And They Prayed
ACTS 1:15-17, 21-26
It must have been a time of sadness, bewilderment, and confusion for Jesus' followers, especially the disciples who had been with Jesus for three years. Now he was gone, at least in body, and they were not sure what the spiritual appearances of Jesus meant. Their first decision had been made for them. The resurrected Christ clearly told them to stay in Jerusalem. They were not to return to Galilee, but to stay in Jerusalem, and wait, wait for further directions. Waiting is difficult. No doubt they wanted an action plan. They wanted to do something. They were confused by the instruction, "Don't just do something, stand there!" But, they waited; saddened, frightened, bewildered, confused. And they prayed. While they waited, Acts 1:14, "They constantly devoted themselves to prayer."
They then made their first decision on their own, without Jesus' leadership. They felt it was important to retain the office of apostle, and to keep the number at 12, as Jesus had originally called 12 disciples. To fill Judas' place, the disciples nominated two, Justus and Matthias. They used the ancient method of discerning God's will by casting lots instead of voting. But, before they acted, verse 24, "They prayed and said, `Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen." They prayed.
What do you do when you get anxious, or troubled, or faced with a major decision? Do you run to your room and cry it out? Do you run at the mouth and yell it out? Do you run to the neighbors and spill it out? Do you run to the therapist and lay it out? The disciples ran to the Lord and prayed it out.
A headline for an article about the local church needed two lines. The editors unfortunately or perhaps prophetically divided the word local, hyphenated it so the phrase read: The Lo-Cal Church. The difference between a local church that is alive and an anemic lo-cal church is the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of the Holy Spirit is directly related to prayer. A church that is alive and dynamic is a church of prayer. And they prayed...
When the Methodist movement spread across our land like wild fire in the nineteenth century, a preacher would arrive in a frontier town, and before preaching or organizing a church, he would gather supporters by asking, as he dismounted from his horse, "Got any praying people around here? Where are the praying people here?" The key component in the great spiritual revivals, the key component in growing, thriving churches, the key difference between a local church that is alive and dynamic and an anemic lo-cal church is prayer.
If Francis Asbury, the father of American Methodism, a circuit rider who burned with the zeal of Christ, came into our congregation this morning and asked, "Got any praying people around here? Who are the praying people here?" whom would we select? Would you be included? Prayer is the one thing all Christians can do. Not all can or want to sing or ring. Not all can teach Sunday School. Not all can serve on committees. Not all can even leave their homes to come to church. But we all can pray. Young, old, shut-in, healthy, busy, inactive. We all can pray.
Some say they don't know how to pray. Prayer is not something difficult. There is no technique you have to learn or rules you have to follow. There is nothing you have to do, or have to be before you can pray. There are no special places for prayer. You can come into the sanctuary and pray. You can pray in your home, sitting in your chair, or kneeling by your bed. You can pray in the yard or garden. You can pray in the car. You can pray while you study the Bible. You can pray anywhere and everywhere. You can pray silently. You can pray loudly. Many times you don't even need words. There are three types or stages of prayer.
First, ask. Prayer is asking, crying, calling, reaching out, interceding for yourself or for someone else or for the world. Prayer is the expression to God of a concern you have, a burden, a problem, a worry. "What a friend we have in Jesus, take it to the Lord in prayer."
There is nothing you have to feel before you can pray. Some think they have to be in relationship with God before they can pray. They think they have to feel connected. No, when you feel lost, when you feel unconnected, when you feel God is absent, that is when you pray. When you feel God is present, then you praise. When you feel in need, then you pray.
The content of prayer is very personal, and authentic prayer is directly related to the situation at hand, not general and vague, but personally specific. When a young mother is awakened at 3:00am, she probably prays, "O God, don't let him be sick!" or, "Dear Lord, put her back to sleep!"
Let your prayers be large. Pray not just for yourself, or for your family. Pray for the church. Pray for the community. Pray for the world. Pray for those who suffer. Pray for peace. Pray for the Kurdish refugees. Karl Barth, an influential theologian of this century, once said, "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." Can you see yourself part of the solution when you pray? Can you visualize the disorder in Iraq, Washington D.C., Sacramento, your house, our church being sorted out, pulled together, united, organized by the power of God?
One of the most extensive studies of faith development ever conducted on the American people found that the "who" or "what" that had the most influence on religious faith, regardless of age group, sex or denomination, was "my mother." Mothers are powerful people, influential people. Mothers, clasp your hands in prayer. Take your influence, take your big job, take your worries, concerns for the children and spouse to the Lord in prayer. Someone said, "To take care to bed is to sleep with a pack on your back." Don't take it to bed, give it to God.
The second stage or type of prayer is listening. Don't talk all the time. And, when you finish talking, don't say "Amen" and quit. The trouble in many marriages is that both spouses only talk and don't listen to the other. Communication is two-way. Let it out, but let it in as well. The listening type of prayer is usually called meditation. Here is where you let God speak to you. Some question whether God has ever spoken to them. I suspect they have not been listening. Sometimes God speaks clearly and audibly. Sometimes God speaks through nudges, or plants a thought in your mind that persists. Sometimes God speaks through the Bible as you study. Sometimes God speaks through other people.
In listening or meditation prayer, we offer ourselves to be what God wants. Prayer is not just asking what God can do for me, but listening to what God can do in the world through me. Prayer is not something you do that gives you a better day or week. Prayer makes you a better disciple, that transforms you as a person.
The third stage or type of prayer is enjoyment. Do you think of prayer as an enjoyable experience? Go beyond words, beyond consciousness of praying, and soar into the joyful, loving presence of God. The ancients called this stage of prayer "contemplation." A Greek monk described his prayer life, "When I begin it is ME and GOD. Then it becomes GOD and ME. Then it becomes only GOD." At this stage, prayer becomes basking, rejoicing, praising, relaxing, soaring in the love of God.
A woman who was a shut-in rarely was able to leave her apartment. Her only contact with the outside world was the window through which she could watch the traffic. She was asked what she did with her time. She was asked why she remained so contented, happy, buoyant, peaceful. She was a joy to be with. People loved to come and visit her. She described her day. "After I put away the breakfast things, I read my Bible, I sing some hymns, I pray, and then I just sit there and let the Lord love me."
To enjoy prayer, sit in your garden, in your chair, in church, at the ocean. Relax, let yourself go, relax those tense shoulder muscles, let the head roll and droop, unwind, pray. Ask God, cry, unload, transfer your burdens, your concerns from your shoulders to God. Then listen, listen and let the Lord love you. Prayer is asking, listening, and enjoying.
Howard Thurman wrote a moving poem, "Let Go of Everything But God." Here are a few of the lines.
I must let go.
For so long I have held to the habit of holding on.
Even my muscles
Are tense; deeply fearful are they
Of relaxing lest they fall away from their place.
I cling clutchingly to my friends
Lest I lose them.
I live under the shadow of being supplanted by another.
I cling to my money, not so muchBy a wise economy and a thoughtful spending
But by a sense of possession that makes me depend upon it for strength.
I must let go--
deep at the core of me
I must have a sense of freedom--A sure awareness of detachment--
I must let go of everything but God.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris