praying through the messy middle

praying through the messy middle

After Jesus was raised from the dead, there was no going back to normal for the first disciples. I also believe there is no going back to normal for us. Post-pandemic life will be different. What if the difference will be much more than normal vs normal plus more Zoom, or normal vs normal plus a new pastor? Jesus led the first disciples through a much deeper transformation. What could it be like to follow?

As faith was first becoming my own, I read and reread the gospels. My life was changing; full of possibility but also grief and disorientation. I clung to the gospels. I read them like very short novels, without study guides or notes. I also read the Gospel of Mark together with people at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Ithaca, New York. I began to trust that Jesus then is Jesus now. I began to feel Jesus with me, drawing me to prayer as I walked across campus and studied in the Engineering Library.

The Book of Acts reveals so much with so few words about the 50 days between the first Easter and Pentecost. Chiefly, the first disciples simply prayed.

"All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers" (Acts 1).

Did this time of prayer warm them to receive on Pentecost tongues of holy flame? Surely. It's also a sign of truth we need to hear. New beginning does not immediately follow the end. After the end, comes a messy, exciting, uncertain, wearying, promising middle. Later, comes the new beginning. Jesus warned the new disciples not to launch prematurely into a new beginning. Jesus "ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father." Jesus reminded them, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set." As if their impulses would lead them astray. Constant devotion to prayer was a practice for the messy middle, leaning deeper into the transformation, showing up for it, surrendering to God through it, rather than trying to skip past it.

Remind me not to skip past it. I help others anticipate the future, but I’m also still learning how not to take shortcuts with the often unpleasant feelings that come with being stuck in between. And right now we are stuck in between, in so many ways. I won't let that dispel my excitement for me to begin at Zion. God, don't let my excitement fool me!

Thankfully, God knows we need help with middles. God drew the first disciples into prayer through Christ's crucifixion. By the cross, they saw, as Peter did, how imperfectly and unconsciously they served Christ in his first life. Purified of that arrogance and ignorance and full of God's deep wisdom and unconditional love, their desire to be with God was renewed. Prayer was not dry and dutiful but authentic, humble, and focused truly on God and not on proving their piety.

As God drew them, so God draws us. "What is the prayer the Holy Spirit is praying within you?" a teacher of prayer once asked. Which sounded very strange at first but has since become a great consolation.

Prayer is not at all about me or what I think I'm doing. Instead, it involves slowing down and tuning in to the prayer the Spirit is already praying within us. It’s the process of receiving the best gifts of God, wrapped as they often are in loss and trauma, struggle and a feeling of God's absence, and the awareness of how far short we fall. Still the Spirit prays within you, preparing you and the world for glory we cannot yet imagine. In prayer, Christ helps us know when to let go, when to hold on, and when to change and swim upstream against our instincts.

May 23, the Sunday of Pentecost, will be my first Sunday with you as your pastor. In the preparation weeks before that day, I'll be praying with and for you. What would it look like to slow down together and simply tune in to God? To simply be with God? What invitations might we hear to change and flow like water? And to wait with God in the unresolved in between?

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Clark