Sunday Worship, May 24, 2020 “Devoted to Prayer”
Join us Sunday morning for Holy Trinity’s Video Worship Service with Pastor Erik, “Devoted to Prayer.”
Here’s the Sunday Worship YouTube Link:
“Devoted to Prayer” Acts 1:6-14 May 24, 2020
Sometimes I wish the Bible gave us more details. I wish it would spell things out a little more so that we might have more guidance on certain issues. Take the reading from Acts this morning. The scripture says that after Jesus ascended into heaven his disciples went to an upper room and were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. When I read this I want more details. How were they devoting themselves to prayer? What did that look like? Were they singing together? Were they silent together? Were they meditating? Were they talking? Were they kneeling or sitting? Were they doing all those things?
Now, I have read this passage before and it didn’t bother me so much that there were not more details in it about how to pray, but this week it did bother me. You see, I’ve been wondering more about prayer recently because one of my son’s best friends is in ICU on a ventilator. He is a 15 year boy who is struggling to breathe. This is actually the second time this has happened within the last month. He doesn’t have COVID-19, but has been diagnosed with an auto-immune illness.
The first time my son’s friend came home after three weeks in the hospital, it seemed like a miracle! It seemed like an answer to prayer! But now he is back in the hospital again. The doctors don’t know why exactly he’s having this serious issue again. The feelings of helplessness and fear for him and for his family have come back even stronger.
Of course we have told them we are praying for them, but I’ve been wondering this week if I’m really praying enough. Will my feeble prayers actually make a difference? What should I be saying for God to really hear? Should I be kneeling more to make the prayers more effective? Raising my hands more? Am I having doubts because if the prayers had really worked the first time why did he get sick again? Am I scared to pray harder because the harder I pray and the more I pray, the greater I feel like my disappointment will be, if my son’s friend doesn’t get better? Like, “God, I prayed so hard, why didn’t you listen?” I trust that God hears our prayers, but right now we are waiting–trying to remain steadfast in our hope for healing for our friend.
We don’t know exactly what the friends of Jesus were doing as they devoted themselves to prayer. We don’t know the details of what methods they were using, but we do know that they were waiting. They were waiting because Jesus had left them. Jesus had ascended back into heaven. But he told his followers he wouldn’t leave them alone. He would send a counselor, an advocate, a Holy Spirit to be with them. This is what the disciples are waiting for. They are waiting for the Spirit.
As they are waiting the disciples are praying. In this passage we don’t learn if there is a special formula to prayer. We don’t learn if there is one specific way to do it in order to magically get the answer that we want. What we do learn is more about the attitude we might have or the spirit in which we might pray as opposed to the correct method. The passage says the followers of Jesus were devoted to prayer. They had a spirit of devotion. They had a spirit of patience and persistence which allowed them to have some peace in the midst of the waiting that is so often the place we are in before we receive a response from God.
It is interesting that the Bible doesn’t say that the disciples were afraid in this passage. In the Gospels after Jesus has died on the cross it says that the disciples were gathered in the upper room for fear of the authorities. But this time when they are in the upper room, they are devoting themselves to prayer. It sounds like this time they are not just sitting around wringing their hands in fear wondering what to do.
Instead, this time, they are waiting expectantly. They are positioning themselves and focusing their hearts and minds on being alert to the next step God has in store for them on the spiritual journey. Several weeks before, when they are in the upper room the followers of Jesus may have been asking themselves ‘Why’ had Jesus died? Why had God seemed to have abandoned their teacher? Why had God seemed to have abandoned them?
These same questions could have been going through their minds again in the passage from Acts. Jesus had just ascended into heaven. He had just left them again. But this time his followers had the promise of the resurrection to influence their thinking. This time rather than looking back at the past and wondering what had happened, they seem to be patiently waiting and looking ahead. The question now seemed to be, “What was God going to be up to next?”
As he has wrestled with times when God seems to be silent, the author Philip Yancey writes in his book about prayer that he has come to deal with those times as he has with times of suffering. He says he has found that it doesn’t do too much good to only dwell on the “Why?” questions. But rather he has found it more helpful to ask, “Now that this has happened, what can I learn from it and how should I respond?” The major passages in the New Testament that talk about suffering tend to often focus on how growth can come out of suffering as it produces perseverance, character, patience and hope.
