Prayer: Intimate and Often
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 23, 2020
Reading: Acts 1:1-14
It is unusual for me to begin a sermon by reading a section of an email, but the reason why this email is important is because of the crisis in our country. I'm sure we are all deeply concerned about the tensions between our indigenous and First Nations people, and the rest of Canada. As I often do in such circumstances, I reach out to friends in a variety of areas and ask them what they're praying for. I seek the counsel of other Christians. One of those that I reached out to is a professor at the Native Institute of Theological Studies. He is a Mi'kmaq from the Maritimes and a professor with a PhD in Theology.
I asked Terry, as someone who belongs to the indigenous community, but is also a devout Christian, to help me to know what to pray for. In a lengthy, heartfelt, emotional, thoughtful, and reflective email, he gave some clues. There were two things that stood out for me amongst the other things he mentioned. He said, “Andrew, I would suggest that our prayers be focused on the willingness of Canadians to come to grips with and to understand the depth of history, of the protracted fight for rights of indigenous peoples in Canada.” He said, “Let us also pray for indigenous people and their leaders to utilise patient, peaceful, but clearly assertive methods in their continued pursuits of those rights.” He expressed in this letter a deep concern for indigenous people and their welfare, going forward, but also concern for their unity and the need for a peaceful resolution, for patience and compassion to prevail. I sensed, reading between the lines, that he is concerned that things can continue to go bad, or get worse. He concluded his beautiful letter with these phrases: “Thank you Andrew, again, for your kind words and what I sense is a willing spirit. May the Creator grant to you and your congregation wisdom and grace. Blessings in Christ, Terry.”
I thought this was interesting because I asked others to respond, and some did, but this one took my heart. Especially in the light of today’s passage from the Book of Acts. It seems to me that in the earliest days of the Christian church, collaborative prayer, seeking the wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was central to their existence. Wherever and whatever the church is, prayer needs to be at the centre of its existence. We can tell from our passage that it was at the very beginning of the church in its newly-formed state that the Book of Acts was written by Luke. He describes the state of those early Christians, the very first apostles. They had just said farewell to their Saviour, witnessed the resurrection, and the ascension, but now they're on their own because their Lord had left them in an earthly sense, and they had to rely on the power of the Spirit to give them guidance and strength. They’d also had to replace Judas Iscariot. That is why there are only eleven names mentioned in the book of Acts at the beginning. They were bereft, alone, and unsure of the future, but they did find a more inclusive community.
Luke tells us that women joined the group. Mary, the mother of Jesus joined the group. There were others that went beyond the original apostles. What did they do and why was prayer important to them? Well, we’re told that they went into the Upper Room in Jerusalem, but the ascension had taken place at the Mount of Olives on the other side of the Kedron Valley in Jerusalem. They said it was a Sabbath day’s walk from the Kedron over to Jerusalem, and having seen it, it is a sizable walk; it would take a while. But then they go into the Upper Room, a room that they had known before, probably from the Passover meal, and there they gathered secretly as the newly-formed community of faith.
This upper room, of course, has been the subject of much discussion over many years. Hadrian, after the fall of Jerusalem, or the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, in AD70 once commented, there was an ignominious room that seemed to be untouched, but is of some importance to people, probably the upper room. Three hundred years later Empress Helena, who was Constantine’s mother, built a church in that place, believing that it was the room that was housed by the mother of Mark, the writer of the Gospel. It has a deep tradition. There’s something about that upper room that was important, but it wasn’t the room that was important so much the people who gathered there. What did those people do? Their Lord had left them, they were frightened, for they had no idea of their own future, they were associated with the man who had, in many ways, been seen as an insurrectionist. They had witnessed the death of their Jesus and His ascension, and now they have no idea what the future holds.
What do they do? They pray. They prayed constantly. Notice this incredible line, I think it’s in verse 14, “Where they gathered and they prayed constantly.” They were in constant communication with God. Not only did they wait for the power of the Spirit to do something great, they waited on the power of the Spirit, and they did so in a constant prayer. It’s not as if – and a lot of people think this – they were just quietly meditating behind a door. Many of us think prayer is meditation. No, meditation is a form of prayer, it isn't prayer itself in its totality. We seem to think that you have to close the door and have a quiet space, and meditate and reflect to be able to pray, and that’s what a lot of people think praying is. Well, it’s hard to do that and to pray constantly.
Prayer is more than that. As Steve Harrison argues in his book, Doing Nothing; Coming to the End of your Spiritual Search. Basically you don’t do anything, you just shut off and turn into yourself and reflect on your life and what it means. It might be helpful and healing to do that from time to time in our busy world but that’s not really what’s being talked about here in the Book of Acts, that’s not praying constantly. Praying constantly is not just a matter of seeing things from another perspective. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said that prayer is contemplating ordinary things from a higher place or a higher point of view.
But it’s more than that. It’s more than contemplating ordinary things from a higher point of view. It’s also more than a feeling. Feeling good can't be the absolute ultimate and only desire of our lives. Feeling good isn't the purpose of prayer either. In fact, there is a danger in making feeling good the only object of prayer.
