Friday, April 29, 2016

The Power of Communal Prayer

(Note: This essay is a continuation of last week's piece on the theology of prayer as always being communal in nature.)   

                                                           (Image: The Moravian prayer meeting at Herrnhut)

Even though all prayer is communal in light of the mystical “communion of the saints,” that doesn’t mean that we can give up on the actual practice of communal prayer in the presence of one another. Throughout Christian history, it has been repeatedly shown that communal prayer has a strength all its own. The first believers in Jesus were all gathered together in the upper room in constant prayer, and then came the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Later on in the book of Acts, the believers were all gathered together in prayer when Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison took place (12:5-12), and at another communal prayer meeting, their prayers were evidently so powerful that the entire house was shaken (4:31).
There’s an old story that comes down to us from the desert fathers, those heroes of the faith from the 3rd century onward who decided to live as exemplary a Christian life as they possibly could by retreating into the desert to participate in prayer, the study of Scripture, and spiritual warfare. One hermit, after several years of devoting himself to prayer, was feeling pretty good about the power and effectiveness of his prayers. The Lord granted him a vision in a dream of what his prayers looked like: he saw himself at prayer, and flitting upwards towards heaven were bright little sparks, symbolizing his prayers. At first he was cheered by this pleasant and encouraging image. But then the vision shifted, and he could see the nearby church engaged in one of their services of prayer. Instead of little sparks flitting heavenwards, here was a vast column of flame, filling up the sky as it burst up toward the throne of God. The hermit was duly chastened by the reminder—as powerful as one man’s prayers might be, they are nothing compared to the unified prayers of the people of God in worship.
One of the other great stories about persistent, communal prayer comes from the Moravian Christian community at Herrnhut, Germany in the 1700s. Led by Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf, they devoted themselves to the passionate pursuit of Christ, and began to operate a continuous prayer watch. Members of the community would take up a rotation so that there would always be some Christians at prayer together in Herrnhut, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The Moravians carried out this prayer marathon not only for one or two years, but for an entire century. And in those hundred years, God used the Moravians to help launch the Golden Age of Protestant missions, bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth, as well as playing a role in sparking the Great Awakening in Britain and America. Moravian missionaries became the first wave of the Protestant global church, selling themselves into slavery to bring the Gospel to the West Indies even before William Carey, heralded as “the father of modern missions,” ever dreamed of going to India. Moravians were also instrumental in bringing the great preacher John Wesley into a new and dynamic experience of faith in Christ early in his adulthood, and Wesley and his followers would go on to spark the Great Awakening on both sides of the Atlantic. All of this began with a prayer meeting in Herrnhut.
Another famous prayer meeting came in 1806, when five students at Williams College, in Massachusetts, met outdoors to talk about theology and missions service. A thunderstorm blew up quickly, and they took refuge under a haystack and there began to pray for the cause of the Christian missionary endeavor. Those students were so inspired by the events of that day that they decided to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions—the end result being that this humble little prayer gathering, “the Haystack Prayer Meeting,” became the launching-point for the entire missionary endeavor that would blossom from the eastern United States over the subsequent decades and send the Gospel to the farthest reaches of the globe.
Persistent, communal prayer can also be shown to have been at the root of many of the greatest revivals in Christian history, including the Azusa Street Revival that launched the worldwide explosion of Pentecostal Christianity. Many of the most influential ministers of the Christian tradition, like Charles H. Spurgeon, “the Prince of Preachers,” who held captive audiences of thousands of skeptical Londoners in the late 1800s with his fearless and eloquent proclamation of the grace of God, claimed that the real credit for their success in ministry was due to the power of others’ prayer—in Spurgeon’s case, a group of his parishioners who met together to pray for him while he was preaching, gathered in a prayer-room that lay directly beneath his pulpit.
In all of these instances, and many more besides, one lesson can be gleaned—the gathered prayer of the people of God is a powerful and compelling thing, perhaps the most powerful human-driven force in the world, in that it invokes the limitless power of God. For this reason, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph. 6:18), and “do not give up meeting together” (Heb. 10:25). Prayer really can change the world.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 34

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
 (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)