Yancey goes on to point out that there were many times in the Bible when people asked Jesus a question, but there were only a few times that Jesus gave them a straight answer. Instead he often responded with a question of his own, a story, or some other thought. It seems like Jesus may want us to work out things together using the principles that he taught and lived. Prayer can often operate in a similar way. In the difficult and sometimes frustrating act of pursuing God, changes can occur in us that equip us to better serve God. So maybe what we feel is abandonment, could actually be empowerment.*
In the reading from the Book of John today, we hear Jesus seeking to empower his followers as he prays for them. He prays for their protection and he prays that they will be one as he and the Father are one. Here we see Jesus calling us to nurture a spirit of one-ness as we pray. We do not get the details of whether Jesus was standing or sitting as he prayed to God or whether he was shouting or whispering the words in his head. But we do get a clear call to strive for a certain attitude when we pray—a certain mindset—which is seeking a sense of unity and solidarity so that we can have greater empathy for the situation of others.
Being one doesn’t necessarily mean we agree all the time. Being one doesn’t mean we think the same on every topic all the time. But being one means we do seek to support each other. It means we seek to understand each other. It means realizing that which connects us can be greater than that which divides us.
Being one also means that we can lean on the faith of others. The Bible gives a strong emphasis to the practice of praying in a small group or a community. Many of the Psalms have footnotes indicating group worship rather than private meditation. Jesus taught his followers to pray “Our Father, in heaven” intentionally using the plural pronoun instead of saying “My Father” or “My God.” Jesus talked about how when “two or more are gathered in my name there will I be also.”
After Jesus left and ascended into heaven his followers continued the practice of praying together. That is what we find in the reading from Acts today. The disciples and friends of Jesus were together praying in the upper room. They were together waiting for when Jesus would send the Holy Spirit among them. It was being together that got them through that time when I’m sure some of them got impatient, when some of them got frustrated or were tempted to despair. But when someone was feeling down, another could lift them up. When someone wanted to give up, another could keep them going. When someone expressed their doubt the others could let them know they were not the only ones feeling that way.
We need the support of others if we are to remain devoted in prayer and stay strong in the faith. When we are having those moments of desolation with God, it can help to know that others have felt that way too. It can also help that others have come out of such times, that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that others have been through struggles, but didn’t remain stuck there can help restore our own sense of hope.
Pastor Reiner is a person who has experienced how prayer can bring us into a close one-ness not only with God, but with each other even in the midst of a painful situation. The pastor tells how when he became a father he would slip into the rooms of his daughter and son at night when they were sleeping and make the sign of the cross over them. As he did so he would pray for their future. He had come to realize that as a parent he had so little control. He had to fall back on God.
When his kids got older, his son developed epilepsy. The pastor said the first grand mal seizure his son had terrified him. They called for an ambulance, and he held his son as his body shook and trembled. Pastor Reiner said he tried to speak calming words while on the inside he was the opposite of calm. The pastor said he tried to pray, to consciously pour his spirit into his son to take on his son’s pain. While it was a horrifying experience, he said he also never felt closer to his son than during that first seizure when he held him, when they both felt helpless and afraid together.
Perhaps part of the essence of prayer, then, is realizing our common vulnerability as human beings. Maybe it has to do with allowing our empathy to flow out us so that we can recognize that we are one, and we need to hold each other up when we feel helpless and afraid because it is in holding each other up that we realize that God is holding us all together.
So while I don’t know if I am doing it enough or in the right way, I’m going to still try and lift up my son’s friend in prayer. While I don’t know if I’m saying the right words or if my focus is as great as it should be, I’m still going try to have a spirit of devotion as we wait for news of how he is doing. I am still going to try to remain steadfast in faith, and I’ll try to allow my heart to be open to his family’s pain and in some way lend some spiritual strength. And I will try to continue to trust that nothing can separate my son’s friend from the love of God in Christ Jesus, for perhaps that is the only detail about prayer that we really need to know—that no matter what difficulty might come our way, we are still connected to God.
-Pastor Erik Goehner
* (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by, Philip Yancey pp. 205-206)