Prayer always lies at the center of the Christian life, but there are times and seasons when this centrality takes on a deeper urgency. We can see this pattern all over the Scriptures. When King Jehoshaphat is informed that a vast army is coming to attack the small nation of Judah, for example, he gathers all the people, from the oldest to the youngest, in the temple courts, and standing before them he prays on their behalf, including these words:
“We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron. 20:12). The rest of this chapter describes the Lord’s miraculous deliverance of his praying children.
The Christian Reformed Church is currently in a Jehoshaphat-like time—a highly unusual season of many layers in need of concentrated prayer:
- Synods 2020 and 2021 were both canceled due to COVID. These annual synods are important gatherings, with delegates from every part of the denomination coming together to worship, reflect, deliberate, and decide. Having been unable to meet for three years has disrupted our regular community, and combining three years of materials into one means there will be a significant and heavy agenda.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected congregations. Weekly worship has been disrupted, hundreds of pastors and ministry staff are exhausted and discouraged, and Christians have strong and conflicting opinions concerning the best ways to respond to the pandemic.
- The CRC’s leadership structure is being re-envisioned to include three executive positions. Currently all three are being filled by interim leaders, and search processes are underway to find the people God is preparing to take over these roles.
- We are a binational denomination, and the structure of how we work across countries, as well as the relationship between the American and Canadian sides of our church, is being discussed and debated.
- A report from the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality is a major agenda item for Synod 2022. Its recommendations have generated passionate and conflicting positions within our congregations, classes, and denomination.
- Racial tensions have heightened in the United States and Canada following the death of George Floyd in the U.S. and the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of residential schools in Canada. Christian Reformed congregations have sharply differing views concerning the shape of a biblical response to racial reconciliation.
These six challenging layers are similar to the vast army that King Jehoshaphat faced. We would do well to join in Jehoshaphat’s prayer: “We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
For this reason, the CRC’s Council of Delegates decided at its May 2021 meeting to designate the period leading up to Synod 2022 as a special year of prayer called Together Seeking God’s Face.
“My hope is that this year of prayer would not only lay a foundation for Synod 2022, but that it will also model what synod should be all about, and that our time together at synod would erupt into one continuous prayer meeting,” said Colin Watson Sr., executive director of the CRCNA.
How Does One Shape a Year of Prayer?
In addition to Jehoshaphat’s example, two other Scripture passages have guided this prayer initiative. In Philippians 4, Paul declares words that have comforted millions of believers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (vs. 6-7).
The six layers listed above are generating tremendous anxiety, and anxiety very quickly leads to anger and conflict (which Paul addresses earlier in this chapter). Paul commands us to bring our anxieties to the only place that can truly handle them: the heavenly throne room.
One can imagine that both Jehoshaphat and Paul had King David, the praying psalmist, in mind:
“Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. … For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. … My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps. 27:3,5,8).
Did you notice the laser-like focus of David’s prayer? He does not tell God five reasons why his enemies are terrible and deserve to be defeated. He does not make a case for his own goodness and rightness as justification for pleading with the Lord to intervene on his behalf. He simply longs to see God’s face. He longs to have his heart aligned with God’s heart; he longs to walk under the declaration of the Aaronic blessing, “The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6:26).
The title of this prayer initiative, Together Seeking God’s Face, puts us on our knees together with David, Jehoshaphat, and Paul, and also together as a diverse denomination. As an anonymous pastor declared years ago, “When believers disagree, they always share the same position: coming together on their knees in prayer.”
An Initiative With Many Dimensions
The Scriptures are a rich and beautiful prayer book, and they describe hundreds of ways to pray. The history of the church since Pentecost bears this out, providing us with a kaleidoscopic menu of prayer activities and styles. Prayer is simply conversation with the Lord that leads to us surrendering and aligning our hearts and minds with God’s heart and mind, and there are many, many ways to engage this conversation.
With that beautiful array in mind, these initiatives have been developed to shape this year of prayer, “Together Seeking God’s Face.”
- Rev. Jon Hoekema of Downers Grove, Ill., convenes an hour of prayer open to all members of the CRCNA on the second Wednesday of each month at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
- Executive director Colin Watson and other senior leaders convene a half-hour of prayer open to all pastors of the CRCNA at noon Eastern time each Wednesday.
- Recognizing that Synod 2022 is called to carry three years of weight, synodical delegates will gather by video conference several times between March 30 and the beginning of the in-person meetings on June 9. These video meetings will be shaped by extensive times of prayer.
- Rev. Chris Schoon and his team at Faith Formation Ministries are developing a 40-day prayer guide available to all CRCNA members and invite participants to join in prayer from May 1 to June 9.
- A new webpage provides an overview of Together Seeking God’s Face and provides the information needed to participate. See crcna.org/together-seeking-gods-face.
- Discernment prayer practices are being introduced and cultivated throughout the denomination. These practices seek God’s face by adopting a posture of holy indifference—that is, “Lord, I have strong opinions on matters that our denomination is dealing with, but my deepest desire is to seek your face and know your heart, so I will take distance from my strong opinions and trust that seeking your face will bring greater clarity to me and my fellow believers.” In other words, discernment prayer begins with David’s closing words in Psalm 139: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (vs. 23-24).
This last dimension is particularly challenging for Reformed believers. Admirably, our denomination values the right and true answers to the questions we explore together. But sometimes our commitment to a certain position makes it harder to maintain other essential commitments. We might have the right view on a topic but treat those with whom we disagree in ways that are unloving or self-serving. We might have the correct biblical interpretation but have pastoral blinders as to how inconsistently we apply that interpretation. For these reasons and more, we seek to be open to how God may want to surprise us—not in the substance of our faith or core commitments of our church, but in how we ought to live in light of those faith commitments.
Joining a Journey Well Underway
Imagine if thousands of CRC members participated in prayer in one or more ways as we prepare for synod and navigate the ongoing challenges of life after synod. In addition to personal prayer in our homes, there are so many different opportunities for participation. The Lord’s promise to Solomon after the temple was dedicated extends still to us today: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face, … then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).