It surprises me that prayer has the power to surprise us.
In Acts 10, God speaks to two people through prayer. The first, Cornelius, is identified as a man who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Then, one afternoon at about three o’clock, while he prayed, he had a vision. In that vision, he saw an angel of God coming to him and telling him to get up and send men to Joppa to summon a man called Simon Peter to come and stay with him. Had he ever heard of Simon Peter? Perhaps. Had he heard that Simon Peter would be in Joppa, staying with a tanner who was also named Simon? Surely not. Instead, we are told that God brought that message to him—a voice from outside with instructions from above. Through a life of prayer, Cornelius was able to hear God lead him in ways he could not have determined on his own.
The next day, Peter was also praying. While up on the roof of the house where he was staying, Peter fell into a trance. In his vision, he saw a sheet being lowered from heaven—full of all sorts of unclean animals like reptiles and birds of prey and four-footed animals. These were things any faithful Jew would know not to eat, yet a voice from above called out to him, “Peter! Rise, kill, and eat!” Naturally, this did not make any sense to Peter. “I can’t do that. I have never eaten anything unclean,” Peter objected, but the voice cried out, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Every once in a while, we surprise even ourselves. Something hits us in a powerful way and leads us to see the world as we have never seen it. The ingredients were already there, but they are assembled in a way we could not have invented in our conscious minds. How does that happen? Where do genuinely new ideas come from? How are we led to ideas and beliefs and decisions we never would have thought possible? Can God—way up in heaven—guide us to places we never dreamed we would go?
In the Episcopal Church, a person can’t simply decide to be a priest. Calls to ordination must be discerned both by the individual and by the church. And, by “the church,” I don’t mean the individual congregation; I mean the wider church as constituted by the local diocese. Usually, that process starts when a person feels a sense of call, and then it progresses as she or he enters into conversation with a local clergyperson, the local congregation, other friends or family, and, finally, the bishop and other representatives from the diocese. At some point, before everything is cleared, that person sits down with a psychologist for an interview—ostensibly to make sure she or he is not crazy.
Imagine, then, sitting on a chair (no couch in my case) and explaining to a psychologist, who is constantly nodding his head while taking notes on a legal pad, that you heard a voice tell you that you’re supposed to be priest. I fumbled and stumbled and stammered my way through explaining that the voice I heard wasn’t an external voice but that internal voice…and, no, not the internal voice of some person living in my brain but that internal voice that all of us have…right?...other people have that voice, too, right?...Isn’t that normal? Long story short: when I was a freshman in college, I spent the second semester as a time for spiritual renewal. I went to the chapel every night to say my prayers. Every day, I was listening for God’s guidance in my life. And, one night, while I was lying in my bunk, I came to the startling conclusion that I was supposed to be a priest.
Looking back, it makes sense that I felt that call. Even as a little child, I was at home in church. This is where my life and my work blossom most fully. But, as a freshman in college, I didn’t see it coming. I was scared. I didn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t want to be a priest. I wanted to be governor of Alabama. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t think of this on my own. It just hit me, and the only way that was possible—that I heard God’s direction as a startling voice with a surprising message—is because I spent that semester in prayer.
Prayer is a powerful thing. Usually, we think of prayer as an opportunity to influence God. Like a child calling out to his parent, we approach the throne of God seeking to change the course of our lives. “God, would you please take this burden away from me?” “God, would you please heal my sick husband?” “God, would you please give my child the peace she needs?” But prayer is powerful not in that it changes God but that it changes us. Prayer has the power to startle us—to surprise us into knowing where and how God is working in our lives. Prayer makes it possible for us to see how God is intervening in the world around us. It shocks us into trusting that whether in life or death, in healing or in sickness, in anxiety or in peace, God is at work. We adopt a life of prayer so that we might become more open to the power of God—not so that we might wield that power to accomplish what we want but so that God might use his power to conform us to his will.