co-workers keep testifying to his provision in answer to prayer: just the right accommodation for a returning missionary following major surgery; church meeting places and ministry centres; favourable landlords; protection from debt; solutions to complex problems; God’s perfect timing and action; healing for mind and body; God-ordained “coincidences”; even a pair of slippers arriving in the post after a passing prayer about cold feet. “God may come on the last bus, but He is never late,” said Serve Asia worker Michael Benson. A retired widower, Michael served several summers in Sapporo. Marked by humility and kindness, Michael spoke often of how the Lord answered prayer to finally bring him to Japan. For others, his presence was an answer to prayer as his presence brought people together and his maturity earned him the right to a respectful hearing when it came to sharing the gospel.

Prayer for friends

Michael’s friendships with Japanese people were soaked in morning prayer. “If we really believe God works when we pray,” he would say, “the most important thing a friend can ever do for a friend is pray.” And day by day, his encounters with Japanese friends were obviously God-directed.

Mark and Sarah’s son Caleb was sad he had lost touch with a former schoolmate when they changed to home schooling. When Caleb had shared about faith in God, his friend had been really interested, so every day Caleb prayed for him. One day, the first day of a Minecraft Club at church, Caleb’s friend turned up, invited by another boy from their English Fun Club! The whole family praised God for his answer to prayer! Another time when Mark picked Caleb up from football, Caleb said, “One guy’s thinking about becoming a Christian.” A boy from their old school had found a Bible in the school library and read it right through. “We’d been praying for the school and saw nothing obvious happen, but look at what God was doing in the background,” says Mark.

Prayer for our appointments

Miriam applied to take over a colleague’s teaching job in a Japanese university. Many people prayed, knowing Japanese students would continue hearing the gospel if she was successful, but there were repeated postponements and little communication from the university. An OMF Billions publication with an article highlighting Miriam’s specific prayer need reached Miriam’s hands the day before the final decision was made in the university. Assured and at peace in God, the next day Miriam heard she had got the job.

I treasure the memory of the final time Soon Ok and I prayed together at Bible College. I was moved by her promise to pray for me daily. Two years later, when I was preparing to go to Cambodia, the Lord began overwhelming me with reasons why Japan needs his gospel. Knowing Soon Ok would be praying daily, I tried contacting her, but my email bounced back repeatedly. I listed all the evidence before God, and then wrote to leaders that I believed God was speaking to me about going to Japan. Within a short time of sending that letter, an email popped in from Soon Ok. “I’ve been trying to reach you,” she wrote, “but my email kept bouncing back. I wanted you to know I believe God is asking you to go to Japan.” This timely sequence sealed God’s direction for me and helped me to keep trusting him. Twenty years later, Soon Ok wrote, “I still remember you in my daily prayers.”

Prayer for salvation

The McGintys and Schmidts worked together in Hokkaido, Japan. One by one, almost a whole family had trusted the Lord, but people around the world kept praying for Ojiisan (Grandad), a Shinto priest, to come to saving faith in Jesus. Mike McGinty remembers reading aloud from a large-print Bible every time he visited him at the shrine. Interested in his son’s family’s faith in Jesus, Ojiisan grew to love and respect the Bible. He later donated land he had previously earmarked for another Shinto shrine to the little church and took a big step towards freedom when he moved away from the shrine into a house built especially for him next to the very church his generous donation had made possible. Ojiisan requested a skylight be installed in the ceiling of that house so he could look up and see the cross on the church steeple. At the age of 92, though frail, he insisted on baptism by full immersion in that beloved little church. The legacy of faith in the family continues to this day. Mike longs that God’s people around the world will pray for many more stories like this to happen among Japanese people.

Prayer for protection

The McKibbin family were moving sixteen hours away from Manila to the then remote and largely unreached province of Sorsogon. Praying Psalm 121 over them, their church family sent them off with verses 7–8: “The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life. The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” Peter went ahead with their possessions on a “Saver Trucking” lorry. Sarah and the children followed by plane and bus the next morning. As their bus approached Sorsogon, Sarah saw a truck, far off the road. Without a phone signal, there was no way to know if Peter was safe. Almost two hours later, their friends, Pastor July and Pastor Mar, met Sarah on the road near their new home and rushed back to check on Peter. The driver of Peter’s truck had fallen asleep as the truck climbed a winding hill, ploughed through the village water pump, and became wedged between a small house and a huge rock. Shaken and overwhelmed, but grateful that no one was hurt, they praised God for answering the believers’ prayers.

