Circled in Prayer

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

John 17:6-19

Today’s reading from Acts describes the first Congregational Meeting and asks the question: What’s the first thing you do when you have to make an important decision? Have you ever thought of flipping a coin or picking names out of a hat? In a way, that’s what the early followers of Jesus did to choose a replacement for Judas?

They cast lots. No one knows exactly how they chose Matthias over Justus. The majority of scholars imagine that they posted names on two stones and put the stones in a jar and shook the jar until one rock fell out. This rock was said to reflect God’s choice for spiritual leadership.

Could you imagine choosing a pastor that way? Well, until recently this was the way certain Pennsylvania Mennonite churches chose their spiritual leaders. Candidates were brought forth. Each candidate chose a book, sitting on the pulpit or a table. The one whose book contained a passage from Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord,” was chosen and immediately ordained as pastor.

Now, we don’t cast lots – we look for consensus or we take a vote. But, we can learn something from this ancient passage. The people placed every decision before God in prayer and then listened to the stirrings of God.

Leslie Weatherhead once noted that “when I pray coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” While prayer isn’t magic and doesn’t upset the stable laws of the universe, prayer still makes a difference. Prayer opens us to deeper wisdom and insight, it opens us to greater inspiration, and it opens our eyes to possibilities. Carl Jung, the psychologist, speaks of “synchronicity,” or meaningful coincidence, the unexpected encounters that come out of nowhere to change our lives. Unexpectedly we receive a call from someone we’ve been thinking of, we turn on the television and the program is about an issue that we’ve been pondering. We’re uncertain of which way to go, and we receive an intuition, have a dream, or find a book, that tips the scales one way or the other.

Whether or not we cast lots, we can pray. And we can pray about everything: we can pray about what school we or our children should go to; we can pray about how we can respond to a certain personal or professional issue; we can pray for guidance when the path is unclear; we can pray about how we should spend our time or money; we can pray for healing and insight. We can pray throughout the day: when we wake up, eat our breakfast, drink our coffee or tea, start our car, log onto our e-mail, or prepare to go to bed.

In Muslim countries, a crier from the mosque calls people to prayer five times each day – morning, midday, noon, midafternoon, and night. People stop what they’re doing, roll out their rugs, bow down, and recite a passage from the Quran. There’s nothing new about this. In Christian monasteries for well over a thousand years, monastics have prayed the hours – the offices, a time to recite a psalm and say a prayer – seven times each day – midnight, 3 a.m., 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., and 9 p.m. While we probably won’t get up at midnight or three unless we have insomnia, this practice reminds us that prayer should be as natural as breathing and that we can stop to pray any moment of the day, remembering that God is with us, God is guiding us, and that we can connect with God and find wisdom for every situation, at church, work, or home.

In the gospel passage, something remarkable is going on. Jesus is praying for his followers then and now. Can you imagine that – Jesus is praying for you? Jesus is praying for us and our church. Jesus is praying for our unity and protection. Jesus recognizes the pitfalls of life, how easy it is to go astray, and how often we need help from a higher power.

Jesus’ prayer reminds us that we are never alone or without resources, and that we can invoke God’s guidance and protection at any time or place.

I think many of you know about the prayer of St. Patrick. It was initially a prayer of protection for those in danger. Perhaps St. Patrick drew a circle around himself and then said:

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
near and far,
Alone or in a multitude.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.

Jesus is praying for us and wants us to pray for each other, and in every decision make. Prayer changes things, and when we pray we know that God is with us and that we have everything we need to flourish, succeed, and serve the world.