The Seventh Time:
So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” -1 Kings 18:42-44 /The seventh time… What an understated phrase.
Here’s something about prayer you likely already know: The sort of prayer that gives birth to new life is slow. Elijah prayed for fire once. He prayed for rain seven times. This kind of prayer that requires stamina. Let’s just ask the obvious question. What’s with the wait? If God wants to do it, & Elijah’s asking, what’s with the wait?
Sue Monk Kidd, in her book, When the Heart Waits, spent some time living at a monastery. A little ways into her time there, she tells the story of a conversation she had with one of the monks. “I can’t seem to get used to the idea of doing nothing.” He broke into a wonderful grin. “Well, there’s the problem right there, young lady. You’ve bought into the cultural myth that when you’re waiting you’re doing nothing.” Then he took his hands & placed them on my shoulders, peered straight into my eyes & said, “I hope you’ll hear what I’m about to tell you. I hope you’ll hear it all the way down to your toes.
When you’re waiting, you’re not doing nothing. You’re doing the most important something there is. You’re allowing your soul to grow up. If you can’t be still & wait, you can’t become what God created you to be.” When God gave the fire, Elijah wasn’t ready to handle the rain—not yet. Waiting makes us ready to receive. It makes us trustworthy vessels of power. God won’t give us His power if it will destroy us. He’s too good a Father for that. "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) But can the generous Father find a people He can give that power to & it bless them, not destroy them? A people that will let Him form them into a mature enough community to handle a downpour of His Spirit? That’s what wait is about.
Another Mountain of Prayer
On the final night of his life, the hour before his arrest, Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here & keep watch with me.” (Mt. 26:38) Those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. (Psalm 126:5) Lament turns to hope. Grief turns to joy. Death turns to resurrection. Jesus is up late at night praying in resurrection power, while the others are dozing off. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” (Matt. 26:40) A few weeks ago, I began to hear Jesus asking me the same question, “Tyler, couldn’t you keep watch with me for one hour?” It wasn’t a condemnation. It was an invitation. “Tyler, come and keep watch with me!”
The next day I began a secret tradition: Praying the Night Watches. That language is borrowed from the psalmist. In the ancient world, a watchman stayed awake at a high place, overlooking the city while everyone else slept. The “nightwatchman” is peppered all over the Psalms for the sort of prayer that happens in spiritual darkness, asking & waiting for the light of morning. It wasn’t long before I discovered that my “secret tradition” was shared by a whole lot of others. There was a whole contingent within the church I pastor praying every night for light to break the dark.
So, we made it official: 49 days of Night Watch Prayer. We organized different team of leaders for every night of the week, & invited our whole congregation into it. Why 49 days? Because it took Elijah seven times before that dark rain cloud showed up on the horizon—7 weeks for 7 times. Because waiting is an essential part of prayer. So, on day 49, will there be a sudden &miraculous end to the pandemic & a king’s feast across the globe? I don’t know.
To pray is not to be sure of the outcome. It isn’t calling your shot or making guarantees. It isn’t arrogantly pretending I know more than I do. And it isn’t the narcissism of making a global event about me and my whispers with the Creator. To pray is to decide that Jesus is trustworthy. It’s that simple. To pray is to say, “Jesus, I trust you. I believe you meant what you said—that your astounding, repeated invitation to prayer wasn’t hyperbole, it was honest. And I can’t understand all the ins and outs, but then again, I don’t completely understand why a Creator would love His rebellious Creation to the point of death. I don’t understand why an all-powerful God would choose weakness and humility as the means to victory. I don’t understand why that same God would spread the resurrection rumor through the underwhelming lives of fickle people. But I believe all of that. I trust you, Jesus, so here I am praying right in the face of my unanswered questions. I’m writing this on June 4, 2020. Today, we’re somewhere around the midway point.
What will come of all this prayer?
All these hours “staying wide-awake in prayer” with Jesus? I don’t know. All I know for sure is this: Jesus is trustworthy. So if he says, “Stay awake with me and pray,” I trust him. It doesn’t really matter if the prayer is about my soul growing up or miraculous deliverance or both. I trust him, so I’m awake with him.
Tyler Staton. Lead Pastor Trinity Grace Church Williamsburg