Friday, December 4, 2009
Rediscovering The Prayer Vigil
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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A 75-year-old man beamed at me. "At home I have trouble praying for five minutes. Here an hour seems too short." As we left our church at dusk, a new believer knelt to begin an hour of prayer. It wasn't always so. Intercessory prayer had been meager, enthusiasm about prayer virtually non-existent. For years I struggled to lead our church members into a richer prayer life. Then, two years ago we discovered a time-tested method of challenging and stretching people in prayer: the prayer vigil.
Just what is a prayer vigil? The idea is many centuries old. "Vigil" indicates a time of "vigilance", wakefulness, a watch, originally "kept on the night before a religious feast with prayer or other devotions."*
Last year we set aside from noon to midnight on Good Friday for our people to pray for an hour at a time in the church sanctuary. The previous Sunday we circulated a sign-up sheet in the shape of 12-hour clock. If an hour or two was vacant, I'd ask someone to shift to one of those less popular times.
Sign-ups are vital to crystallizing commitment, but some may hesitate. "That was hard for me," John confessed, "because I didn't know what I was going to pray about for a whole hour." People often feel so inadequate at prayer, they don't want set themselves up to fail again. To allay these fears, I circulate some suggestions on "How to Spend an Hour in Prayer" (see sidebar). As people begin to visualize themselves actually praying for an hour, they are more willing to risk it. After one successful experience, they're eager to sign up the next time.
Upon entering the sanctuary for their hour, people find several helps on a table. Next to a log-in sheet are brief instructions for first-timers. A globe and letters from our missionaries stimulate prayer for the world. Some use a copy of the church directory in their intercession. Prayer request slips from the previous Sunday's service are found next to a constantly-growing list on which participants enter other needs.
Since only one or two people are usually present at a time, we encourage people to pray the way they feel most comfortable. A kneeler is placed at the front of the church, though most of our people pray sitting with bowed heads. But some walk while they pray. Occasionally someone prays prostrate on the floor.
If several sign up for the same hour, they often worship and pray as a group for a part of the time, then intercede separately for the remainder of the hour. One of our ladies glows as she remembers: "There were two or three people there. We did some singing as well as praying. It brought a closeness we just don't experience ordinarily. I feel like we're still closer today than we would have been otherwise." Strangely, even praying alone brings a sense unity with others. "Knowing that brothers and sisters are all praying about the same thing," Carole comments, "really stirs up my faith. I feel that we're going to receive answers."
"Can't we just pray at home?" some ask. Not if we want certain unique advantages. The specialness of praying in the sanctuary lifts this hour above the sometimes discouraging experiences of daily prayer. "At home," Louise finds, "there seem to be so many distractions and interruptions. You think about all the things that need doing. But when you come to the quiet sanctuary, you really can feel God's presence." Rick, a father of five, explains: "The hour is so refreshing. I sense the Lord's presence in a way I sometimes don't when I'm off to myself for just a few minutes."
Before our first vigil I didn't think most people would be willing to commit themselves to a whole hour. Not so. Embarking on a significant time of prayer with nothing else to do helps people put their busyness aside and concentrate on prayer. After his first vigil, a thirty-year old man told me, "I just lost track of time. To me there was no time. In fact, I was there almost two hours, without realizing it." Cutting the time short-circuits this broadening prayer experience which can permanently enrich the participant's devotional life.
Yet sensitivity to the congregation's present level of commitment is important. Once after successful 24-hour vigils we tried 36 hours. We had trouble getting enough people; it was just too ambitious for the size of our church. We've found it's better to begin small and grow gradually.
We schedule a vigil two or three times a year. Good Friday lends itself naturally to prayer. We've also tried early September before the program year gets underway, and the beginning of the Advent season.
The nice thing about the prayer vigil is simplicity of organization. We circulate a sign-up sheet, provide some prayer resources, open the sanctuary at the beginning of the vigil, and see that the last person locks up.
The benefits endure. Our people have learned to intercede for one another, to care for each other's needs. Having experienced the joys of a full hour, people are praying longer at home. The vigils have renewed our motivation, as well. Instead of praying out of guilt, we're finding a new longing to spend time before the Lord. We've also have seen marked answers to prayer. Relatives have been saved. Physical healings have resulted. An angry neighbor who had threatened a lawsuit against our church has yet to file. Moreover, he's had dozens praying for his salvation.
We still have a long way to go before we're the kind of praying church we ought to be. But the prayer vigil has wedged open the door to a new dimension of prayer, allowing a fresh breeze of the Spirit to blow across the threshold. Next week I expect someone else will ask with a wistful smile, "Pastor, when are we going to have another one of those prayer vigils?"
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