April 22, 2015

How Ought We to Pray for the Middle East?

Editorial Introduction

I often don’t know what to pray for when thinking of the Middle East. The prayer “peace for the Middle East” though melodic doesn’t seem to cut it.  How do we pray when we hear of the horrors of those who call themselves the Islamic State?  How do we pray when we hear of abductions, beheadings, bombings, and destruction? How ought we to pray? 

I was reflecting on those questions and recalled a plenary address given by Anne Zaki that not only called us to prayer but gave us a useful tool for doing so.  Though the address was given more than a year ago before we heard of the Islamic State I don’t think Zaki’s outline is any less effective or relevant so with her permission I am sharing her portion of a plenary given at the 2014 Symposium on Worship at Calvin College entitled Prayers of the People: A Spirit-Shaped Agenda for the Next Decade of Worship.  Though the whole plenary is worth listening to this particular portion by Anne Zaki begins at about 24:00.  The audio of the whole plenary can be found here.  -Joyce Borger

A Call to Steadfastness

I bring greetings from my brothers and sisters in the church of Egypt, my brothers and sisters across the Middle East, and the Arabic speaking church.  Thank you for making room for us in this conference.

Prayer is a very dear topic to my heart.  It hasn’t always been that way.  I am slowly growing in this discipline.  And I am discovering, also slowly, that as much as it is a discipline it is also a great joy. But it’s a new lesson for me.

In Egypt we don’t have Sunday school because Sunday is a day of work.  So we have Friday school.  Yesterday was Friday and I called my boys to check on how Friday school went.  My 11 year old son said “Well, we are starting a new series and we are doing a study on the book of James.”  So I said “Great, what did you learn today?” He answered  “The teacher explained the verse, ‘Consider it all joy when you face all sorts of trials” “Now does that verse make sense to you?” I asked. I could see his puzzled face across skype.  And he thought for a moment and said “Well, it made sense after the teacher explained the meaning of steadfast”.  “Oh, and what is the meaning of steadfast?” I inquired.   “The teacher said that if I want to go to Alexandria which is two hours from Cairo where we live, and I decided to start running toward Alexandria I would probably run for about 15 minutes, and then I’d get really tired and I would stop and never actually make it to Alexandria.  But if I started walking toward Alexandria it would take me a lot longer but I would eventually get to Alexandria. “ 

Rejoicing when we face all sorts of trials makes sense when we understand the meaning of steadfastness and I’m so grateful for that Friday school teacher who taught my 11 year old this lesson. 

Praying for the church around the world on Pentecost Sunday and World Communion Sunday is just not enough. We need it a lot more than that.  You can’t just think of us and pray for us on 2 Sundays and leave us hanging the other 50. 

Steadfastness is what helps us count it all joy when we face all sorts of trials. 

I say that very carefully because I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan for seven years and we would often in our church have missionaries from different countries come and they would always say “we need you to pray more”.  And I always felt bad because it felt like they were guilt tripping the good American folk.  But now that we are on the other side, now where life is much less predictable, now when my agenda never really translates into what my day actually looks like; we need prayer much more than 2 Sundays a year. 

So in my 5 minutes I was given the humungous task of asking you to pray for the Middle East. Where do I begin to ask you to pray for Egypt or Syria, Lebanon or Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel or Palestine? 

So instead I thought I would give you a simple, hopefully memorable tool that you will have with you at all times to remember how to pray for the church in the Middle East and beyond.  This is really a tool that you could use for any nation and it doesn’t cost you anything because God has already given you this tool.  In fact God gave you two of them.  So I will leave you with the other one for you to do whatever you want with.  I will only take the one left hand.  So will you put your left hand out and start counting with me. 

The Past

We need you to pray for our past.  Remember our past.  Sometimes when we are in the chaos and the darkness of our present we forget the faithfulness of God in the past.  We need you to remember in your prayer how God has kept us.  There have been many nations and kingdoms and thrones that have existed in one time in history but they no longer exist.  But God in his wisdom and his sovereignty saw that our countries remain on the map and that we still exist.  Remember God’s faithfulness to those nations in general.  Remember God’s faithfulness to the church in these nations.  Remember what he has done through dessert monasteries, remember what he has done through the library of Alexandria to bring the gospel to the world, remember what he has done through our great-great-great-grandparents to bring the gospel out from the Middle East to the rest of the world.  Remember and be grateful for the bones of the saints that are buried in our lands.  Remember and pray for our past.

