Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Prayer and Quarantine

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Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

 

Thanks for your faithful, consistent, diligent work to preach the good news.

Thanks for giving shape to a life of hope when there is despair, to a life of faith when there is unbelief, and a life of grace when all that is ever voiced is blame, blame, and more blame.

A little bit about quarantine

I don’t know about you, but I am getting worn out by the social distancing, the self isolation, and the voluntary quarantine. Quarantine—a word that was shaped by and takes its meaning from the forty days certain sailors once had to remain in isolation to ensure that they hadn’t brought the plague—is what the forty days of Lent (not Easter) should feel like. I am experiencing this quarantine as slightly soul-sucking. Sort of like a spiritual dementor from Harry Potter.

And yet the idea of quarantining semi-voluntarily in social isolation actually resonates with the RCL texts for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 24, 2020). Both the first lesson from Acts 1:6-14 and the Gospel reading from John 17:1-11 have intimate isolation as their presumed narrative context. But I want to focus primarily on the passage from Acts this week, and to point to what it might teach us and ours about prayer in the midst of quarantine.

A word about prayer in the midst of quarantine

If one backs up a few verses before the appointed Acts reading starts—and as always, please consider adding a couple of verses—we hear that Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:4-5). So there they were, having “come together,” waiting for the promise of the Father. Waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And waiting, as they asked Jesus, for the restoration of “the kingdom to Israel.”

Again, I don’t know about you, but as I’ve grown a bit weary from my current circumstances, I too eagerly am awaiting this trinitarian set of miraculous blessings—the fulfillment of the Father’s promise, the restoration of the kingdom by the Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Couldn’t you use a little Holy Spirit outpouring right now? I mean—seriously and honestly—couldn’t you stand a little old-fashioned Holy Spirit renewal right now? I could!

But Jesus said, “You’re going to have to wait a while longer. It’s not for you or even me to know when the Father will act. Go back to the city and wait.” So Jesus was taken from them as he ascended to the right hand of the Father, and the disciples returned to Jerusalem and “went to the room upstairs where they were staying” (Acts 1:13). And then, just so you and I would know how crowded they al were as they isolated together in an upstairs guest room, Acts names them all—“Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James ... together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” That’s a lot of human flesh in one room!

While we are waiting with the disciples—both narratively as readers and literally in our own context—let’s take a lesson from them as they waited: “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer,” we are told.

So how is your prayer life right now? 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. Maybe what I need now—maybe what a lot of folks need now—is a word about prayer.

My brother Karl Jacobson—who is also a Working Preacher—taught me that to pray is “to open a window of the soul to the kingdom of God.” Karl is riffing off of the great, mystical, Jewish Bible scholar Abraham Heschel, who write that pray is to “open a window to Him [God].” Heschel wrote:

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.1

Heschel concludes, “It is gratefulness that makes the great.” But then adds, “However, we often lack the strength to be grateful, the courage to answer, the ability to pray.”

And then—writing in 1945 but with a positively prophetic word about our current reality—Heschel positively waxed poetic: “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.”

A quarantine for the soul. So in the midst of a quarantine that is soul-sucking, the answer is to quarantine our souls from suffering ... through prayer!

As we await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth and end this pandemic, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit to renew our own spiritual lives, we can do so by opening the windows of our souls to the kingdom of God. The words from this week’s psalm gives us some language to do so:

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness, Selah
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
     at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
     at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
      you restored your heritage when it languished;
your flock found a dwelling in it;
      in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

Thank you, Working Preacher. May you be renewed in your spirit so that you may renew others with the Spirit of God.

Rolf Jacobson


Notes

  1. Heschel, “Prayer,” (1945).
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