Prayer in illness

Citing 2 Chronicles 20:17—“You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you.”—Zia Muller, who has been facing a difficult journey with cancer, writes about learning to look to the Lord in all of life’s circumstances, including the times of waiting. She describes how “waiting on him” includes our awareness that “he is likely to be drawing several people who are looking on at the situation into a relationship with himself.”[9] “Taking refuge in him by calling on his name in the midst of some fiery trial when there is no way of escaping to be on your own,” Zia has found the Lord has never let her down when she has called on him. “He may change circumstances, but more often he has been my strength in the midst of them.”[10]

Before our first son was born, I found myself hospitalised in Japan. God moved a variety of people to visit and pray with me. One older Japanese lady knelt unashamedly by my bed, praying to God for me, our baby, and other women in the ward. It was possibly the first real prayer those other women had ever heard. A few weeks later, my anaesthetist in the operating theatre said, in hearing of the whole medical team, “I heard you are a Christian. I’m a Christian too. My hand will stay on your shoulder throughout this time and I will keep praying for you.” In this land where there are few Christians, God not only helped me, but revealed himself to others through the prayer and witness of his people.

JUST MY TURN IN THE CIRCLE?

God answers prayers in many ways. To these few stories, we could add countless more that would fill many books. So why is it that we can find prayer difficult or mundane?

J. Oswald Sanders wrote that “we are all plagued with a subtle aversion to praying” in spite of knowing “its privilege and necessity.”[11] Having been part of OMF for twenty years and in prayer groups for much longer, I “know” God answers prayer. But when a Japanese Christian student asked me a couple of years ago, “Do you never feel you’re praying just because it’s your turn in the circle?” I understood. Despite the help of apps, notifications, emails, printed resources, and even prayer meetings—prayer can feel mechanical. Perhaps because I am naturally more inclined to “human doing-ness” than “human being-ness,” I can become coolly dutiful or forgetful and all the effort in the world cannot change my stiff lists into living engagement. Coldness, apathy, tiredness, sin; strategies, agendas, efforts at creative thinking and inventiveness—all easily compete for our focus on the Lord. Is my greater preoccupation the Lord himself, or the work in which he invites me to share? Thank God, he does not just make us try harder in the heat of our frustrations. He calls us again, and his Spirit actually helps us pray.

WHAT HELPS US PRAY WHEN WE CAN’T?

Recognise prayer as a gift of grace

Prayer is a gift, a God-given trellis for our life in Christ. Through prayer, our communion with God is possible. Our will is trained and aligned so that our expression grows in keeping with his heart. In the words of Denis Lane:

Our intercession is directly related to our worship of and communion with God. This means that the effectiveness of our intercession is directly related to our own spiritual life in relation to God and our own personal prayer life…. Prayer is always the first step in involvement, but rarely the last, for prayer brings us into close contact with the will of God and is primarily intended to bring our wills in line with His.[12]

Back in China, in 1869, following a time of dark discouragement and battling temptation, stress, and weariness, Hudson Taylor received a letter from a friend who spoke about “abiding, not striving nor struggling.” It continued with the exhortation to make “all that Jesus is and all He is for us: His life, His death, His work, He Himself as revealed to us in the Word … the subject of our constant thoughts.”[13] Conscious “abiding” in Christ—enjoying being united to him—released Hudson into a different dimension of trust. He experienced prayer as daily dependence on God, resting more joyfully in his resources and promises, meeting him every morning. In a long letter to his sister Ameliathen a busy mother of ten—he used a “transaction” metaphor to describe how our union with Christ completely changes our confidence when we pray.

Could a bank clerk say to a customer, “It was only your hand wrote that cheque, not you,” or, “I cannot pay this sum to your hand, but only to yourself”? No more can your prayers, or mine, be discredited if offered in the Name of Jesus (i.e., not in our own name, or for the sake of Jesus merely, but on the ground that we are His, His members) so long as we keep within the extent of Christ’s credit—a tolerably wide limit![14]

Recognize the blessing of fellowship with the Trinity

We can understand neither the Trinity nor how prayer works. But when we intentionally commune with God, seeking his perspective, he engages with us and enables us. Prayer, more than a mere spiritual discipline, or even means of grace, can be a vibrant, living “means of communion” through which we can enjoy our relationship with him.[15] As we pray, God works out his will in us, in others, in communities, and in nations. Through Christ, by grace, we are brought into relationship with the Triune God. We experience his heart’s passion as we come in close, relating to him as Father, Son, and Spirit—the Three in One and One in Three. In turn, God, through prayer, moves our hearts as we experience his care. This is all a gift through the grace of God, who allows us to experience the fellowship for which he made us.

When we intercede for others and for the world God loves, we reflect a real aspect of God’s Trinitarian nature as we seek his preparation, intervention, and continuing work of grace for others. Newbigin describes Christian mission as “crossing over into another human situation in which the Gospel has to be articulated in terms of that situation.”[16] As he sees it, our job is “finding out what the Holy Spirit has already done, and building on that.”[17] If we who “cross over” are to understand how God has worked and is working, prayer must be our priority—listening to God as he speaks through his word and through the wisdom of his Spirit. Then we can take action.

Widening the scope, when praying partners meet at the same throne, in the same grace-filled communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, the prayers of God’s people worldwide connect in a mighty expression of his intent. We wait on him, look up to him, and trust his will to be done. With this preparation, people who pray, as much as those who go, “can go through the battles of history not as master but as servant people, look up to their Father as the Lord of history, accepting His disposition of events as their context for obedience, relying on His Spirit as their guide.”[18]

The Holy Spirit—the “Helper” (John 14:26)—who “hovered” in readiness for the creation, prepares hearts and peoples for the gospel and strengthens believers to keep moving forward regardless of pressure or opposition. God’s people reflect his powerful helping role when they pray for one another and for others. As believers pray, the Holy Spirit “undergirds” God’s work by going before his servants and drawing people to Christ.

