Last weekend, The Princess and I went to the Spring Fair at Big Red Dog Elementary School. They had a moon bounce, and the Fire Department’s Smoke House, and there was a rummage sale and lunch and face-painting, but the great feature of this event every year is the Cake Walk. I’ve been buying tickets for children to do the Cake Walk since #1 Son was in kindergarten. We have never won a single thing. The money goes to support the PTO’s good work, so I am not counting it as lost, exactly. But this was our last chance at it, and I found myself reflecting on luck and chance and when we pray.
I wouldn’t pray to win the cake walk. Would you? Maybe we would have done so when we were little children. “Oh please! Oh please! Oh please! Let me win it! Let me win it! Let me win and get the cake in the shape of a bunny! Oh please! Oh please! Oh please!!!”
I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for a cake, but I’ve probably prayed for some things along the way that I would rather not tell you about now. And maybe you have, too. I’ve prayed, at the beginning of a flight, for the plane to stay in the air! I’ve prayed for something not to happen even when it was clearly inevitable, and I’ve prayed for something to happen even when I didn’t think it was possible. Perhaps we all have.
Reading the story of how the disciples added a person to their number makes me wonder about how they prayed all those years ago. We hear that they were casting lots, and it may sound as random to us as who wins the cake walk! Or it may sound as superstitious as the Ouija board my grandmother warned me against using. Certainly, when the disciples took potshards, which were broken pieces of pottery, and inscribed them with the names of Barsabbas and Matthias, they were adding a random element to the decision-making. But it seems fairly sure they thought God had control of the process and were looking for a way to let God “prove” it.
Before they ever cast lots, the disciples followed Peter’s leadership and undertook a time of discernment. They sought God’s will through study and prayer. They looked back into their knowledge of the holy stories, and they concluded, or at least agreed with Peter’s recommendation, that someone who had been with them all along ought to become one of the twelve.
Among the one hundred and twenty people there, I wonder how many were women? We know there were women at the cross, standing by faithfully at the most painful moment when the male disciples had run away to hide, when Peter himself had denied even knowing Jesus. In this first chapter of Acts, “certain women” are among those gathered in the upper room, the same room where the disciples and Jesus had their last meal together. Perhaps one of them was known among the others to be the closest to Jesus, or the best at talking about him, or the most faithful and courageous. Do you think the women might have been praying for God to choose one of them?
After discussion and reflection, the disciples narrowed the list of possibilities to two men: Matthias, and Joseph, known as Barsabbas. I wish I could have a window into the conversations. What made these two the obvious choices? We don’t have the minutes of the meetings, so we will never know more than that they were part of the total experience of knowing Jesus, witnesses to as much of his ministry as the disciples themselves. In fact, they were witnesses to more, if you take this passage literally. Not that I am suggesting you should! We must remember that the author is doing all he can not simply to share facts but to make meaning of the events and express as best he can the particular meaning he assigns to each incident and each person. But if you take the words at face value, the disciples are looking within a group that was along for the entire journey, as the text puts it:
during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us. (Acts 1:21-22, NRSV)
That is more time than the disciples themselves were with Jesus, unless they happened to be standing and watching John baptize on the day Jesus came to the Jordan and met him.
I wonder if, looking around that day, they found there were only two men who met that qualification?
And if you were one of the two, what would you have prayed? To be one of the twelve meant a life of service to the message of Jesus. It meant opposing the ruling forces of the time. For some of them it would mean jail. For some it would mean death.
When we pray about a major transition in our lives, it can feel that frightening. What do we say then, when we pray?
One of the preachers in Atlanta, Dr. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City, asked us to pair off with someone we didn’t know and pray for him or for her. He gave us a list of what he called “anointings of the Spirit” that we might feel we needed in our lives. Dr. Forbes said, “you’ll know when I describe the one you need. It will cause a burning in your heart.”
The people seated around me paired off with one another, and I looked across the aisle, there in the balcony of the enormous Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. I caught the eye of a man on the other side, and we met at the brass banister dividing the stairs. He asked me what I needed, and I told him I felt that burning when Dr. Forbes spoke of asking for willingness. My prayer partner, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia, told me a bit about his situation and he said, at the moment I was thinking it, that we were in much the same position. Yet he asked not for willingness, but for obedience.
Did Matthias and Barsabbas pray for willingness? Did they pray for obedience? Or did they pray earnestly that their friends might think of someone else for the job?
When the disciples were ready to make a choice, they prayed these words: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Then they prayed, “Show us which one of these you have chosen.”
How do we look for God’s confirmation when we are trying to make a decision? We probably don’t shake up pieces of broken pottery and toss them onto the ground. Or if you do, I would like to hear more about it! But we may look for hints or signs or indications in our hearts. For some of us it may be a sense of peace. For some it may be a burst of positive energy that convinces us we know what God is speaking. And for some of us it may be the burning feeling I felt in Atlanta, telling me not what I needed to do, but what I needed to ask for, first.
Lord, you know my heart, and his and hers and theirs, too. You know everyone’s heart. Help us to know what we need to ask for when we pray, and then show us what you would have us do. Amen.