In this election year, I’ve heard it said that foreign policy doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. True enough, and I would go on to say that theology doesn’t either, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to put it there. One bumper sticker that’s been around for decades reads: “Prayer Changes Things.” You’ve seen it, and depending on your theology, you’ve either rolled your eyes or said “Amen.”
Historian and professor Jean-Pierre Isbouts has added the weight of scholarly evidence to that three-word declaration in Ten Prayers that Changed the World, for he asserts that among the “things” that prayer may have changed is the course of history. Dr. Isbouts has selected ten stand-out characters from the past and shared the stories surrounding their impactful words of faith.
- Hand-picked by a God who — unbelievably! — spoke to humans and made stunning promises, Abraham walked with God and found Him to be trustworthy. Although he made a few wrong turns into cowardice and deception, he persevered in faith and saw the fulfillment of God’s promise: a son, born to two senior citizens. When God put Abraham to the test on Mount Moriah, it is quite likely that Abraham prayed to be spared from the horror of sacrificing his son, and although Scripture does not record the words, the ram was given and the son of promise lived. Dr. Isbouts has highlighted Abraham’s story because his influence is felt in three major world religions. This brings to my mind an actual recorded prayer from the lips of Abraham that was answered when God preserved the life of Ishmael, and although both sons were present at Abraham’s burial, their descendants have been in conflict ever after.
- The Sermon on the Mount provides the context for Jesus‘ well-known and well-loved prayer to His Father in Heaven. Dr. Isbouts provides historical context as well, helping his readers to recognize Herod’s brutal economic oppression, which compounded the political claustrophobia of Roman occupation. While his assertion that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist is unlikely, his narrative effectively captures the disciple’s puzzlement: Who is this teacher? Could this be the Messiah? What is the nature of this Kingdom of which He speaks? Our impatient hearts ask similar questions today and find expression in the prayer which Jesus taught His disciples to say. The Lord’s Prayer (or The Our Father) effectively summarizes the scope of Jesus’ teaching in four brief sentences.
- By the fourth century, the Roman empire was in a constant state of flux and infighting, and the Emperor Constantine was caught between the biggest and most difficult fight of his current campaign and a series of disturbing — what? Were they dreams? Visions? Heavenly signs? Becoming a follower of Christ could be awkward when you’re the leader of the polytheistic world, but the end result was a decree that granted religious freedom to Roman citizens, accompanied by a majestic and little-known prayer for the favor of the Supreme God. Constantine went on to secure sole command of the Roman Empire and immediately began restoring the rights and fortunes of the church and Christians. His influence was felt in ecclesiology, architecture, liturgy, the establishment of our calendar, and therefore, in all of western civilization.
- The piety, the calling, the political acumen, and the undeterred courage of Joan of Arc have been shrouded in mystery through the years. Did her “voices” truly come from the Archangel Michael or are the gnomes and faeries of the Middle Ages playing tricks on our 21st century sensibilities? Since she stood trial twice, the young woman’s story is well-documented, and her unlikely leadership role may have been the force that led to her beloved France becoming the dominant monarchy in Northern Europe at its zenith.
- The timeless hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, was a paean of praise that flowed from Martin Luther‘s pen following his accusation of heresy and the harrowing trials that followed — and his narrow escape from a martyr’s fate. Finding himself barred from publication of books and sermons, he turned to the “fair and lovely gift of God”: music. Ministry to victims of the bubonic plague cast Luther upon the truth of Psalm 46, and from “God is our refuge and strength” budded Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. This along with his translation of Scripture into the language of the people were hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation whose shock waves ripple through the church even today.
- Whatever George Washington‘s spiritual leanings, he certainly recognized the role of prayer as a unifying force for a fledgling nation. Few realized as grimly as he the hardships and close calls that marked the path toward independence. Cementing his image as a man of prayer, colonist Isaac Potts witnessed Washington kneeling in the snow and overheard his prayer for the salvation of the Continental Army. The dilemma comes in sifting truth from fiction in the Washington legend. Dr. Isbouts demonstrates insight and historical acumen in his assessment that Washington was probably influenced by 18th-century Enlightenment thinking and was more intent on discovering what “Providence” could do for America than what God expected from His creation.
- It turns out that the prayer of St. Francis has very little to do with the 13th century cleric, and while I knew this, I had never read “the rest of the story.” At this point in Ten Prayers that Changed the World, Dr. Isbouts demonstrates his gift for historical tale-weaving, sharing the World War I-era story in true you-were-there fashion. The actual source of this much-beloved prayer is an anonymous entry in a Catholic magazine that ended up on a prayer card intended for distribution to soldiers in Europe. The connection with St. Francis? His picture was on the card! Nonetheless, these words continue to send prayerful hearts on a biblical path toward peace.
- Since there are no atheists in foxholes, perhaps the converse is also true: that there are plenty of people who pray in foxholes. General George Patton was no exception when he ordered his chaplain to write and to distribute a prayer for good weather to facilitate his battle plan for Bastogne in the European theater of World War II. I’m always skeptical of prayers for good weather — the baseball coach wants sunshine while the farmer prays for rain. Whether or not it was because of the collective Prayer for Bastogne, the fact remains that the weather stayed clear for six days in late December, and Patton was able to carry out his plan.
- If you’re looking for diplomacy, a high view of humanity and the dignity of every people group, Gandhi is your man. However, if you’re looking for biblical theology, look elsewhere. The “Great Soul” was clearly a praying man, but it seems unclear at times who he imagined might be listening to his prayers. His best known prayer for a peaceful India was read at a daily prayer meeting with his followers. Although he clung to the illogical notion that contradictory faith traditions can all be true, Gandhi was likely correct in his belief in the “unifying power of prayer across all religions.”
- Mother Teresa, born Agnes Rose Bojaxhiu, was also a global force-to-be-reckoned-with. Her recent canonization process has endeared her even more deeply by revealing her feet of clay — likely clinical depression. Her focus on the needs of the very poor in India allowed her to transcend the darkness of her doubts, and her daily prayer embodied the words of Jesus to those who minister to the needy. Her example lives on, inspiring others to transcend doubt and to make a difference where they are.
At some point in my reading, it dawned on me that many of Isbout’s subjects viewed prayer as a force in its own right rather than as a line of communication with God. While it is true that God “did not limit His revelation to one particular group or faith alone,” His general revelation through conscience and creation requires the specific content of His special revelation in order to clarify and to interpret His goodness. The fact that the New Testament is almost completely devoid of all cultural baggage attached to worship demonstrates that God intended (and still intends) the Truth to be trans-cultural.
Dr. Isbout observes that “prayer can move in hearts regardless of what faith tradition we belong to,” but it is also true that it is not prayer that changes things — it is God, and God has spent considerable time in the dock in recent years being either blamed or acquitted for His role in everything from terrorism to tsunamis. In 2016, it is refreshing to read a book that documents the actions of a sovereign God on behalf of His creation — even when He foreknew that the credit would go elsewhere, for it is God who changes the world, and prayer is the means by which humanity is invited into cooperation with God. This in itself is a gift, for often it is the pray-er who needs changing most of all.
This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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