PRAYING IN 3D: Awake in the Spirit

vulturesLast year on Pentecost morning a group of jet black vultures had settled under a spreading oak tree in our front yard. Never had I seen turkey buzzards, as they are known around here, except at their grisly work in nature’s final cleanup operation. Here they were at rest. I wondered what to call them, since there are long lists of fanciful group names for birds -such as, the parliament of owls, a gaggle of geese, and my favorite, an exaltation of larks. Of course vultures could be called your basic flock; but it occurred to me they might better be a wake of vultures- so silent, but alert and ready, and dressed funereally for the occasion. I guessed they were waiting for a scout bird to call them to their next grim mission. Looking this up on an internet bird list, I found they have several suggestive names, including a congregation of vultures, and yes, a wake of vultures, especially descriptive of this group. So it seemed to me, these birds were awake for their mission.

Still looking, and wondering, I counted -eleven, plus the one on that low tree branch. It’s the twelve Apostles of the Lord. My eyes widened. They’re waiting for the Holy Spirit as instructed. The one in the tree must be St. Peter ready to hold forth. This is getting weird. It’s almost 9 AM! Then the scout bird arrived and they flew into the reality of their instinctive task somewhere down the road. And I went off to church -awake, to congregate, dressed clerically in black, and feeling Pentecostal.

The buzzards just know, because they are birds, what their task is, what is the purpose of their very existence. And they know instinctively which bird is the leader, and how to follow. Not so, for Christians, since we are human and must act spiritually with freedom and choice. The only thing that makes our spirituality Christian is the Holy Spirit. So at the start of every consideration of the techniques of prayer we must remind ourselves to ask,and to keep asking: Come, Holy Spirit (“Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior has gone before…Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his comfort.” -Book of Common Prayer, pp.226-227) This is why Christians should always follow the old saying, Pray as you can, not as you can’t; because, no amount of technique, discipline or good intentions will help us to grow and develop. Christian spirituality is the operation of God, a gift to us that should inspire every practice. This does not mean no effort is needed on our part; but that effort should always be cooperation in response to God’s prior gift. We humans always seem to want to do things on our own; waiting seems a lazy waste of time. Beware. Waiting should always come first. Keep awake.

Before plunging into the consideration of some powerful prayer techniques, here are scriptural reminders for the self-directed, the impatient or the overly zealous- which pretty much includes all of us:

  1. The Holy Spirit is sent to empower us. A lamp may be plugged into the power source (Baptism), but it still must be turned on to give illumination. Here are some Bible verses to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest:” Begin with Acts 1:8
  2. The Holy Spirit will be present, on our side and at our side, the Paraclete. John 14:16-17 and John 16:7-11.
  3. We never know how to pray on our own, nor do we need to. Real prayer will be a process we don’t initiate. We join and participate in energies already present; go with the flow. Romans 8:26-27. (This is especially important for intercessors.)
  4. We need to ask, and keep asking, for the Spirit. “Ask, search, knock” Luke 11:9-13. Sometimes, its the Giver we should seek, sometimes the gifts. Matthew 7:7-11.

Fresh Oil

Today it is still Ascensiontide on the liturgical calendar, the day before Pentecost. Christians are remembering that period of waiting for the spiritual power Jesus promised would come upon about 120 persons, including the twelve disciples. During these few days, Judas was replaced with Matthias to complete the symbolic number for a new Israel, a community gathered to continue Jesus’ mission on Earth. It is a time of waiting, like the longer season of Advent.This waiting is not passive or private, like waiting in line to board a train. or buy groceries. It involves a clear focus, attentive prayer and community.

Yesterday I had an edifying experience preparing to conduct an Ascensiontide healing service. My mind was overflowing with sermon themes and illustrations. I felt like a guest at a banquet of rich ideas. I made three outlines; and each seemed suitable for the occasion. I thought, ” The Lord must be inspiring me with pre-Pentecostal fire!”  Yet, which was the right topic? I prayed the Lord would show me the right choice knowing the leftovers could be part of the overflow just for the preacher. The calling to represent Christ in any capacity often also blesses those who serve.

Then I noticed the oil stock to be used for anointing the sick. It surely needed refreshing. The brass was tarnished and dirty. The oil soaked cotton inside was hardened and green. Gross! Why hadn’t I noticed? It embarrasses me that I can’t remember when I last cleaned it. Of course the oil is a sacramental object the Lord would use to bring healing grace, however rancid the blessed contents, or negligent the vintage priest. I polished the brass to a velvety shine, and sniffed the myrrh laced olive oil soaking into fresh cotton. Careful preparation seemed to me a good part of spiritual waiting,  just as baking fresh bread and setting the table is a hidden but normal part of a fine feast.

Later, at the scheduled worship service, it came time for scripture readings -all about waiting in prayerful community for the promise of God, framed with Psalms of praise and expectation. Then came the time for the sermon. The discourse turned out to be entirely other than the three topics I had prepared. It was an impromptu  response to the concerns of a fellow worshipper at the service. The other ideas from just  hours before were no longer relevant. “New occasions teach new duties,” as the hymn puts it.

And then, as I consecrated the fresh healing unction with prayer, a thought came bubbling into my consciousness. It seemed like a burst of light. There were no sounds, still unmistakably, a communication from the Lord. I can try putting the message into words: “It isn’t the sacramental oil that needs most to be refreshed, or the familiar teachings rephrased. You need to be filled with fresh oil, a new anointing of the Spirit. Empty yourself of old habits, memories and expectations. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. This anointing will be for a new day and more effective work.” The words FRESH OIL flashed like neon on a dark street, urgent and inviting.

I share this personal experience from yesterday, because there may be some faithful person who will also sense God is speaking. If so, empty the old stuff, find some fresh oil, wait on the Lord, and ask that you may receive the Lord’s promise afresh. Then receive a new anointing of the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. There is always more!

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Starting on Pentecost, May 15, I will begin a new series of posts entitled “PRAYING IN 3D” Deepening and maturing in Christian prayer is always the work of God the Spirit.

   “Come Holy Spirit by whose breath
life rises vibrant out of death.

Come to create, renew. inspire;
            come kindle in our hearts your fire”