On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. Acts 16:13-15
I absolutely love the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River.” It’s one of those hymns that will never be old-fashioned even though it is old, because it expresses a timeless message and articulates a compelling need. For the hymn-writer it took the form of an apocalyptic vision—an image of the world beyond this one—but for me it also gives a sense of something we need to feel right here and right now, that we are part of a gathering of faithful folk, seeking an experience which is uncommon and which connects us more closely to God.
Hundreds of years before Paul met Lydia, as recounted in Acts 16, the Israelites had been defeated and enslaved and forced to march to Babylon, where they lived in exile for a long time. It was a great challenge for them to remain faithful to their religion, especially since the practice of their religion hinged on going to the Temple to worship and celebrate their holidays. But they adapted and tried as hard as they could to be faithful despite being far away from the Temple and despite the fact that the Temple had been destroyed. God was more to them than a building, and there had to be other places to meet Him.
They went outside the city and met at the river, and so in our tradition, the river—any river—is the gathering place of the exiles, of the people trying to keep the faith in a foreign land. I do believe that as people of faith living in a secular society, we are in exile from the sort of place we would like to find ourselves, from a spiritual homeland. And so we gather in an attempt to recreate that feeling of home, of relationship, of connection with the Divine.
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
Lydia is called “a worshipper of God,” and that means she had a strong interest in Judaism with its one God, rather than the Greek or Roman polytheism. Going to the place of prayer, where providence brings Paul, too, she is brought to the river’s edge spiritually, too, and is changed forever. Given that she lives in the Roman world of patronage, her household comes right along with her, which seems odd to us! The people who worked for her and lived with her depended on her, and they would be expected to worship her God. We don’t know if they really believed as she did, but we do know that Lydia was changed entirely by her encounter at the river. Everyone can meet at this place of prayer, and even a woman who is a Roman citizen and a businesswoman can be touched by the message Paul brings. We don’t hear that she gives up her business, but rather we can see her as an example of someone who pursues a career as well as the callings of a spiritual life. It isn’t just contemplatives who go to a place of prayer; no matter how busy we are, no matter the demands of life upon us, we can all go. We just have to make the choice to go there.
And it’s not just the busy-ness of the work world that sometimes creates an impediment, is it? It’s also the busy-ness of our own minds. When I first tried to meditate, many years ago, I could not make my mind sit still!! It’s as if I was afraid to be quiet. Maybe I was afraid of what I might hear or feel. But for whatever reason, I could not be at rest. Think about your own response when we pray silently. At an Education Conference I attended last week, a speaker asked if any of us had times of silence during worship. Many of us raised our hands. Then she asked if it lasted longer than fifteen seconds! Many hands went down again. I think we often go longer than that, but let’s think for a moment about what we do in that time. In our fifteen seconds, do we lift up a hurried prayer for ourselves or others? There’s nothing wrong with that. But do we ever just listen for God in that time of silence?
Women and men prayed together when Paul and his fellow travelers met Lydia and the other women beside the river that day. I think of the river and its movement, of being outdoors, probably gathered under trees if they could be found. A place of prayer is a place of refreshment as well as peace.
How do we find that place of prayer? Or how do we create it for ourselves? I once visited a mansion on Long Island, New York, where the lady of the house had designated a large walk-in closet as her “prayer closet,” complete with kneeler. It was luxurious and a little odd, to my young eyes. In my house there isn’t that extra space. We each have to find our own way to meet that need. Baptists, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews all have different ways of praying—not just a difference of language but of form. We went to a Bar Mitzvah yesterday, and the prayers in the Jewish service are primarily sung. Some folks kneel and some salaam and some sit quietly in the pews.
My seminary, Andover Newton, was a funny funny place, with its highly liturgical Congregationalists sitting beside their African-American National Baptist colleagues. Every class opened with prayer, and the African-American students didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes, Lord,” when the prayer touched them. I found I enjoyed both singing a communion liturgy and being freed to respond during prayer.
Walking a labyrinth is another way of praying. Labyrinths are ancient. We confuse them with mazes, but they are not the same thing. A maze is like a puzzle. We have to use our intellect to solve them. But a labyrinth has just one continuous path, which takes a circuitous route to the center. To walk it you need only put one foot in front of the other. The path bends back against itself, but you are in a slightly different place each time. And believe me, walking one works on you! Probably the most famous labyrinth is at Chartres Cathedral in France. It is inlaid in the floor and has been there since about 1200. In recent years, the Chartres Labyrinth has been used as a model for painted labyrinths in American churches, sometimes painted on a floor, but sometimes on heavy canvas, which can be rolled out for use on a retreat or as a Lenten or Advent prayer time. I think the rise in the use of labyrinths speaks of our need to find silence, our need to go to a place of prayer, to make an appointment to be less busy.
One approach to praying in the labyrinth is to take the “Three-Fold Path.” The first step is Shedding. Imagine letting go of all the things that worry you, all the anxieties you may feel, the tasks that remain to be finished, the cross words spoken with a friend or a co-worker, the bills that need paying—all the things that keep us from having time for God.
How do we as a church supply that for each other? One attempt here is in our meditation group, A Circle of Quiet gathers, we do this by focusing on our breathing. Part of the discipline of meditative prayer is emptying, or shedding, to make room for God, to make a space to encounter God. Silence can be uncomfortable. Do we really want to hear what God might be saying to us? I like to imagine Lydia doing this as she struck out on the path down to the river, walking a path she knew and gradually letting go of everyday concerns as she approached the riverbank, seeking her spiritual center.
The second step on the path is Illumination. In the labyrinth it is represented by coming to the physical center, where there is usually a circle or at least a more open space. Having walked the path in, the hope is to be open and receptive to God’s message for your life. Lydia must have had such an experience at the place of prayer, for she chose to be baptized, aligning herself with the followers of Jesus, and then she invited them to her home. Now that may not sound like much, but in fact she was taking a great risk. In many cities, Paul’s life was in danger. He was run out of town, beaten, whipped, stoned—even left for dead. So it was no casual hospitality to invite him to come home with her. Seeking our spiritual center and really opening up to God can have life-changing consequences!
The third step on the path is Union. The path out is the same as the path in, just in reverse. Imagine walking to a familiar destination and then walking home again. And now imagine doing it having changed your life. Labyrinth walkers use this time of retracing their steps to ponder the insights they have received, to make these thoughts or feelings truly part of who they are. Lydia walks home with Paul and his friends, truly integrating her new self with her old life.
Singing may energize, preaching may inform, fellowship may delight, but it is in prayer that we are renewed, transformed, made new for God’s inbreaking kingdom.
In the face of the horrifying events in the world and close to home, we need to recuperate and heal by spending time with God.
We can’t hope to transform the world or to be transformed ourselves if we don’t take time to find our center, to be refreshed, to renew ourselves.
O Lord, help us to find the time to seek you, to seek our center, to shed the everyday and find your light, to go down to the river and gather and pray, and to come home again renewed by you. Amen.