In preparation for my trip to the UK and to Oxford, I was reading CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters again. In it there is the character of Wormwood, who represents evil. Wormwood says this in trying to undermine the Christian faith: “There is one thing I really don’t want people to have happen. I don’t want them to pray. There is one way in which you can discourage them from praying, and that is, whenever they pray for anything of substance, just make them feel good instead.” In other words, feeling good replaces the substance of prayer.
It’s none of those things. Nor is it an emergency act when there is a moment of despair. I remember Doctor Hunnisett, many years ago saying, “Oh boy, I get a lot of emergency prayers. There are prayers when there’s a crisis.” Well, it’s good to pray in a moment of crisis, there's nothing wrong with praying in a crisis. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good, there’s nothing wrong with meditating and getting in touch with yourself, but it’s not enough. It is, as one of my African friends once put it, like binge eating. You go and fill yourself up suddenly when you need it, when really what you want is a steady diet. Prayer should be a steady diet. It should be a constant thing. That’s what the early Church had, they had a constant relationship and conversation with God, constantly seeking, in all things, the guidance of the Spirit. There was nothing outside of the effect of God or the interest of God.
At times we trivialise that. Ordinary things take on divine importance. For example, I watched a man pick out some avocados at a store. He approached this with great seriousness. I'm assuming he was having people for dinner. He felt all these avocados for ripeness (I understand those of you who are avocado aficionados, that maybe that is something you have to do). But when he broke into a moment of prayer, seeking the Lord’s guidance for which avocado he should pick, I think he went too far. It trivialises prayer.
Everything is important to God and staying in that kind of communication with God is something that should be a constant part of our life. You don’t need to lock yourself away for it, you don’t need to meditate on it, it can become part of your life, where you seek in all things the wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But notice something else about them: There was not only a constancy, there was a community. You notice they went together to the Upper Room, they went as a group, as a collective, and they added to that collected. Arising out of that collective as the rest of the Book of Acts shows, came enormous moments of courage, a tremendous sense of equity and social justice, compassion for the community, and courage to get up there and speak about Christ publicly, in a hostile Jerusalem.
They were transformed, but they weren't transformed alone, they were transformed as a community.
I love what Plato said; he said it is like the collective striving of souls, that prayer is not just an individual thing, it is something that we do with another. I think at times the Church loses its sense of its power, mission and identity, when prayer simply becomes a privatised thing, when it becomes so individual that it loses its connectivity. Maybe one of the reasons why the church in our Western world, has faced so many challenges, is because it has ceased to understand the power of the collective importance of prayer. That there is something within the gathered community that makes a difference when the Spirit moves, and you can't duplicate that electronically, individually, or in artificial ways. It is through the gathering, as Plato said, of those collective souls. That’s what they had going for them.
Not only did they have that going for them, they also allowed their prayers to change them. It’s no good simply saying that you're going to pray for something and then not have the courage to do it. What’s the point of praying for justice if you're not going to be just? What’s the point of praying for purity if you're not going to be pure? What is the purpose of desiring a change in others if you don’t see the change in yourself? What is the point of asking the world to be a better place, if we’re not better people within that place?
There’s an old phrase used by the church fathers, Ora et labora – pray and work. Let your deeds follow your prayers, let your life be courageous in the light of those prayers. That’s what’s needed in our country right now: The courage of seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and moving with the Spirit’s guidance.
I love a story that I read, it was a cartoon actually, of a boy and his father going fishing. They cast their net with the bait into the river, and Lord knows, they catch a fish. When they caught the fish, the young boy says, “Oh, I knew we’d catch fish, I was praying for that.
The father thought, “Well, how did you know you were going to get those fish?”
He said, “Because I’d been praying for it.”
The father says, “All right, that’s great, good for you.”
Then they go and put the bait on the hook and they cast it into the river again, and lo and behold, they catch a fish and the boy says, “I knew we’d do that, I knew we’d do that, I’d been praying for that.”
And the father says, “Right, sure Son, that’s great, that’s wonderful, I'm glad. Yes, right, you were praying for it, that’s why we caught the fish.”
Then they cast the net out again. This time they didn’t catch anything, and the boy says, “I knew we wouldn’t catch anything.”
The father says, “Why did you know we wouldn’t catch anything?”
“Because we didn’t pray about it.”
“Why didn’t you pray about it?”
“Because we never put any bait on the hook this time.”
There is a wisdom that comes from knowing that if you're going to pray for something, you’d better act upon it. It is no good just gathering in an upper room and seeking God’s guidance unless they were willing to take the steps in faith, into an uncertain future, believing and trusting divine guidance.
For all the challenges that we have in this life, for all the joys that we celebrate, for all the things that are important to God, shouldn’t we be making prayer a part of it, and shouldn’t we commit our lives in such a way that t prayer becomes a constant thing? That there is nothing outside of God’s concern, that there is no realm that is beyond His reach, that there is nothing for which He has not already given His life and given and answer.
I think I'm going to write back to my friend Terry and I'm going to say that we will be constant in prayer. We will lift up our nation, we will lift up its peoples, we will care, and we will do so together. Whatever we encounter in this world or the next, we do it as people of prayer. Amen.