Morning is the best time. With no street lamps, when light does starts to come through the windows, you know that dawn is on its way and it moves quickly. There is a stillness in the air broken only by the birds singing as they scavenge in the undergrowth, the sound of water being poured from a bucket,the rumble of a motorbike, cockerels in competition and a dog barking in the distance. From the balcony we see across the yard, the cluttered houses beyond, framed with luscious palms and giant Stingingtoes, the mountains in the distance, before a perfect cloudless sky. We know it will be hot soon, unbearably so, but for the moment this a time to enjoy. We can be thankful for this special moment when we can be refreshed with a delicious breakfast of banana, papaya, egg and some fine coffee and sit around the table in the bar to talk about the day ahead, share experiences, discuss and plan, fired by laughter and soaked in prayer.
The Bus to Dajabon
The bus left the Caribe station in Santo Domingo at 6.30 am, but by 6.00 most passengers were already in their seats patiently waiting. There were bags everywhere. A guy was helping his half paralysed brother into a seat with a loving tenderness that was touching. It was noisy with loud animated conversations but above the melee was one woman who was standing at the front speaking very loudly. She was standing under the reading light and the spotlight effect illuminated her gesturing hands. I couldn’t see who she was talking too but it sounded very passionate and urgent. It took some time before I realised that she was praying. Praying for our journey and giving praise to God with a “Gloria a Jesus, Hallelujah!” It was the point in my trip when I truly relaxed.
On Thursday our little group of internationals from China, Nigeria, Cyprus, Malaysia , Ireland, Latvia, Romania, Iran and Scotland shared a meal and sat round the fire to read and think about what Jesus said. We were studying the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We had come to the part where Jesus speaks about prayer and where he teaches the “how to” in the model for all prayer, which begins with these astonishing words “Our father in heaven…” Before that he gives two negatives – two “how not to”s: hypocritical praise seeking prayers and mechanical repeating prayers. There was so much to think about but the first one stung. It clearly pointed out that you can’t be praising God and seeking praise for yourself at the same time. It was one or the other.
This was particularly on my mind as I prepared to lead the pastoral prayer at our church on Sunday morning. I wanted it to be good, which was a worthy thought and I wanted people to think it was good, which wasn’t. I struggled with these two conflicting attitudes for some time and I thought I had it licked. But standing at the back of the church while the congregation were gathering, filling up with so many people, I began to panic and was almost overwhelmed with the dreadful thought of failure. The anxiety continued to grip me through the early part of the service and then something happened. We were singing our confession, a version of psalm 51 to the tune Ottawa, unaccompanied, with the tangible sense that we were in the presence of the almighty God- all powerful and all loving. It was as if the whole place was filled with a dazzling all-consuming light that penetrated every corner and crevice. Then it came to me with astonishing clarity “You are coming into the presence of the Holy God and you are worried about what these people think?!” “You are coming before the creator of the whole universe, the judge of all the earth, the King of kings, the Lord of lords and your are bothered about this lot ?!
When I reached the podium, the Holy Spirt took over and gave me the words so that I could give voice to the prayers of the people, to our Father in heaven, in Jesus name. It is something I hope I will never forget.
We gathered together in the corner of the lounge, a bare handful of people in a dark and depressed November evening, mildly weary and tired, busy with lots of other things on our minds and with the unspoken question “what on earth are we doing here?”. It was a congregational mid-week meeting for prayer, a centuries old tradition, the reputed “power house” of the church and we had come with a dogged commitment to something we believed in even although at times our enthusiasm and our sanity was seriously in question. Our pastor led us and read from Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Specifically, the final catalogue of practical advice in the last chapter “ Always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. This is what God wants you to do.” (CEV). It was something so beautiful and simple and intensely practical. It was one of these moments when a shaft of light suddenly breaks through into the gloom and disturbs the moribund weariness.
I went home and wrote these lines.
NEVER STOP PRAYING
“Never stop praying!”
But we leave it to the last
When there’s nothing left ..but to pray
When the crisis is already on us
When the water’s pouring in
When the cancer’s taken root
When the relationship is floundering
When the famine is already raging
When the war has begun
It’s then we stop and start to pray
When we’ve tried everything else
And be thankful
At the start of the day
Before we’ve seen it’s trouble
Before we know of sickness
Before we come into discomfort
Before we’ve tasted sorrow
Before death comes knocking