Commissioned Prayer

Have you ever been part of something– some project or task– SO monumental and far-reaching that you wonder whether your efforts made any difference? Did you end up with “grunt” work– a seemingly insignificant part of the larger project that left you with lots of questions and very few (or no) answers? Something so tiny that most people would never even know if you did it?

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A couple of years ago, I took a temporary job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. I was part of a vast team of workers who conducted “follow-up” visits, mostly to addresses that had not responded by April 1. I was excited, and a bit apprehensive; after all, the Census is a pretty big deal. These names and numbers will be part of our nation’s collective history. As someone who loves doing genealogy, the Census is invaluable for discovering information about my family history– names, ages, locations, occupations, origins and ethnicities, and so much more can be learned from Census records.

However, I soon discovered that most of my job consisted of traveling to out-of-the-way locations, and knocking on the doors of empty houses, or trying to find addresses that no longer existed. “Non-response follow-up” usually involves checking on rentals, second homes, vacation homes, and homes that have been vacated, condemned, or even demolished in the years since the previous census. It is a lonely and often frustrating exercise in trying to find what “isn’t,” rather than counting what “is.” Each day, I was given a new list of locations (including some I had already visited without success). But I was commissioned by the U.S. Government to trace each address on that list to the best of my ability, and, wherever possible, to get information about anyone who might have been in residence at that location on April 1.

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Sometimes, I was able to get an interview, and document names and ages, or correct information that had been collected earlier. But much of what I did will never be included in the final Census report for 2020. My name will not appear and I will receive no recognition for my efforts(unless as a footnote with the thousands of others who did the same thing). I did get paid for my work, for the time I spent traveling and knocking on doors. And some interviews were not just fruitless, but bordered on abusive. Homeowners were annoyed, or even outraged when I showed up. They had sent in their Census form– for their primary address! Worse yet, there were some times when I showed up after ANOTHER enumerator had come– I had been sent to follow-up on the follow-up! But I was under strict orders about where to go, when to go, what to say (or not say), how to report on each interview (or non-interview). I was under a commission. I took an oath, and I followed orders, just like being commissioned in the military. Looking back, I feel good about the experience. I served my country, and I learned a great deal about the local geography, AND about human nature. For every cranky homeowner, there were others who were friendly and helpful. At the time, though, I often felt drained and dazed at the end of a shift.

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As Christians, we are also commissioned. We are to go into all the world and preach the gospel, making disciples of every nation, teaching and baptizing, and being witnesses for Christ. (Matthew 28:16-20/Mark 16:15-18, etc.) Our commission is not to force everyone around us to become Christians, or to demand that they respect us or our message (that is the work of the Holy Spirit– our job is to go and to be witnesses, disciple-makers, teachers, encouragers, and helpers). And part of our commission is to pray–fervently and consistently– to pray for our nation and its government officials (1 Timothy 2: 1-2); to pray for believers around the world, especially for those under persecution (Hebrews 13:3), to pray for those who persecute, ridicule, or despise us (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44), to pray for, and interact with grace toward, those who have rejected Christ (Colossians 4:5-6), to pray for the healing and restoration of others (James 5:13-20).

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At times, we may not feel like praying for certain people or situations. We may not understand why God allows for corruption in our government or for neighbors to mock our faith or treat us unfairly. We may not understand why some of our prayers seem to be more about what “isn’t” that about what is. We may not understand why God sends us, where God sends us, or when God sends us to go, to act, and to pray. But God IS listening. He knows our every thought, and He sees every need– not just our needs, but the broader needs of our community and our world. May we be faithful with the commission we have been given. It’s a much bigger deal than any Census!

The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

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