“God be praised!” the shout resounded over the banks of the little stream.
While the other four sat up drowsily, their hair skewed in every direction imaginable from the night’s slumber, Alfred was already up and limping happily toward the stream.  Singing with a full baritone voice, quite off-key, he waded into the brook.  The four companions watched him dazedly, wondering where he found the energy to appear so lively at such an early hour.
“Alfred!” Edward called out, rising stiffly from the thin mat he had been stretched out on.  When his brother turned to him, he grinned brightly.  “You'll wake everyone in the villages!”
“Let them hear it, Ed!” he said happily, splashing the cold water over his bare arms and face.  “This is a new day for me!”
Hannah gave him a disapproving look and wandered further down the stream while the two brothers continued to talk.   
“I can’t understand it, Ed,” Alfred said, shivering as he stepped gingerly back onto the bank.  “Last night I began to search myself, to confess my sins and yield up all those areas of my life that I had been holding back.  I know I’m far from through this step, but nevertheless I feel so—clean!  So new and revitalized.”
Justin rose to meet the two men, talking so earnestly in the light of the morning sun.  “I hate to disrupt this, my friends, but we should set out again, immediately if possible.”
Oswald groaned, stretching his sore muscles.  “Never have I marched so hard in my life."
“Yes,” Alfred spoke excitedly, “we must be off.  And we must take the main road once again.”
“For safety’s sake, Alfred, I think perhaps we should remain to the side of it,” Justin replied.
“What can harm us?” he retorted with a grin.
“Your old friends could,” said Oswald.
Alfred laughed and waved it off.  “I doubt it.  They’re probably still lost in the woods somewhere.  Besides, Ed and I have a plan by which to proceed should they or anyone else surprise us.”
Justin smirked.  “Did you ever think of letting the others in on this secret?”
“No,” said Alfred.  “The more people who know, the greater the chance the secret would be lost.  And our lives may depend on it.”
Edward nodded.  “Please understand, my friends, that this is not out of any distrust of you.  We have merely taken several extra precautions to maintain the safety of the robe.  And until we deliver it safely, we cannot let you know the secret.  Especially you, Justin.  With your experience concerning the robe, we shall need you to remain in the darkness in this matter until we reach that point.”
“Well then,” Justin sighed.  “I suppose I'll go along with all this, at least for now. Back to the road it is, then.  Edward, go find Hannah while we break camp.  We should be able to cover several leagues today with the weather so fair.”
Edward left the three men and strolled slowly along the bank in the direction he had seen Hannah go.  After several minutes, he found her sitting near the stream, watching it ripple past.  Even before he spoke with her, Edward could tell she was angry about something, although he had no idea what it could be.  Her brow was furrowed, her eyes holding a steely glare on the water’s dancing surface.
Pausing, he cleared his throat to catch her attention.  She didn't even look up to see him, though, but rather let out a long sigh.
He was at a loss to know what to say.  Although something deep within him pressured him to ask her to confide in him, he lacked the courage to do so.  He could not suppress a wry smile at the thought that despite all the dangers he had faced, his greatest losses of courage came more when dealing with those closest to himself.
“It’s time to go, Hannah.”
She shook her head.  “It’s not as easy as it seems, Edward.”  Her voice was hollow, tinged with a note of despair.
Even though they had shared their thoughts over and over with one another, still Edward felt a sense of timidity when speaking with her.  He drew a deep breath and lowered himself down beside her.  The silence hung like a veil between them, uncomfortable and painfully apparent.  At long last, she broke her gaze with the stream and looked at him.
“Do you think of your father often?”
He winced, feeling once again the weight of that scar upon his soul.   
“Sometimes. My mother died when I was born, and so it was his hand that raised me and taught me.”
“My mother died in childbirth as well,” Hannah said, her eyes growing distant.  “What was your father like?”
“He was a strong man...until a sickness weakened him near the end.  He was also proud, very proud of his race.  He would not let us forget the blood of Saxon nobles that coursed through our veins.”
“He held his race dearest to his heart?”
“No,” Edward said with a melancholy smile.  “He taught us that as important as being Saxon was, it could not compare with the gift that comes through knowing Christ.  I can remember seeing him on his knees every night, sometimes for hours. It was a devotion I have only seen rarely, even in the monastery.”
Hannah nodded.  “My father was a man of faith as well, and my thoughts have been returning to him of late.”  A broken sob escaped her, and tears began to spill onto her cheeks.  “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, brushing the tears away.  “I didn’t want to cry in front of you.”
“That’s all right,” he replied softly.  “Sometimes it helps.”
She nodded and managed to compose herself very quickly.  “I'm ready to go,” she said at last, but made no move to rise.
“Is there something else that's been bothering you?” he asked.
A frown twitched at the corner of her lips.  “Yes, there is something.  I don't trust your brother.  He's a murderer and a criminal—we’ve both seen that with our own eyes.”
“Yes, I understand. But my hope--my belief--is that the man who was the murderer is dead, and my brother is a new creation.  I'm trying to trust him, to believe the best of him, and in time I hope he can win your trust too.”
“Why should I trust him?”
“He has the Holy Spirit dwelling within him.”
“You mean to say that he is a Christian, then.  If this is so, then I cannot become one.  Such men cannot inherit the promises of God.”
