I had hoped that this would be the last of my virtual sermons during our pandemic. That this next week would be spent trying to figure out the logistics of a single service with our Bishop coming to visit and a number of our teens getting confirmed. “Alleluia!” signs colored by our kids before Lent would be hung up all over, and Easter Flowers which had been on hold would fill this place. There’d be amazing music and hearty hugs and tremendous joy.
Alas, as you know, that is not the case. We will continue with virtual gatherings through at least July 1, confirmation is on hold for the time being, and our Bishop will be with us remotely. While the governor, under pressure from potential lawsuits, has provided a severely limited way to now gather in person, our diocese—responding both to the reality of science and the call to love our neighbors—has determined the best course is to slowly work through stages as we seek once more to worship in person, recognizing that church is the community of people and not a building.
So we wait for that time when we will once more physically worship together. We do so not knowing when that will be. We just patiently—or perhaps not so patiently—anticipate that glorious day whenever it comes.
Which sounds an awful lot like the disciples from this morning’s reading. They had just experienced 40 days with Jesus after his resurrection, during which he “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, … speaking about the kingdom of God.” And then Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, details how Jesus ordered his followers not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father. Then we get to the bits we heard this morning, that they went to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus—enveloped by a cloud—ascended into heaven. And so they head back to Jerusalem to wait.
Yet notice their waiting isn’t idle. Rather, Luke tells us, “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” In that in-between time from the day of Jesus’ Ascension until the coming of the Spirit, his followers didn’t play a thousand games of solitaire or binge a show, they prayed.
What is it about prayer that can make it seem a bit uncomfortable for us? Professor and theologian Rolf Jacobson in commenting about this passage online asked us preachers this week, “So how is your prayer life right now?” Jacobson then went on to write this, “I will be honest. In spite of having more time at home—probably because of having more time at home—I am having a hard time praying as much as I need to do.” He doesn’t say what’s keeping him from praying as much as he’d like, be it Netflix or anxiety or family concerns or teaching online or any myriad of things, he simply says he wants to pray more. And then he shares the wisdom passed on by a friend that to pray is “to open a window of the soul to the kingdom of God.”
I’ve been opening up the windows at the rectory a lot the past couple of weeks. It’s been stuffy in the house. The air a bit stagnate, a tad stale. The breeze from outside has been refreshing. I hear more of the birds’ chirping, the rustling of the leaves as the wind blows, the voices of people walking dogs as a family. More life enters in.
Twentieth century Jewish mystic and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote this about prayer, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain the sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers—wiser than all alphabets—clouds that die constantly for the sake of beauty, we are hating, hunting, hurting.” He then suggests how we can react: “Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” Heschel suggests that it is hard to do this, that we often lack the desire to be grateful and to pray. But he encourages us to push on. To open that window. He writes, “Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.” Those words, written in the middle of the last century, are unbelievably prescient for our current time.
What does your soul need to quarantine from? Is it the cynicism that is rampant during this time? Or the fear of how the days ahead will unfold? How might you become filled with more gratitude? How can you pray in order to give thanks, as a way of engaging the wonder and mystery of the created world?
How might prayer be your “humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living”?
But here’s the rub: when we open the window of the soul to the kingdom of God—when we let the fresh air in—the musty and dank air needs to come out. We often desire our prayers to be “holy” or “wholesome.” To be fresh already, because we believe that’s what God wants. And so when the rector suggests that you pray more it feels that if you can’t do it in that way, well then it might be better to avoid it altogether. We know all too well “the hollow sentimentality that masquerades as prayer,” as Professor Ellen Davis describes it, “the dangerous falsity of the things we have heard—and maybe even thought ourselves—about how we out to think and talk when God is around.” Prof. Davis suggests that such false assumptions on prayer include this one: “Since we are people of hope (that part is true, [she writes], but now comes the false corollary) there is no place for despair or fear in the Christian life” (Pg. 8).
Davis and many others suggest that we regularly pray the Psalms. The Psalter—that prayerbook and hymnal used for centuries in both Judaism and Christianity—covers a wide range of emotions in its 150 chapters. There is that wonder and gratitude of the created order, the Psalmist giving thanks for the great sea beasts that swim in the depths. But there is also that true emotion of disdain that gets voice, like Psalm 58 in which the Psalmist asks God to make his enemies become like a snail that slowly melts into slime under the intensity of the blazing sun. (Psalm 58:8)
Real, honest prayer that opens up the window of our souls to God can be a healing balm during this time. The Daily Office Lectionary in our Prayer Book has us pray through the majority of the Psalms in a seven-week cycle. Additionally, if you go to the Psalms in our Book of Common Prayer (beginning on pg 585, for those you keeping score at home) you’ll see the notation “First Day: Morning Prayer” at the beginning of Psalm 1. Turning a couple of pages, you’ll come to the note “First Day: Evening Prayer” at Psalm 6. This monastic way of praying the Psalms—a chunk in the morning and another in the evening—will get you through the entire collection in 30 days. This gives you the wide range of the entire corpus, praying “Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, it is good for the just to sing praises” and “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble, my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.”
In this time of continued and unexpected waiting let us join the disciples and constantly devote ourselves to prayer. Let us open up the window of our souls to God. Friends, this is the essential work of the church we are called to at this time. To give voice to our gratitude at the inconceivable surprise of living. To hold dear those whose lives have been upended. To express our desire for the gift of the Spirit to empower us and fill us with the reality of God’s kingdom. Let us open ourselves up so that the wind of the Spirt might blow through us, for the Spirit, she is coming. May it be so.