by Dan W. Stott
Are missionaries prayer giants or just ordinary people greatly in need of prayer?
Are missionaries prayer giants or just ordinary people greatly in need of prayer?
Almost two months after arriving on the mission field in Ireland, my wife, Lynda, and I wept as we huddled together in bed. Our initial expectations of overseas ministry appeared hopelessly dashed. Field relationships were a disaster. Our reality felt like sheer hell, irrespective of why, who or what had caused it. Our support network—family, friends, church—that launched us on our September journey from Philadelphia’s airport, couldn’t have seemed further away. An agonizing stretch of three thousand isolating miles of ocean stood between us.
Our nightly habit of praying together was replaced by tears. Nothing felt normal. Darkness, gloom and the cold dampness of our Irish house surrounded us. Somehow we fell asleep.
Suddenly the phone rang around two or three a.m. On the other end I heard my sister-in-law numbly say, “Dad is dead.” The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I had a great relationship with my father-in-law and considered him one of my best friends. Brokenhearted, I labored for words to tell Lynda that her father had gone to be with the Lord.
Soon after, desperation began to sink in, so I telephoned our fellow missionaries and asked for help. Immediately, they came to our aid at that early morning hour.
A day or so later, our family returned to the US, where we weren’t supposed to be for a long time. I don’t remember most details of getting there except giving my credit card to our missionary friends and asking them to buy our plane tickets. We were in a state of shock.
Our story—the rocky start on the mission field and the untimely death of a loved one—could be repeated the world over in missionary annals. I know fellow missionaries have suffered far worse, but perhaps I’m weaker than others. A woman in a church I pastored once told me, “Dan, you need thicker skin!” I’m reminded of a veteran missionary friend who told the Sunday School class I used to teach, “Missionaries are just ordinary people.” Because of my experiences on the field, now I know that he was right. I am ordinary.
Missionaries don’t escape trials, misfortune or injustice. They may lose children, be stricken with cancer, and the list goes on. I am inclined to believe that missionaries are one of the enemy’s favorite targets because front-line ministry puts us in the crosshairs of evil minions. The kingdom of darkness hates the kingdom of light. The Apostle Paul must have known this because he reminded people of his ongoing need for others to pray for him. Imagine that: the spiritual leader, Paul, needed prayer giants in his life. Maybe I’m in good company.
Acknowledging my seesaw track record with prayer, I bravely enrolled in a one-week doctoral course on the role of prayer in ministry. I was the only missionary attending the class, but the mix of students was fantastic. The other twelve men were pastors of American-based churches—a great group of mature leaders.
In the middle of the prayer course week, I had lunch with two classmates. Before devouring our Philly hoagies, the waitress unintentionally interrupted our blessing over the meal. After we joked about how frequently that can happen, I ventured to tell my hoagie-mates how I struggled with my prayer life. I got little sympathy, so I quickly mused, “I guess I’m eating with two prayer giants.” They laughed and shrugged it off.
When class resumed after lunch, I raised my hand. I sucked up the courage to share with the class how I had struggled with my own prayer life. Wow, did I get a lot of looks! I even dared to tell the professor that his requirement of thirty consolidated minutes for prayer each day over a six-month period was a stretch for me. My ship was sunk—say goodbye to a stellar grade point average!
I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m tired of trying to look like the missionary giant. Somehow I thought sharing my battle might help me to improve my prayer life, so I willingly identified myself as the person with the problem. Not one other student admitted to the same struggle. Maybe I really am a spiritual oddball. But that is exactly what I am driving at—I am not a missionary prayer giant, but I am a needy person with a giant need of prayer.
Undoubtedly, my first two months on the mission field re-exposed my human weakness and why my need for prayer. That early mission field chaos and my father-in-law’s death uncorked me. I’m sure that many people upheld us in prayer. Frankly, I know that I can’t make it alone even though I also believe that God promises never to abandon me. Frail I am, and that’s why I desperately need people to pray for me faithfully. Sometimes it feels as if hell is on the loose on the mission field. Is it wrong to put it that way?
Thank God for elderly grandmothers and godly parents who faithfully pray for their missionary prayer midget—me. I praise the Lord for Mrs. S in Texas, now in her nineties, because I know she shakes God’s throne room with her petitions. I am humbled by supporters who tell me, “I’ve been praying for you,” when I can’t remember the last time I prayed for them. Woe is me!
I am amazed to think that I am numbered among other missionaries who generally have the reputation of being praying people. Maybe that’s true of most missionaries, but if so, I may be on the low end of the bell curve. On the other hand, maybe because missionaries write prayer letters and talk so much about needing prayer, we’ve wrongly convinced ourselves and others of our great prayer lives when we actually wrestle and desire to improve them. Where are you on the prayer bell curve?
Since we moved to the field, my wife has also found it harder to pray. She claims that she feels direct spiritual opposition—like running head first into a wall. Are missionaries more vulnerable to prayer failure? Do missionaries, God’s mighty army, go through dry seasons of prayerlessness? Are we willing to admit to prayer listlessness and lethargy? I will. Will anyone else join me in that confession?
Deep down, I want to believe that among God’s army of persevering missionaries there are prayer giants. Carey, Taylor, Müller—we know how they prayed, but what about us? There must be prayer warriors in today’s missionary core because the advance of God’s kingdom depends on calloused knees. I don’t know if it’s possible for someone to survive victoriously a lifetime of faithful missionary service minus prayer. Yet, I’m not ready to say that being a missionary has made my prayer life any easier.
My intimacy with God in prayer is far more confusing now that I live cross-culturally. I’ve wrestled to understand why—psychologically and spiritually. At times I feel I don’t know myself anymore—like my body is turned inside out. Is that culture shock? All I know is that it can affect my prayer life. Many times mental confusion coupled with the pressure of kingdom ministry has literally driven me to my prayer closet. I know that my thoughts and actions are less than sane and I need to be alone with God. Out of desperation, I know that the safest place for me to go is in God’s presence where his Holy Spirit will restore me—where I can regain his perspective.
Our mission leaders’ visit to our home came at a time when Lynda and I needed them to pray for us—and they did. They laid hands on us and committed us to the Lord. Talking about field strategy, recruiting more missionaries, home office updates, the changes to healthcare and our pension are all important subjects, but not when you need prayer. Thank God they had the insight to do the more important thing: pray for us. Later, I remembered to thank God for answering my request for prayer. I guess God listens to prayer ants.
I need prayer giants to surround me. A deeply spiritual woman in our church has done that for me more than once. She probably has no idea how much I appreciated that she layed hands on me and asked God to heal me of a sickness I had one Sunday morning. The meeting room was crowded with church people drinking tea and coffee and chatting, but suddenly I felt only her presence and the Spirit of God. Her prayer penetrated my being and lifted me with her to the gates of heaven. With “Jesus’ name” God’s power descended and answered her petition—I felt much better and my health continued to improve throughout the day.
I am attracted to prayer giants like her. Yet I wonder, are we missionaries prepared to humble ourselves and admit that we are the ones who need the most prayers? So much ministry is about giving to others, that we automatically give. Sometimes we give so much, we run on empty. Then we crash and become a missionary statistic as “one of those people who couldn’t hack it.” How sad. But how would it have been different if we had vulnerably dared to ask others to pray for us because we felt weak? Are we willing to look for prayer giants who are taller than us?
Prayer is a key weapon in spiritual warfare. Before the Lord took a special spiritual brother back to the States, John (a pseudonym) and I often disappeared into his tiny study to sink to our knees. I loved to listen to him pray. John knew how to pray with passion, and tears were easy for him. I was blessed by how he prayed because his prayers taught me that he had an intimacy with God worth pursuing. The answers we discovered during our time praying never ceased to amaze me.
John was a momentary prayer giant in my life on the mission field. Much of our praying took place in my first year, and I believe it kept me going when running away would have been easier. I needed him more than I think he needed me. To this day, he is one of the first persons I will call for prayer in an hour of need.
In fall 2002, circumstances were again unpleasant. I bottomed out, and my cup was empty. Was God listening? The telephone rang when I desperately wanted to hear John’s voice. “Hey, I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks, but couldn’t seem to get through.” (Our phone number had changed.)
I poured out my heart and hurt and asked my prayer giant friend to pray for me. He began to pray and I could almost imagine being back in his tiny office, prostrate on the floor. The Spirit of God worked across the phone line and some five thousand miles of physical separation. I was not alone. A giant was praying for me when I needed it.
While I know that I’m not a prayer giant, as a father of four, I’m teaching my children to be prayer giants. At low points on the mission field, I have purposely invited any of my children to pray for me. As I told my classmates in the prayer course, “God listens to children. That’s why I ask my children to pray for me.”
When I’m physically ill, I intentionally ask the head that peeks at me from behind the door, “Come in here. I want you to pray for Daddy.” I may wrestle with prayer, but that’s never changed my belief that prayer works. I know it does. Children can be prayer giants.
I also know how much it means to both Lynda and me in our times of praying together. Beyond our nightly prayer routine, we’ve had to act as prayer giants for each other when one of us is hurting. Perhaps because I am a man, I’ve had to learn how to be vulnerable. I’m fascinated by my wife’s responsiveness. Vulnerability doesn’t feel natural to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do, so I keep trying. I want to be a prayer giant.
Who are your prayer giants? Ultimately, we missionaries need more prayer than the ministries that may drive us. We can’t afford to lose the power of prayer from our arsenal that wages war against the world, the flesh and the forces of darkness. The prayer giants in our lives are not ourselves, but the prayer supporters, family members and close friends who care for us and stand behind us. These people are our heroes, and our giants.
Dan Stott and his wife Lynda have been church planters in the Republic of Ireland with The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) since 1998. He is pursuing a Doctorate in Ministry degree at Dallas Theological Seminary.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 42-46. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.