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When my big sister was 6 she prayed and prayed every night for a baby sister. My mother Peggy had what is called RH factor , which there was no treatment for in the 60’s like there is now. Her blood created anti-bodies against the blood of her babies and it grew worse with each subsequent pregnancy. Peggy had beat the odds with 2 healthy babies and was told she could not have another – also she was on birth control…so every night when my big sister Barbara prayed and prayed for a baby sister my mom was like, “yeah…keep praying”. And then despite the odds and despite the birth control, Peggy got pregnant with me. And despite the odds and despite what every Doctor said, she gave birth to me. And despite the odds and despite fact that the nurses told her not to try and breastfeed me, since I wasn’t going to live and if I did she would only make me more sick, yes despite this all my mother nursed me and while she did she prayed and she sang hymns. When they finally took me home, they basically handed me to my big sister and was like, “here”.
At times I really believe that the only reason I am alive is the prayers and hymn singing of these two women. It is one of those things I believe and yet cannot fully explain.
I don’t think it’s my own faith or prayer that has in anyway saved me…but it is the faith and prayer of others.
Don’t mistake me, I would never suggest that if we pray hard enough we can keep our loved ones from dying. There’s a difference between thinking we can be like God and seeing in retrospect the way God has used the prayers of others to help and save us. But just because we don’t get to decide the effect prayer has in the world does not mean that prayer has no effect in the world. And this week I keep thinking about how perhaps we are being held in prayer, protected by prayer, and loved through the prayers of others in ways we don’t even perceive.
Prayer plays an interesting role in the divine jailbreak story we just heard from Acts, because it sort of feels like something out of a comic book – as if Paul and Silas have obtained superhero levels of faith. Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound and Spiderman has heightened senses but Paul and Silas can cause earthquakes that free them from prison just by praying and singing hymns.
I really really really want to see myself in Paul and Silas kind of in the same way that I realy really want to see myself in Wonder Woman. I want to think of myself as having that kind of super-hero faith. The kind that, were I falsely accused, stripped of my clothing, severely beaten with rods, thrown into the depths of a first century jail cell and shackled, that I too would respond not by crying like a baby or being immobilized with fear and hatred but like Paul and Silas I would respond in the dark of night by praying and singing hymns. I’ve not been in that particular situation or anything vaguely like it and maybe in true hardship I would surprise myself, but given how I respond to even minor irritations, that super hero response feels unlikely.
Because if I’m honest I have to admit that if I pull a muscle and can’t work out for two weeks or even if I just run out of coffee at home, I lose faith.
I’ve never known what to do with messages that tell me to “just pray and have more faith and everything will be fine”. Because those kinds of messages never make me have more faith. They make me have more guilt for not having more faith. And then I just feel more stuck in this feeling of spiritual inadequacy.
My own spiritual inadequacy was in full force this week as I struggled in this campaign season to see the humanity in my ideological “other”. Along with much of the country I feel hopelessly shackled to my own beliefs and ideology and world view – a prisoner with everyone else in this culture war. I found this week that my own ability to access the better part of myself, the part that can see the other side as also bearing the image of God, I found this week that I am so filled with vitriol when I hear certain political figures speak that I can even feel it in my body. Basically if my only hope is my own stingy heart or my own mortal level of faith then I am hopeless.
And then I was tagged in a youtube video.
It was Thursday night and I was standing in the kitchen of a friend’s house when I saw a link to a video featuring a middle aged white guy in a goatee and a trucker hat – apparently a guy named Larry had made a video message to me.
Absolutely sure he was yet another arrogant conservative who felt the need to mansplain to me why I’m a dangerous heretic and not a real pastor I braced myself for a fight. Had I known what was really on this video I would have instead prepared my heart and not my fists.
Instead, I stood in my friend’s kitchen and listened to this self-described “former Marine, Biker, gun-toting, NRA member, conservative Republican” say how Pastor Reagan’s beautiful Sermon on Thomas made him cry….it tore him apart. He thanked us for helping to peel away the callauses on his heart and helping to make him love.
Larry is exactly the kind of person who all week I was feeling spiritually inadequate to love or even see as a brother in any way. And yet it was HIS faith, HIS broken and healed heart, HIS love that gave me the heart and faith I lacked. I didn’t create if for myself and yet there it was.
So, as someone who is not unfamiliar with the feeling of spiritual inadequacy, which character do I really relate to in the story of Paul and Silas in prison? It’s not really Paul and Silas at all, it’s the other prisoners. Verses 25-26 tell us: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
Everyone’s chains were unfastened. Not just the ones praying and singing. But everyone.
I love that it was only Paul and Silas who prayed and sang hymns and yet it was all the prisoners who were freed. Like somehow the faith of 2 was sufficient for the whole group. And later the belief of the jailer was enough for his entire household to experience salvation.
I relate to being in the dark. I relate to feeling shackled to certain ways of thinking and feeling and acting. I relate to not being able to free myself and yet still experiencing freedom. In other words, I relate to relying on the faith of others, the songs of others, the prayers of others.
So many of us have felt tortured by not knowing if we have enough faith or the right kind of faith. I’ve said this before but perhaps it bears repeating: faith is never given in sufficient quantities to individuals…it’s given in sufficient quantities to communities. Because this thing isn’t an individual competition, it’s a team sport.
God has provided in us all the faith sufficient for our freedom. We just have to take turns being the ones being lowered through the roof to Jesus and being the ones doing the lowering.
There’s enough. There’s enough faith. There’s enough love. There’s enough hymn singing. There’s enough freedom.
And for we who bear the name Christian prayer and love and faith and hymns are our birthright. Even if we don’t always know how to pray and we love poorly and have little faith and don’t like all the hymns…even then all of this is ours just as it has been the birthright of all the people I’d God for millennia. Even when we don’t have enough of our own, there is enough.
Even Jesus’ prayers for us surround us. As weird as that sounds.
Our Gospel reading is of Jesus’ prayer at the end of his ministry on Earth. He prays to the Father not just for his disciples, but for those who will believe as a result of his disciples’ testimony – um, if you’re doing the math at home….that means us. All that stuff we heard about Jesus praying that we be one with him and the father – that’s what all of this is. When we sing hymns we join our voices to those who have sung before us – Paul and Silas in prison and the early Christians in the upper room, and the dessert fathers and mothers escaping persecution and medieval monks carrying the tradition, and the civil rights marchers trudging the path of faith and resistance and Peggy in that hospital rocking chair and us together here tonight.
There is just so much prayer and faith surrounding us all the time and effecting us in ways we don’t even know and for this abundance in the face of my own insufficiency, for your faith and prayer and song which unshackles me over and over and for the God who made it all possible, I give thanks. Amen.