Extraordinary Prayer - for Synod 2024
Written by Lora Copley
(Note: Last year’s Synod was urgent-- urgent and incomplete. Hearing about yet another urgent Synod feels a bit like hearing -every four years-“this is the most important election of our lifetime.” It’s wearying. And cliché. And manipulative. We can’t live life always on red alert.
So it makes sense to me that folks may say, “Lora, another season of intercessory adrenaline? We’ve heard these siren calls to pray since the anticipated HSR report and the Covid-intense days of 2020. When can we get up off our knees?”
My first thought is to wonder if this is what Paul’s “pray without ceasing” means. But I do also think this Synod is unique in importance. Many groups and congregations (of all stripes and convictions) are pausing deliberations because they waiting to see what Synod will not just say, but what Synod will do. They know that commitments (and, more so, covenants) are only as real as the actions that follow.
For this reason, it’s not just election hyperbole to say the stakes are high. Clarity must put on flesh. Verbal affirmations must be realized in courageous actions of alignment.
Prayer got us here and prayer will be the power that sees this work of renewal through. So once again, it is time to pray.)
Extraordinary Prayer. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards counseled a group of pastors, in an intense time of renewal and conflict, with these words:
“Be much in prayer and fasting, in secret and with one another. It seems to me, it would become the circumstances of the present day, if ministers would often meet together, and spend days in fasting and fervent prayer, earnestly seeking those extraordinary supplies of Divine Grace… When God has something great to accomplish for His church, it is His will that there should precede it the extraordinary prayer of His people.”
At least three things Edwards means by “extraordinary prayer.” Extraordinary prayer 1) recognizes our great inadequacy, 2) utilizes great aids, and 3) rejoices in a great God (and so finds needed courage).
Great Inadequacy. Just like Synod 2022 and 2023, who is equal to such a moment as Synod 2024? And the answer, of course, is no one. We are utterly inadequate.
Indeed, the Abide Project--in our simple commitment to our denomination’s stance of a Biblical sexual ethic—continues to work hard. But no matter how much we do, we can’t persuade one human heart. We can’t force holiness or healing, alignment or agreement. Our arm is still flesh. As Rich Mullins sang, “We are not as strong as we think we are.”
That’s one reason we must pray: our need. The Catechism says, in prayer “we must thoroughly know our need and misery” (QA117). And so we pray our theology-- that we are unable. He is able. We are foolish. He is “Wisdom from on high.” We are sinners, “still inclined to all evil”—even in an Advisory committee or on a Synod floor. But He! He can do all things well.
The temptation is to think Name Recognition, Influence, Strategy, Large Budgets and the whole slew of media campaigns, podcasts, articles and videos could secure the ends we hope for. But no. Our security, our help is in the name of the Lord. So we get small—on our knees (and sometimes on our very faces). Extraordinary prayer starts by saying, “Lord Jesus, apart from you, we can do nothing.”
Great Aids. Secondly, extraordinary prayer makes purposeful use of great helps in prayer. Extraordinary prayer does not just dabble or babble about prayer; it gets serious to do it. It employs serious aids of Community, Regularity, Praise, Scripture, Fasting, and Repentance. Just a comment on the last two: fasting and repentance.
Calvin advised, “whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer." Why? Why does Calvin (as well as Luther, Knox, Wesley, Edwards, Moody, Bonhoeffer, Lewis, and on) recommend fasting with prayer?
Last spring I had to prepare for a significant surgery, and I was instructed to prepare for that surgery by fasting. For 24 hours, no solid foods; for 12 hours, only clear liquids; for the final 6 hours, not even water. All this self-denial was critical; it aided the objectives of the surgery.
The purposeful giving up of a meal, or a type of cherished food, can aid the objectives of prayer. Fasting helps us recognize our dependency. We more readily cry out for God’s strength because we aren’t satiated. Fasting begets focus. When we feel hunger pangs, it is a physical prompt to pray. Fasting helps us identify and lament sin; in fact, it’s a spur to repent.
That’s another tool: repentance. Unconfessed sin blocks prayer—both individually and corporately. When the Lord tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people (4xs!)7, it’s because they cherished sin. No matter how fervent and sincere our prayer, if we’re resolved to hold on to sin, the Lord quietly leaves the room.
Great God. All this brings us to the chief point: extraordinary prayer is about an extraordinary God. It sees and rejoices in this God more than all else – more than loves or desires, more than family or institution, more than a cause and more than fear.
Since the tumultuous close of Synod 2023, like many in the CRC, I too have been fearful. We fear because we know more pain will come. We know beloved churches will break up or cave in or empty out. (And it must happen, because these are crucible matters that go to the hot core of love, identity, discipleship, sin & harm, repentance, salvation, the body and Scripture.) Even though this is the path we must walk, when we think of it with eyes on ourselves, we wilt in fear and sadness. Synod 2024 seems an impossible road.
But extraordinary prayer turns our eyes upward. My Dad used to say: “Lora, you’ve got an invisible magnifying glass in your hand. You can put the magnifying glass on your fears and those fears are going to get real big and God will seem distant and small. Or, in prayer, through Scripture, you can put your magnifying glass on Him. And your fears will get in perspective.”
As we “fix our eyes on Jesus,” courage rises. We see how astonishingly good our God is. How beautiful His law. How sure His purposes. How tender His care. We fearlessly hold out the word of truth, and trust Him as we ask and keep on asking about Synod 2024 and beyond.
What if God is using these extraordinary days (and years) in our denomination to form a people who know what it is to cry out to Him?
What if He’s shaping in us a single-minded focus, that looks to “extraordinary supplies of Divine Grace” before our own adrenaline and abilities.
What if, through prayer, we indeed becoming a people who can say –come hell or high water-- “Our life is Christ. Nothing else matters.”
May it be so, for the praise of His glory!
So let’s get to it.
Let us pray. Again.