The Future

Would you pray for our future?  We don’t want you praying for our present.  We pray for our present.  And you will never know our present like we do.  So leave that to us.  We will pray for our present.  But we need you to pray for our future because sometimes when we are in the midst of darkness it is so hard to think of tomorrow.  It is so hard to think of how the next generation will make it.  It is so hard to ignore the fact that our mistakes of today will impact the future of our kids.  We need your imagination when you pray for our future.  We need your inspiration when you pray for our future.  We need you to listen well and right to the Holy Spirit so that you can tell us what our future is supposed to look like. 

Those in Power

We need you to pray for all those who are in power.  For the authorities, for the decision makers, for the mover and shakers, for the ones who decide what happens in the country and the principal who decides what happens in the school, and the teacher who decides what happens inside the classroom.  We need you to pray for these people.  We need you to remember their homes and pray for their parents so that they are already raising them in ways that our just and true.  We need you to pray that there are people of integrity who have courage to turn away from corrupt ways.  We need you to pray that there are people of mercy that will not be silent when they see injustice.  We need you to pray that there are people of equality that won’t turn a blind eye to minorities’ rights.  We need you to pray for people who are in power that they won’t misuse it and they won’t abuse it.

The Powerless

We need you to pray for the powerless.  The ones that we often want to do something for and about and often we can’t.  We need something outside of us.  Prayer does that.  Prayer goes where we can’t go.  Prayer takes control of things we can never control.  Prayer gives favor in the eyes of those in power to give to those who are powerless. We need you to pray for the powerless for the needy, for the hungry, for the homeless, for the ones who want to be educated and education is not available.  For the ones who would like a home and homes are not available.  For the ones who pray for peace and peace is not available.  For the ones who haven’t seen their families for many years and they have no idea how to locate them.  We need you to pray for the powerless.

Jesus’ Return

And finally, we need you to pray for Jesus to come back quickly.  Not in a suicidal way.  Not in a world hating way.  But just in a way that says we are ready.  We are ready.  Come Lord Jesus.  In a way that says as aware as we are of our role as agents of renewal and as agents of transformation in this world and that we will invest in our nations and in our countries, as aware as we are of all of that and of that special calling, we are also aware that this is not our home.  We are moving forward towards something that is so much more important and critical.  So help us pray for that because often when we are in the midst of things we forget to pray for that day to come and to come quickly.  We would love it to come quickly. We all will be well. 

Your left hand; every time you look at it will you remember to pray?

Now what I’ve done here with this tool is that I’ve tricked you into spending a lot of time preparing for the public prayer for worship.  You can’t just come up with such a prayer the morning of public worship.  You’ll be reading the newspapers differently.  You'll be watching the news differently.   You’ll be researching us to find out our past and our future, who’s in power and who’s powerless.  You’ll have to do work.  And if you give that task to several members of your church, depending on the size of your congregation, maybe within one year maybe within ten years, your whole church would have learned how to pray faithfully for the global church and how to learn about it, and how to pray informative and knowledgeable prayers.  And when you’ve been able to impart that to your congregation then you can say to them, just as much as you say,

now you’ve heard the word of God, go out and live it,
now we’ve sang together the songs of God, go out and continue to sing,
now that you’ve offered your money and tithing to the church and to God,
go out and continue to give,

you can add,

now that we’ve prayed together go out and build relationships with these people, go out and connect with them, go out and live out those prayers. 

And now I hope you are inspired to pray not just on Sundays, not just for the 5 minutes during the worship service, but for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week, for the rest of the year.

So I ask you to pray for the church in the Middle East.  And if you are so inclined would you say, “I will God helping me.” Amen.

Anne Emile Zaki is assistant professor in the department of practical theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo and teaches courses on the theology and practice of worship, pastoral care, preaching as proclamation, and more. Anne received her PhD in homiletics from Fuller Theological Seminary. (2024-02)