The meeting was said to be scandalous, forbidden by the community. It was also a meeting divinely orchestrated by God so that his good news would be preached and that the brokenhearted would find healing. True to himself, the Almighty would prove that he indeed is sovereign and “delights in impossibilities,” as Andrew Murray says.
The idea for this unsanctioned meeting descended into my heart during times of prayer, as I poured out my frustrations to God regarding the plight of women in the community in which we served as missionaries: abused, oppressed, treated as worthless, and having no voice. The strict beliefs of their people group held them in bondage. This is what Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline refers to as the way of death, or externalism, when biblical laws that are meant to bring the abundance of God into our lives have degenerated into soul-killing ones that instead control, manipulate, and imprison us. I saw that death clearly in their eyes and heard it in their words, especially the ones left unspoken.
“But God,” I answered, “that’s impossible. You know I can’t hold that kind of meeting here.” I knew he saw the injustice. I knew he heard their cries in the night. I knew he was touched by their pain. And though I knew he was well aware of the obstacles to what he was asking me to do, I felt compelled to reiterate them to him:
“First of all, you know outsiders are unwelcome and considered a threat here. Second, Lord, spiritual gatherings of any kind are forbidden unless a male—chosen by the community—is the one leading it. Third, surely you remember that women are not permitted to gather together in groups larger than five or so when no men are present, and finally, the worst taboo of all is for a woman to teach or preach from the Bible.” In my defense, all the above were real challenges we faced regularly. Neighbors told us our kids weren’t permitted to play with theirs, since we were different; nor were our kids allowed to attend their schools. Our landlord was considered a rebel in the community and faced mistreatment for the audacity of renting a house to us. The Bible studies my husband began holding in houses were attended only after dark in fear of leaders finding out. The friendly craft-night gatherings I attempted for women were poorly attended. Out in public, women would often whisper in each other’s ears and scurry away from me. The biggest challenge was the fact that I was a credentialed minister of the gospel. I was a female preacher.
“So?” I didn’t hear God audibly say that to me, but I sensed his unmistakable persistent whisper in my spirit. God wouldn’t be deterred. It was time to obediently join this “mission impossible.” I complied with a nervous sigh while I’m sure God smiled in delight.
The first task was the prayer strategy. I believe with all my heart that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (James 5:16.)” We fasted, asking God to break demonic strongholds and cast down oppression. Then we invited our prayer partners to intercede specifically for this event.
We picked a date and time, then worked on logistics like finding a place, making sure we had sound equipment, a keyboard player, and a singer to lead us in worship. I made flyers and posted them in stores, on telephone poles, or anywhere else I could think of and was permitted to do so. We were ready to go. Almost.
We didn’t have chairs. The place we rented for the event was actually a small, empty warehouse that offered no seating. The closest rental business was over 50 kilometers away, and their fee for chair rentals and delivery was more than we had. So again I went to God in prayer and told him we needed chairs. “Lord, you put this idea on my heart; now please make a way for us to rent those chairs.” In my mind, he was going to provide in one of two ways: either via an unexpected large donation to our ministry that would arrive in time for us to meet the deadline for the rental deposit, or God would supernaturally speak to the warehouse owner’s heart in a distinct way to lower the price so we could afford the chairs. I love having faith in my faith. That is, until God chooses to throw a curveball at it, as he did then.
Neither of the above two scenarios happened. I began to sweat as I again went to prayer. “God, we missed the deadline for rentals. What now?” Then he answered in a most unpredictable way. “Go to those you’ve befriended and to the families that you and Mike are discipling as Christ followers, and ask them to loan chairs for the event. However many chairs you find, I will fill. I will fill every chair you put in that place.” I was amused at this, immediately recalling the story of the widow of Zeraphath who was told by the prophet Elijah to bring jars to be filled with oil; and as many as she brought, the Lord had filled. This new instruction also meant more work for us coupled with a new focus of faith.
We began knocking on doors—or making phone calls to those who had phones—asking if we could borrow chairs for the women’s event. We had to convince most, who were fearful and doubtful already over the forbidden gathering, that this was indeed of the Lord, as this sort of thing is simply not done in their community! We would get two chairs here, three chairs there. We kept at it for days, until the morning of the event finally arrived. We had managed to gather 49 chairs!
To many of you, that number doesn’t sound significant. But within the context of that community, this was already a miracle. Before the doors opened, I stood and looked at the chairs lined up in rows. It was beautiful! God had provided chairs; would he fill them as he said? My team and I walked the rows, praying over each of the 49 chairs, asking that the Holy Spirit would speak life, hope, and healing to each woman who would soon be occupying it. Then we waited.
Women slowly arrived in small clusters of three or four, timidly trickling in. Their eyes registered shock, disbelief, and perhaps a bit of fear as they saw the number of chairs. Several of our friends asked, ”Why do you have so many?” They could not believe even a quarter of those chairs would be filled. Impossible! their expressions revealed. Scandalous! is what their quick glances at each other and then outside the windows communicated. What will be the social ramifications? They knew well their culture; they would soon learn God’s nature.
As I opened the event with a welcome greeting, I was painfully aware that most of the seats were still empty. After the invocation, the singer led a few hymns and worship songs in their dialect during which time I kept my eyes closed as I prayed again, reminding God of his instructions and promise. I opened my eyes as the last song ended. Then I stepped forward to the metal music stand I would use as my pulpit, watching my step so I wouldn’t trip on the cords. After I opened my Bible and my notes, I looked up. I gasped quietly as my heart skipped a beat, for my God certainly had kept his word and delighted in the impossible: all 49 chairs were filled. Every. Single. One. There was not an empty chair, nor was there anyone standing.
It was a groundbreaking event. Some women found freedom that morning as they chose to follow Christ, including the suicidal woman whose family brought her as a last chance of saving her life. Others listened with their heads hung. Many cried as the Holy Spirit whispered his love to them. Each one present heard the clear message of the redemptive and liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.
That initial meeting spawned several other women-only events that grew in attendance. We did face ongoing opposition and persecution with each one, yet God continued delighting in impossibilities so women would find freedom and hope.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Sometimes the scariest prayers are the first to be answered – thank you for sharing your story of praying the impossible, Ilona.
Emily, so true. May we continue praying them. And may God continue surprising us!
I love hearing this story! Why are we amazed when God comes through?
Lorri, great question! Maybe because we don’t know Him as well as He can be known?
This is just wonderful, Ilona! Both content and story are A1. Thank you for sharing it!
I love it! What a great testimony of our awesome God!
I wish we could remember to live with that type of faith, expecting God to fill the empty “chairs” He places in our path. Thank you for sharing your story!