Prayer: Limping Around the Altar

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Limping around the altar.

The words from 1st Kings this Sunday morning about the prophets of Baal trying to quicken fire from heaven onto their offerings with shouts, cries, and blood. But, of course, in vain. After hours of circling their offerings pleading with this mysterious slumbering god to answer them they begin to get blisters on their feet. So they limp around more until there is clearly nothing left to be done.

And then it’s Elijah’s turn. He strikes me as a bit of a bad ass. But, also kind of an asshole in a way. The way he plays with the other prophets a little and rubs it in their faces with the jars and jars of water poured out on to the offering even overflowing the moat he dug around the altar. A little smug. Like he knows that a firestorm will surely rain down on his little table but you know, might as well really prove this point.

And, yet, here, maybe for a moment, he takes a different tone. Pauses. Praying something that maybe he learned in synagogue school as a child. A simple prayer for assurance. One that might come out of a moment of flailing and drowning. Elijah prays Psalm 121: I lift my eyes up to the heaven…Where does my help come from?

I lift my eyes up…

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We were about halfway through Summer Hebrew. My first class in seminary. Exhaustion from the first month of grad school, work at a church 90 minutes north, and transition into East coast culture (ie. jug handles, allergies, and ungodly humidity) was taking a toll on me. On my soul and spirit. I was weary.

Hebrew was also kicking my ass. The speed and intensity of learning the language was much more demanding than I had anticipated as a cocky, self-assured expert Christian. And so I sat in precept – the small group class that met after each lecture – overwhelmed and sensing – surprisingly – I wasn’t totally alone. There were more frustrations voiced from almost everyone. More so than the usual light-bulb revelations and epiphanies or breakthroughs, “I get it!” It was more “Argh!!! What are you talking about???”

And we got to the end of the hour ready to close in prayer. The TA – also sensing some angst – decided to do something different. She turned fingers deftly skimming her worn out Hebrew bible and paused for a moment before saying, “Hear these words from Psalm 121.” She read to us. In Hebrew first. Simply and perfectly, with a lovely surprising familiarity, strange from this beautiful, blond, blue-eyed young woman. Then her own translation afterwards. And we prayed her translation together.

Something broke in me. And I looked up and saw the same in those around me. Almost of all of us were weeping.

No doubt there is something profound about hearing God’s word read in the original tongue. Words that seemed to have come directly from God’s own lips. But, it was in the English, too, even though our teacher didn’t take time to parse every word for us, and conjugate everything correctly, and take it to a committee, somehow, somehow, somehow, something ancient and cosmic broke forth, the Holy Spirit broke in irrupting oceans of grace providing her the words to give us that we desperately needed in that moment. It was the best interpretation. For us. Maybe it wouldn’t have the same effect in another scenario, or on a Sunday morning. But, it was perfect in that moment, and exactly what we needed to come to God’s throne.

It was a moment of grace. It laid waste all my defense mechanisms, and I found myself giving up on circling my idols and own altars, not limping any more but laying there at the foot of the altar. Surrendering. Trusting. That God would provide rain in those seasons of drought and fire for those seasons of uncertainty.

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I’m sitting on a pew. Oz has finally stopped fussing and nursing and flailing in my arms. He’s asleep. Mouth slightly opened. Fingers curled around the neck of my shirt. And the organ is playing loudly but sweetly and wrapping him notes of grace. Somehow I’m comforted knowing that he will grow up not only with the music of the twins’ shrieks or Sesame Street but these glorious and holy sounds poured into his ears. Sounds building and rising like hills, those hills of God’s abiding presence, and God’s promise to not sleep and to not slumber while always watching over him.

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