On one of my first trips to Europe, I had the opportunity to go to the Trafford Centre in Manchester. The sights and sounds were overwhelming to me as I walked the halls of this monumental shopping center filled with people from every walk of life and every nation that I could imagine! My ears had never heard so many different languages being spoken, nor had I smelled so many different kinds of foods and aromas that came from the different cultures that were mixing together as everyone walked up and down the smorgasbord of shopping expressions. My heart was overwhelmed. I didn't know how to respond to all that I was seeing for the first time. I knew that I wanted to pray as I walked, and I had thought to myself that now that I was a missionary I was going to be effective in the world, but seeing the world gathered together in a place like this made me realize how little I was compared to the reality of all the different people of the world and all the different nations that still needed to hear the Gospel. As I walked, I prayed fervently. I tried to pray for each person that my eyes made contact with. I tried to pray for the different people groups that I saw represented. I felt despondent the more that I sought to be effective and feel as if what I was doing there really mattered to God and to these people. How was it possible that my prayer-walking through this enormous shopping mall, which was shaped like a life-sized cruise ship in the foodcourt, could actually have any impact whatsoever?
As I kept walking, I found a prayer room. The outside of the door read that it was open to all faiths. Now, again, this was one of my first trips to Europe, and I had very little experience with such things. I was eager to be useful to the Lord, and I was hopeful to involve myself where God’s Spirit might be at work in some way, and a prayer room seemed like a really great place to start.
One of the first clues that I should have noticed was the shoe rack that was on the wall in the entranceway before you actually got to the door that went into the actual prayer room. After I took my shoes off and entered the second door, I noticed a giant pair of nail-scarred hands coming out of the wall underneath a large cross. They were gaudy, cupped, little finger to little finger, as if to hold whatever was placed in them. I also noticed two curtained areas. I could see that there was a woman sitting in a chair behind one curtain, and behind the other curtained area that was partially pulled back, there was a man was performing some kind of ceremonial washing. It was strange to me, especially as he was using the water to blow his nose through and through. He looked up at me as I walked past him and nodded with a polite, “How are you, brother?” With a grin, I replied too loudly, "I'm great! How are you?"
Suddenly, I felt so spiritual! I was halfway around the world from Texas, and I was now in a room dedicated to praying! Surely, this was is what being a missionary was about… I sat down confidently on the floor, cross-legged, put my Bible proudly in view on my lap, and bowed my head to pray, with my hands folded in such a manner so as to reflect sincere Christianity. I don't remember what exactly it was that I was praying about other than the hope of salvation for the different people groups that I had seen at the mall, that God would use me mightily for His glory, and some other good sounding stuff that I was sure that missionaries ought to pray.
The excitement of the moment seem to wane a bit as I carried on, stretching the mind for things that I could bring to God, as if perhaps He had not yet thought of such requests nor heard them from any other of His missionaries. I slowly began to realize that there was really little difference to being in a prayer room and walking about the mall surrounded by the people of every nation. I grew frustrated, but I kept my head bowed and my eyes closed, continuing along this stream of thought when I realized that there were other people in the room.
Now, the pressure was on me to all-the-more appear righteous and dedicated to God. Isn't it amazing how we suddenly feel the pressure of looking and appearing a certain way when our prayer life comes in view by others? Even though what I was praying wasn't heard by anyone but the Lord, how I was praying was being seen by others now, and I felt as if I needed to be *seen* in prayer. Curiosity set in though, as the room obviously was getting more and more full, and I was even nudged a bit here and there as people were walking past me and around me. I had set myself on the opposite side of the room from the entrance. The room itself was probably about 20 feet long in 15 feet wide. Those giant praying hands came out of the wall at least 3 feet! The washing area was now to my right. I noticed that I was not hearing English being spoken anymore, but I kept my eyes closed, my head bowed, continuing to listen to the sounds around me, not really praying anymore so much as trying to discern what was happening in the room. Suddenly things got very quiet. Then, all at once, the call to prayer broke forth! It startled me such that I open my eyes and glanced forward to see what was happening in the room.
As I looked up, all I could first see was wall-to-wall carpets and bended knees. This was the Muslim call to prayer, and here I was the only non-Muslim in the room. It suddenly reminded me of the little tune I used to hear on PBS television as a child, "One of these things is not like the other! One of these things just isn't the same!" To my shame, the first thought that came into mind was, “That's it…I'm a dead man. I'm not making it out of this room alive. They're just waiting for their prayer to Allah to finish, and then they’re going to kill me!"
If I had not really been fervent in prayer before, I was now. I bowed my head as I noticed a few of the men, who were all bowing in the direction of the praying hands, turning their heads toward me, glancing at me as they knelt forward in their ritual. It was like they were trying to figure out a real mystery. “Why is this man in here?” “What is he doing over there?” “Why is he not facing East?”
Again, I don't really remember what it was that I began to pray to the Lord. I seem to recall something along the lines of a prayer for my family who might not ever see me again. I seem to recall questioning as to why God had sent me to this place and allowed me to become a missionary only to have such a short-lived experience! The whole thing went on for probably less than 60 seconds, but it felt like an hour. In the midst of my fearful and faithless thoughts, the Holy Spirit spoke in the voice which is louder in the soul than any other audible word upon the ears. "Who do you think I sent you here to pray for?"
And there it was.
I was now faced with a multitude of convictions regarding my possession of prejudices, self-righteousness, and self-concerns that had never been called out so clearly. I was now feeling quite foolish and ashamed for all of my pretense about the kind of mission I was on compared to the condition of my own heart. However, God is gracious. Not only did God reveal to me my inadequacies of fear and prejudices in that moment, He also poured it into my heart a love that I had not known yet. I should say it was a revealing of His love to a degree that I had not yet believed or experienced so intimately. The grave look of concern upon my face slowly turned upward to a smile as I reflected on God’s love for me and each person kneeling and bowing in the room surrounding me. There was not one man or woman in this room that God did not love, nor was there a man or woman in the room that did not bear God’s image. I suddenly saw the manner in which my personal culture had tainted my theology. I suddenly saw how what I had preached about the Gospel going to the nations sounded great but had very little application, nor did it have much heart to really back it. I was now aware, more than ever before in my life, of my need to understand God's love for all of humanity.
As I began to pray for the men and women that were in that room, it was not as a man who was higher than any of them, but as a repentant sinner who was seeing how unlike Christ he was in his own spirit. I began to pray as a man that now had a newfound love for Muslims and a genuine desire to see them know our Christ. God was showing me His heart, and it was then that a peace came over me and His joy flooded my soul.
I waited, of course, until the prayer hour was complete. As the men were making their exit from the prayer room, we put on our shoes together. There were nervous smiles back-and-forth from some, while others simply ignored me. I was of little consequence to them, but God used Muslims gathered in a prayer room in Manchester, England in a way that has altered the course of my heart forever.