Edward sighed.  “In and of ourselves, none of us can hope to inherit the promises of God. No one is righteous. But with his grace, even the worst can be transformed into the heirs of Christ. I hope someday you'll see that.”
“Perhaps,” she huffed, “but it will not be today.”  With that, she rose and began to make her way back in the direction of camp.
~ ~ ~
When London appeared on the distant horizon, she could not suppress a shudder.  It sat brooding on the banks of that great river, its buildings rising up as specters of a dim yet fearsome past.  She sighed, shaking her head to dispel the memories.  It seemed so long ago…yet she could still see in her mind the distraught face of Rachel, the old woman, weeping for her sons in the street.
Edward watched her carefully as they walked toward the city, and he could see the waves of distress breaking over her.  “Are you all right?” he whispered, moving up beside her.
“No,” she said. “No, but I have to go on.”  Her eyes blazed into his with a sorrow and a determination beyond what words were capable of expressing.  After all that she had gone through and all of the trials forced upon her, Edward was amazed at her strength of will.
“It will work,” he assured her, trying his best to sound confident in the face of the very likely possibility that they would fail.
“I hope so."
It took several minutes to descend toward the gates of the city and into the narrow streets that wound their way toward the waters of the Thames.  The day was cool and blustery, with a strong wind blowing on them as they strode through the city.
Little traffic was seen, since most of the shops had been closed up as evening fell over the countryside.  Though the last light of day was quickly failing, they walked first to the prison, to that formidable stronghold where the enemies of the King were kept.  Its dark stone walls rose up above them, and Hannah’s mind was brought back to her first terrible visit there.
Three guards stood at attention near the gates while another stepped forward, nodding his head toward their party.  
“What is your business here?”
Hannah stepped forward.  “I have come to see my uncle.  He was taken in the riots at the King’s coronation.”
The guard’s face turned up in a sneer.  “Another Jew, eh?  I’m afraid I cannot allow you to enter.  This is a prison.  We cannot simply allow people to walk in.”
“Please,” she protested, her voice breaking for a moment.  “I need to speak with him.  He is my only relative who remains alive.”
He frowned, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword.  “I have said all that I will say, Jewess.  I would advise you to leave before we are forced to remove you.”
At this moment, Justin stepped forward, his face grim.  “I am Justin of York, a King’s man.  I ask that you reconsider.  It would only take a moment.”
The guard shook his head in wonder, as if he could not believe anyone could be so dull of wit.  
“This is a prison!  If we allowed everyone to come in who wanted to, it would be impossible to prevent escapes!  I’m sorry, sir.  Without an order from one of my superiors, I cannot allow you in.”
“What harm could one girl do to your prison?  The rest of us will remain out here until she is finished.  She was allowed in before, so why restrict her access now?”
The guard shifted uncomfortably, looking with disdain at her.  After a moment, he sighed.  “It would be permissible, I suppose.  But—I doubt she will find what she is looking for.”
Hannah stared at him, startled.  “Why not?  What has happened?  I was told—”
“It matters not what you were told,” the guard cut her off.  I only know what my orders tell me.  Just a few days ago we were informed that the prisons were too crowded, and they shipped out all the Jews that had been taken for offenses during the riots.  There weren’t many left, to tell the truth.  Half of the prisoners here die from sickness, and the other half only see the sun for a few hours before execution.  Seldom are any pardoned.”
“But my uncle had a price,” Hannah protested.  “I was told that he could be freed if we paid a sum towards the King’s war effort.”
“Many things change with time,” the guard snapped back, his face unsympathetic.
“Can you tell me where these prisoners were taken?” Justin asked.
The guard laughed cynically.  “Probably to the gallows!  But I don’t know for certain.  They never tell us such matters.  You would have to inquire of one of the court officials or the prison-master.”
“Is the prison-master here?” Hannah asked hopefully.
“No, he most certainly is not.  And don’t ask me where to find him, because I haven’t any idea.”
“Then whom can we go to for information?” Justin asked.  “Will the prison-master be back here tomorrow?”
“I doubt it. He hasn’t been here for nearly a week.”
Justin nodded, knowing they would get nothing more from the guard.  Just as they were turning away, one of the other guards spoke up.  
“One moment, good sirs!  My friend here was not present when we received news of the prisoners’ whereabouts.  I have been told that if anyone should come asking for those men, to tell them this: they have been taken to a smaller prison about six miles south of the city.  It’s near the Templar preceptory.”
Hannah’s face lit up.  “Then he is not dead?”
The second guard shrugged.  “As my friend said, many have died from disease.  You shall have to see.”
“Thank you,” she said quickly, pulling her friends after her back into the city.   
It took some time before they found an inn, and despite the late hour, the keeper allowed them to take two rooms until the next morning. The four men took the largest room together and Hannah was left with the adjoining chamber.   
Most fell asleep quickly, but Justin remained wide awake, his eyes staring out the window over the city, its dark buildings barely visible in the pale moonlight.  The more he thought about the guard’s words, the more they troubled him. 
          He shook his head slowly, weariness beginning to overtake him.  I’m sure it will be fine, he reassured himself after a while, but still the doubts remained, until at last he drifted off into a deep sleep as the night wore on over London.