In his book, Radical Prayer, David Hassel described a form of prayer that involves a kind of sacred free association, where one hands over his or her imagination to God, then just pays attention to what the Holy Spirit lifts up into consciousness. After reading this Sunday’s scriptures that were all about turning from crooked ways and doing the right thing (Ezekial 18: 25-28; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32), I did my best to open my heart and imagination to God, and here is more or less what happened. It was as if I was a character in my daughter’s Madeline L’Engel novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I was transported away from my comfortable chair on the porch, skipping through space and time like a stone let loose from a little boy’s hand skittering across a calm pond.
My travels first dropped me into the echoing vault of a hand-built, Fifth Century church listening to a North African bishop named Augustine. He read from the same Gospel I had been contemplating. He said that prostitutes and tax collectors were leading the parade of believers into the Kingdom of God ahead of respectable people. I was familiar with the famous memoir he had written (i.e. The Confessions) cataloguing his young adult years of sexual addictions while his mother, Monica, prayed for his conversion. I imagined that he was considering his own past as he preached from this Gospel. There was a tone of quiet authority and conviction as he spoke. This scene faded as quickly as it arrived.
The next thing I knew, I found myself seated in a candle-lit, mud-dried room with Paul of Tarsus. Something like scales fell from his eyes. For the first time he could see clearly that his Taliban-like persecution and murder of Christians was named, “sin” rather than “zeal.” I watched the tentative early church mothers and fathers stepping into the former murderer’s eyesight offering him forgiveness for slaying their sons, daughters and grandchildren. They welcomed him first as a brother, and later as their leader.
The candle lit scene faded as I was jettisoned away to a new location. I squinted as I arrived at my new sun-dappled destination, a decade earlier than my previous encounter with Paul. A Middle Eastern woman, who appeared to be in her mid thirties, held the attention of a small crowd of about twenty people. She was telling a group of strangers about a man who knew all about a past that could have gotten her stoned to death. But he did not exercise his authority in this way-the way she had observed other so called, “holy men” exercise their authority (here she glanced back to a group of frowning men).
She described the life-changing encounter that took place next to an old well in ancient Samaria. It was here that she was offered a new life. “He gave me a new Way,” she said. Her hands cut through the air emphasizing her words with a passion and power that captivated most all of those who listened. At one point her eyes focused on the group of frowning men who were now angrily mumbling to one another, a few paces away. Her voice faltered for a moment. A second later, her words caught fire again as her eyes reconnected with the group most absorbed in her story. I wanted to stay and listen to this woman who spoke with conviction and authority in such a hostile place.
I was caught off guard when I was transported back to the chair on my porch. As I sat in contemplation of this strange journey, a collage of faces and names of people I have known showed up. These were people like Augustine, Paul, and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, who knew the pain of following a dead-end pathway, who found their way through God’s grace to healing, conversion, and redemption.
In our Christian tradition, the leaders who have most profoundly impacted the Church are those who know Christ’s redemption first-hand. Our most influential writers, preachers, and Church leaders, like Paul, like Augustine, like the Samaritan Woman at the Well are people whose leadership was forged in the crucible of their own sin, forgiveness and redemption.
Do you pray for vocations in our church? Pray that God would open the ears of a future Augustine who may be just now wandering down the fruitless pathway of sexual adventurism while his family worries and prays. Pray that God will open the eyes of someone like a future Paul of Tarsus to acknowledge that the zeal of his certitudes has blinded him to the life of humble service to which he is being called. Pray for leaders who can manifest the courage of the Woman at the Well to witness to the life-giving compassion of a Lord who redeems, heals, and calls men and women forth to leadership.
Do you pray for yourself or a loved one who is wandering in some dark valley? Understand that you are not alone. The Church is built on the foundation of people like you and me-people who felt like their mistakes and wrong turns had placed them somewhere at the end of the line, only to find that their life had been snatched up, turned into a gift, and handed back to them free of charge.