In prayerful cooperation, we shield one another by faith, sharing in the privileged fellowship of the Trinity. United to Jesus Christ and filled with his Spirit, we pray for the glory and goodness of the Father to be known in his church, in his world, and in the unseen “heavenlies” (Eph 3:10). Our prayers acknowledge and rely on the Holy Spirit, who prepares hearts and circumstances, and leads people to repentance, faith, new spiritual birth, abundant life united to Christ, and joy in glorifying him (John 16:8, John 3:5–8, Gal 3:5, Titus 3:5–6, Eph 5:18–19, Gal 5:22–23). The Spirit intercedes for us (Rom 8:26–27) and our prayers depend on his wisdom and energy. Drawing on his word through time spent with him, we find mercy and grace not only for ourselves, but for others (Heb 4:16). At God’s throne of grace, we worship and are assured of the Spirit’s intercession, and more than that, of Christ’s intercession for us (Rom 8:26–27, 34). Through prayer, we are right at the place of the Father’s sovereign authority, growing in surrender, trust, and worship.

Recognize the help of mutual prayer

During our years in Japan, one of the most frequent requests in our prayer letters was that God would make our message easy to understand. Where language barriers of speaker or hearer need to be crossed, it is miraculous when the Spirit of God removes the clutter on both sides, enabling people to hear his saving word and respond to his call.

J. O. Fraser, a pioneer in communicating the gospel among the Lisu people, wrote home:

I know you will never fail me in this matter of intercession … but will you think and pray about getting a group of like-minded friends, whether few or many, whether in one place or scattered, to join in the same petitions? If you could form a small prayer circle, I would write regularly to the members.[19]

J. O. Fraser and the first group of Atsi Kachin inquirers.
 

By working “on our knees,” urging prayer for the glory and honour of Jesus, “we are, as it were, God’s agents—used by Him to do His work, not ours…. if this is so, then Christians at home can do as much for foreign missions as those actually on the field.”[20] The help of intercessory prayer, from Fraser’s perspective, meant “rolling out the main responsibility of this prayer warfare” on those who commit to pray so that they would take the burden of the Lisu people on their shoulders and “wrestle with God for them.” In this way, praying Christians would do their part to “bring in the day when He shall ‘be satisfied’.”[21]

Undaunted when plans did not work out to go short-term to East Asia, our friend joined a local OMF prayer group. Later, when that prayer group leader moved to serve in Indonesia, he and his wife started hosting the group in their home. I asked him what motivated them to continue leading for twenty years. “I’m not sure I ever felt a disconnect between home and field,” he commented. “We knew that people on the field were dependent on us praying. This was a task we could share in and we were happy to get on with it.” Their group and others prayed for months for a missionary family whose adopted child had been refused access to the home country. One Sunday, one lady heard a sermon on Jesus’ parable about the friend who would not give up until his neighbour woke to help (Luke 11:5–8). The speaker told a story about a missionary family with a very sick child. Regardless of neighbours and noise, the parents banged loudly on the doctor’s door until he finally appeared. With new resolve, she went home, chose a door in her own house, and physically banged on it while entreating God for the child’s visa with new confidence. She was overjoyed when the family could finally travel.

Mutual partnership in prayer opens up a wider-angle view. It becomes possible to understand answered prayer as deliverance not only from but also for God’s purpose and in situations beyond what we see. Alexander Saunders wrote of God’s “deliverances” on a torturous 840-mile journey during the Boxer Uprising. Six of the group died; eight survived. Amidst their grief and brokenness, the group remembered the Keswick Convention in England, where people would have been praying around that time. Saunders quotes in full a prayer from 28 July 1900 for “2000 servants of God in China.” The praying leader, Meyer, appealed to God on the authority of his word for his protection, angelic deliverance, and greater glory through suffering. He also expressed repentance and sorrow for “the sin of England…. May this be the end of the opium traffic and all abuses that we have inflicted upon China.”[22] God was surely at work in and through his servants’ suffering, not only with physical deliverance in mind, but the good of both China and England, where his people prayed repentant, intercessory prayers.

Alexander and Isabel Saunders (front row, third and fourth from left; Nellie Saunders standing behind them and Isabel carrying George) with other CIM workers and Pingyao Christians, 1895.
 

Wherever we are in the world, we need God’s mighty power. Mutual prayer—touching socio-political contexts, seeking divine intervention in individual lives, communities, and nations, and entering into the longing for Christ’s church to be built—allows us to both share in God’s heart and celebrate his glory. As those who “cross over” in mission themselves prioritise intercession, those partnering with them in prayer have a powerful tandem effect for both parties, developing a wide perspective on God’s kingdom. Prayer relationships go beyond boundaries, magnifying and demonstrat

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