One of the things I do for Compassion is to set up and staff a booth at local events to spread awareness about childhood poverty and how we can all help end it. This can be an event at a church, a conference, etc... In 2009, I worked a booth at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. Having never attended that conference, I didn't realize that that was what it was until several years later in 2013 when I attended that same conference myself. The summit is a two-day, Christ-centered conference for leaders in all walks of life, it and happens at a church in the Chicago area. The conference is then simulcast in real time to other venues all over the country, and in the weeks later, all over the world. They have magnificent, highly accomplished speakers....people who have served in government, done research, written books, led revolutions, won awards, made movies. It's truly a treat, full of sage wisdom for all leaders, Christian or otherwise, and I highly recommend it.
In working the booth at the 2009 Summit, I didn't stay for the speakers because I wasn't an attendee, I simply came at the break times when people would be milling through the lobby to (hopefully) inquire about Compassion. Just before one of the breaks, I arrived a few minutes early to make sure everything was in order at my booth, and I saw, on the screen, through a slightly opened door.....a familiar face. It was Wess Stafford, the then President of Compassion International. Now, maybe for the average person who knew nothing of Compassion, this wouldn't have been a big deal, but for me it was huge! Here I was working for the kingdom via Compassion, and lo and behold, the man at the top of this fabulous organization just happened to be speaking to thousands of people just in the other room! I've always known him to be a sincere, gentle, and compassionate man of God, and seeing his face on that screen, I itched to know what it was he was saying. So I stood in the back of the auditorium and listened.....and what I heard, changed my life.
Wess has traveled the world, many times over in his work with Compassion. On this particular day, he told the story of traveling to visit a priest in Ethiopia. At that time, during the communist oppression, Christians were forced underground. Churches were not allowed to meet. People were not allowed to have bibles. Practicing Christianity meant literally putting your life in danger if you were to be caught doing it or having anything related to it. This priest was particularly well-known for speaking at funerals – again, illegal. For doing so, he was arrested and put in prison – where he preached to the prisoners. As punishment for preaching, he was sent to death by electrocution in the middle of the public square, only when they flipped the switch to kill him.....the fuses blew, and he lived. So they beat him. After that, they put him back in prison where he, again, preached to the inmates. In the morning, they tried a second time to electrocute him, and again.....their efforts failed. So, they released him.
Wess spoke to this priest after his release as he was on his way to preach at yet another funeral. Wess expressed to him that the church in the western world was with them and prayed for them and their daily struggle with persecution.
And what the priest said next was like a righteous slap in the face.
“And we pray for you.”
Wait – what?! WHY should these persecuted Christians pray for us? They were the ones being imprisoned, beaten, and killed – we should be praying for them! What could these people POSSIBLY want for us who live in abundance and freedom and.....arrogance.....then, the answer came.
“We pray for YOU.” the priest said, “We hear stories of Christians in the west who are so comfortable in their Christianity that they can go all day without praying and all week without reading the bible. We hear that they are allowed to have multiple copies of the bible, yet they choose not to read it regularly. We hear that there are churches on nearly every corner, yet on a nice day, people will choose to have a picnic rather than come together for worship. We pray for the suffering of those who don't attend worship regularly or pray every day.”
Wow.....the suffering. Our suffering. Privileged suffering. I was floored when I heard this, and my eyes welled with tears.
Wess went on to say that because of the risk of being caught in the illegal act of worship, this group of Christians had to meet in the dark....in the dead of night, in caves. They had only one copy of the Bible which they ripped up and divided among them. They memorized the portion of scripture they had been given, and during their meeting times, when the priest needed a specific passage, someone would rise up out of the darkness and recite it. Can you imagine? This goes far beyond a weekly memory verse. Can. You. Imagine. The level of dedication and faith it takes to memorize whole chunks of scripture....whole chapters and books. All because you wanted to have access to the word of God. God's word lives within us, but this......this takes it to a whole different level. One that I think many of us would be unlikely to reach, even – no - especially when under duress.
But, why? Why is it that these people feel the need to pray for us, and why is it that most of us will most likely never find ourselves at that level of commitment? The priest gave us that answer – comfort. We're too comfortable. These people could not fathom going through the day without praying. They pray, every day, just to make it to the end of the day....LITERALLY. The idea that there are those who profess to be Christians who can go days and weeks (maybe longer) without talking to God, reading his words, or worshiping him was unimaginable to them because for them, this was all they had to sustain them. Who needs a beating to keep them from daily prayer and study when a simple busy schedule or rerun of their favorite show will do? Who is truly in need of prayer – the one whose physical life is in danger because they choose to pray and worship, or the one whose eternal life is in danger because they choose not to?
You see, it is all too simple to merely pencil God into our lives. We can go all week, focused on work, finances, schedules, family, projects, etc... and then when Sunday rolls around, we put on something nice, go and sit in the pew for an hour, sing a few songs, throw our check in the plate, and check our “God” box for the week. We reduce God, the creator of the universe, even our very selves, to something that we “do” when it's convenient for us, rather than something that we rely on....something we need....something we seek to integrate into every moment of every day. Ahead of him, we put something else....something that, at the time, seems more important. And what is it called when we put something else ahead of God? Idolatry. We may not verbally denounce him, or bow down before some mystical statue, but in principle, choosing to make anything in our lives more important than God is, in effect, making that thing an idol. Complacency. Routine. Going through the motions. Even....comfort, can be an idol – perhaps the most stealthy of them all.
I would even go one step further and say that aside from the issue of how much time we spend with God, what is perhaps a greater issue is the one of pride and arrogance. To think that we would shower the persecuted in prayers - almost out of pity - when all the while we are the ones who are spiritually destitute. Remember Luke Chapter 6? "How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." - Luke 6:42. Now granted, this passage refers to pointing out sin, but I can't help but see a parallel between this analogy, and the reality of praying for others, when in fact we are the ones who need prayer.
Me? I'm guilty of complacency from time to time. I have gone long periods of time without cracking open my bible. Then, when I get back into the word, and I mine from it all the riches God has for me.....I start to crave it, and I wonder how I let myself be away from it for so long. I can also make prayer an afterthought rather than my go-to activity, but when I pray in earnest, I feel so much more connected to my creator. The point is, not one of us is perfect, but recognizing that, and honestly trying to be better is the key. Seeking God is an around-the-clock quest. If we get too comfortable.....there is no seeking. Seeking is active, comfort is static.
One thing that I am consciously trying to do lately, is pray continually. Praying without ceasing. Praying all throughout the day. Praying during daily activities. Praying about seemingly insignificant things or during mundane chores. Praying with thanksgiving over praying with wants. I will tell you – this is making a difference in my life. It keeps me focused and centered. It gives me perspective and constant reminders of God's love and faithfulness. It advises me of what is truly important in my walk with Christ.....not just what is comfortable.
You are so good to us. Your love is unmatched. Your mercy is endless. Lord, many of us enjoy a life of freedom, with no threat of persecution. Let us not use this as an excuse to become too comfortable in our relationships with you. Let not the absence of a legal barrier cause us to create selfish walls of excuse and comfort for ourselves. Forgive us, father, for putting our everyday routines before you....for investing our time in insignificant things rather than making time to nourish our relationship with you. Forgive our arrogance, father. In our freedom, we remember those who do suffer. Be with them, Lord. Sustain them as they steadfastly do the work of your kingdom. May we all earnestly seek you, father. In the name of Jesus, Amen.