How can we pray for the Philippines?

You really would have to have a heart of stone not to be distressed by the scenes of suffering caused by the Philippines typhoon.

philippinesSo began Jeremy Paxman’s broadcast on Newsnight yesterday evening. He wanted to explore how people in Britain turn this sense of distress into giving. But Christians are also faced with another challenge: how do we turn our response to the disaster into meaningful prayer? Even though the numbers thought to have been killed are mercifully many fewer than the original suggestion of 10,000, the sheer scale of the disaster renders us powerless.

Of course, it’s not the purpose of prayer to assuage our feelings of helplessness; prayer isn’t in the first place meant to serve our own needs. But if the Psalms teach us anything, it’s that the struggle to put into words our deepest fears, struggles and longings is a worthwhile enterprise and one that God treasures.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has offered some helpful guidance on prayer.

The news of the devastating storm in the Philippines is tragic, and my heart goes out to the people there. We are all deeply shocked and saddened to hear of the loss of thousands of lives and of the suffering of millions as a result of Typhoon Haiyan.

Our prayers are with all who have lost loved ones and all those who are traumatised by the disaster and in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical attention. We pray for those who are most vulnerable in this crisis: children separated from their parents, the sick and injured, the disabled and the elderly.

As a Church, we will stand beside the people of the Philippines at this devastating time, offering all we can in practical and spiritual support as the scale of the disaster unfolds.

I note that the relief work has already commenced and my prayer is that governments, agencies, churches and individuals will respond generously to help the people of the Philippines to recover and rebuild their shattered lives.

May the victims of this terrible storm know God’s comfort and derive strength from their faith.

And the Church of England has provided some words:

O loving Creator, bring healing and hope to those who, at this time, grieve, suffer pain, or who have been made homeless by the force of flood in Philippines.

We remember those who have died and we pray for those who mourn for them.

May we all be aware of your compassion, O God, which calms our troubled hearts and shelters our anxious souls.

May we pray with humility with our troubled and struggling brothers and sisters on earth. May we dare to hope that through the generosity of the privileged, the destitute might glimpse hope, warmth and life again.

Through our Saviour Christ who lives with us, comforts us and soothes us. Amen.

These words don’t really ‘do it’ for me; I have found the words from Tearfund more helpful:

Lord, you say to us, ‘Comfort, comfort my people.’
We lift before you now the people of the Philippines.
With heavy hearts we mourn with those who mourn.
Stretch out your arms of love to embrace all who are hurting and have lost so much.
Lord, comfort, comfort your people.

Father God, we pray for those whose loved ones have been killed,
who are experiencing the agony of loss and grief
and whose lives will never be the same again.
Lord, comfort, comfort your people.

Lord Jesus, we pray for each person who is hungry and thirsty,
trapped and in need of rescue,
exposed and lacking shelter.
Lord, comfort, comfort your people.

Holy Spirit, we pray for all who are working day and night to bring relief,
and ask that timely aid will reach even the most isolated.
Please guide and sustain your workers, and bring healing in the midst of disaster.
Lord, comfort, comfort your people.

But there comes a time when words are not enough, and something else needs to happen. I was very struck by Pope Francis‘ words:

I wish to express my closeness to the people of the Philippines and of that region. Unfortunately there are many victims and the damage is enormous. We pray now in silence … for our brothers and sisters, and we will seek to also send concrete help.

Yes, beyond words we need silence. Just as Job’s comforters sat in silence with him for seven days (Job 2.13), so we come to the point when we simply need to sit in silence, sit before God, and sit alongside those whose who suffer.

For when we are faced with catastrophe on such a scale, we need to see its wider significance. This isn’t just a disaster, this isn’t just a sign of global warming, this is also the death throes of the age that is passing, and our longing is part of the birthpangs of the age to come. The saints under the altar in Rev 6, seeing the world about them ravaged by war, disease, famine, and environmental disaster, simply cry out ‘How long, O Lord?’ How long before you bring this suffering to an end? How long before you finally wrap up this world like a ragged cloth, and bringing the new heavens and the new earth (Is 51.6, 65.17)?

Or as Paul says in Romans 8.19–22:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time…

It’s not that we should stop praying for individuals we know, or agencies we support, or the wider relief efforts, but that we should locate this within a wider longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, just as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Your kingdom come…’ And there are times when that longing, that groaning, can find no words.

Recently, I’ve been rediscovering the significance of fasting in expressing this longing. To actually be hungry, something quite rare in our Western culture, can express in a new way our hunger for God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Monday was a fasting day for me, but it was also our shopping day. To unload our week’s supply of food, but be unable to eat it myself, was a poignant reminder of those without food and water in the Philippines, along with all those hungering in a world where there is enough food to go around, if only it were shared fairly. And it was a reminder that led me into prayer.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21.1–4).

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Rev 8.1)

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