10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers
were praying outside. -Luke 1:10
I've always loved Tibetan prayer flags. Bright colours snapping the wind, singing the written word high to heaven. Each flag a prayer of its own; each flag supported by the one next to it. All of them moving to the same Spirit, the same Breath, the same Wind.
Zechariah is often looked upon as somewhat of a fearful Indiana Jones — entering sacred territory without complete assurance he'll ever come out alive. Heck, the dude had a rope of bells tied around one ankle with the other end left in the hands of the worshippers outside the Holy of Holies. If the bells stopped ringing, that meant the High Priest has stopped moving. If the High Priest stopped moving, chances were the High Priest had been zapped.
It had never occured to me that the worshippers outside — the ones left behind — were holding up Zechariah in prayer… intercession.
It never occured to me that his fear, his grief over being childless, his pain, his commitment to duty, his entire life was being murmured on the lips of faithful people just like him, waiting his return. He was cared about, loved. He was a husband and neighbor as well as a priest. He was one of them.
I know we tend to shy away from lament… from the open expression and confession of grief. We fear it; we even loathe it; we've been burnt far too many times for us to open up just one more time, seeking that possible intimacy with those worshippers at the door.
"A believing community shoulders hope when circumstances seem hopeless. A believing community speaks boldly into despair and longing and suggests that things do not have to remain as they are in the presence of a holy, imaginative God… Naming the ache of our yearnings is indeed faithful." (Okoro, p. 24).
On Sunday, the pastor asked a simple question: "How will I help others? And how will be helped?"
Sometimes prayer seems hollow. It's true. It does.
Ever sought out deep counsel and love, only to be patted on the shoulder and given a hearty "I'll pray for you"? I'm sure we've all had those moments. And I'm sure some of us have given more than a few of them out. Did you even forget to follow through with prayer, Henri? I have. Often.
Sometimes prayer chains become gossip rings. Sometimes our faithful community becomes unsafe. I'm sure we've all had our experiences of feeling exposed and vulnerable. And I'm sure we've all had times when we've contributed to exposing someone else and their vulnerabilities. I'm sure you have, Henri. I'd like to think of you as this spiritual giant, but even giants have their tumbles. Maybe me thinking of you as a giant doesn't help you at all.
I'm not at all sure about personal space issues or privacy settings back in Zechariah and Elizabeth's day. Perhaps they tried keeping their barrennes a secret for a time. But after some months of marriage turning into years, it would probably have become quite apparent for all to see — or not see, as it were — what the issue was. They might not have had a choice with the close quarters, the gossip, the pressure.
… the might have had family and friends uplifting them in deep prayer. Perhaps their small prayer flag was whipping in the wind right next to Elizabeth's mother's, or Zachariah's co-priests. Maybe their open woundedness spurred on honesty for others to share their woundedness in a time when it wasn't safe or easy to be a non-Roman citizen.
Henri, we have such a huge need for privacy and personal space. And I can say with confidence that my need for privacy seems 100x that of any other person. People who get to close without trust or permission are immediately suspect.
But if I'm honest… I appreciate the times when people are brave enough to share their struggles with me. It's like they've given me a precious gift that must be handled with all due care and attention. No breaking.
Yet even then, I open my mouth and nothing comes out. Fear sets in. My own frustration over my laments and their seeming sillness quell back into silence. Comparison is such a hideous creature, isn't it Henri? God cares about the smallest sparrow, but when I feel like the smallest of the small and see other sparrows with fewer wings or smaller nests, I don't really sense God wants to hear from me. Size suddenly seems to matter.
In this dark time, maybe we could all find a little courage to whispen in an ear… or written in a note… or a blunt face-to-face… a genuine intercessory prayer, whether we know what's up with our friends or family or not.
And maybe, in our darkest nights, we can watch our flags flutter in the wind together.
Until tomorrow, Henri,