It is many years since I was able to use the Underground, but when I did, I remember a voice saying ‘Mind the Gap. Please, mind the gap’ – the small gap between the platform and the step of the train which could be hazardous. Maybe the warning is still given.
Gaps are not necessarily safe or comfortable places to be. But in our prayers we may at times hear a voice that says pleadingly, ‘Please mind the gap’ and we recognise its repeated appeal not so much as a warning as an invitation to a specific way of praying – of prayer that is not without hazards.
In Psalm 106:23 we read of God’s fury at the idolatry of the Israelites as they worshipped the golden calf and he would have destroyed them ‘had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the gap to turn away his wrathful indignation’, offering himself on behalf of his people. That’s true pastoral intercession – the intercession of the priest standing before God, carrying the needs and petitions and, as in this case, sometimes the penitence of his people to God and receiving a response from him to take back to the people. How could the people of Israel possibly have measured what Moses had averted and at what cost – when he stood in the gap to turn away God’s wrath,’ saying, ‘If only you will forgive their sin, but if not blot me out of the book you have written’? (Ex.32:32).
We know what it is to pre-cede and what it is to re-cede - the one forward, the other back. But to intercede is to stand in the middle, in the gap – in touch with either side. Guarding that gap is a priestly work. In the book of Exodus we get a very detailed account of the vestments that the Israelites were instructed to make for Aaron (Moses’ brother) and his sons who were priests of the future. The priest was to wear on his breast an ephod on which there would be a square of cloth with 12 jewels sewn on to it, each engraved with one of the names of the tribes of Israel. And attached to the ephod an epaulette on each shoulder with 6 jewels, with the names of the tribes engraved on them. And on his head was to be a turban on the front of which woven into it were to be the words ‘Holy to the Lord’ thus touching his mind.
All of these symbols were a reminder that as he went forward to stand before the Lord at the altar, he would be bearing on his heart and in his mind his people whom he represented – the go-between who stood before God in the gap.
And it is no different for priests in the Church today. Never think that they are just dressing up to play a part when they vest before a service. They are putting on a sign of their guardianship of the gap and reminding themselves that they take to the altar all the longings, hopes, joys, needs, suffering and indeed failings of the people in their Cure, of the wider Church and the world itself. Their procession to the altar may look very beautiful and dignified, but that is not its purpose. They are actually bearing a very great deal in their hearts.
It happened that I was staying with our Bishop and his wife in South Africa just after they had moved house when Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to bless the new chapel. All the Bishops of the Province were there after their annual retreat and there was much celebration, vibrant singing and joy as the walls of the chapel and the congregation were well and truly sloshed with holy water. But from dancing and clapping one minute everything suddenly went very quiet the next as ++ Desmond stood with hands on the undressed altar and eyes closed, and spoke very quietly about the privilege and sorrow that every Bishop bore as he stood at the altar each day on behalf of his people – bearing them on his heart and in his mind. In fact he was speaking very personally about his own experience – but each of the Bishops would have identified with him for this was in the years of apartheid and every Bishop there had suffered death threats and harassment from the Secret Police, but they knew as he spoke of the suffering which he carried to the altar, that he was talking particularly of his own black people who were enduring such appalling injustice and oppression during that regime. It was a deeply moving testimony to the cost of intercession.
But all of us are all called to be priests unto God, to be part of the royal priesthood – all called to bear the world in all its need to God each day and bring back from that encounter the word of God to his people, to be spoken in whatever form is given to us.. and sometimes tears are our only language. And how can WE calculate the power and effect that our standing in the gap has for that part of the world which will not or cannot pray for itself?
Have you ever felt guilty because someone has asked for your prayers - very specifically for an exam or an operation or an interview.
And at the time, you completely forgot. Well, feel guilty no longer. Listen to Rabbi Mendl’s encouraging words: He said, ‘The needs of everyone leave a trace in my heart and when I come to pray I say “Lord of the Universe, open my heart and read what is written there”.
And it is true that every time we watch the news or read a letter or have a conversation on the phone or read a book, it leaves an impact on us of anger, or joy, or frustration, or hope or suffering with others in compassionate solidarity all of which are already part of prayer – which is so instantaneous, we may not realise how they have impinged on us. But God can read off all the traces they leave. We have only to say, ‘Lord, open my heart and read what is written there.’
Other times in that priestly work, we sense a lifting, a strange joy as though God is honouring our sacrificial work of intercession, of minding the gap – it is not always a static position. We feel lifted like buzzards or eagles as they ride the thermal waves that rise off the earth, taking them much higher than they could have flown on their own wing power.
There is a lovely Sanskrit word (Antevasin) which, when translated means ‘One who lives at the border’. Just as the far-sighted eagle can hover over a border and see for miles on either side; just as Moses could view the Promised Land across the border of the Jordan, so we as border dwellers can view both heavenly and worldly dimensions.
Border dwellers, intercessors, Guardians of the Gap are all word pictures of those who stand before God as representatives – minding the gap between the Creator and his creation. Maybe there are times when, unlike the birds, we feel so earthbound that the other side of the gap looks impossibly distant – like a shimmering mirage, always out of reach.
However unrealistic our requests may seem, as we stand before God in the gap, it is HE himself who draws near to meet us to receive from us what we bear to him.
And it is very important that we do hand over the petitions and pain that we carry. If we try to bear them alone, and get stuck in the awful brokenness and insecurities that surround us and are in us, we will be overcome by the darkness and agony of it all.
St Swithin wrote words that could apply to and challenge our standing in the gap:
Saviour divine, hear my request,
Make me a partner of your pain
In solace let me never rest, since thou
In sorrow dost remain
And if it be thy glorious will
That I shall taste of this thy cup,
Lo! here thy pleasure to fulfil,
Myself I wholly offer up.
Make me a partner of your pain – not the sole pain-bearer. God alone can take that awful weight. And God delights to receive our prayers and use them as the very stuff of his ongoing redemption of creation. Doesn’t that give us an amazing sense of privilege and responsibility?
I think Paul came nearest to fulfilling St Swithin’s words when he wrote ‘I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people’ - ‘Myself I wholly offer up’. Is that nor another example of true pastoral intercession?
As partners of God’s pain we are not asking him to change his mind but to share some of his compassion with us (and I often wonder if we actually realise the magnitude of what we are asking? Can we drink that cup?) It will certainly be no sinecure. Minding the gap can indeed be very costly as we were reminded earlier.
For Jesus it meant quite literally doing that, as on the cross he hung between heaven and earth becoming our Great High Priest and Intercessor.
He longed passionately to see God’s kingdom come on earth fully, and as day by day we pray with intercessory love, more of that kingdom will be released into the world whereby love’s redeeming work throughout creation WILL be done.
Day after day, O Lord of my life
Shall I stand before Thee face to face?
With folded hands, O Lord of my life.
Shall I stand before Thee, face to face?
Under Thy great sky in solitude and silence
Shall I stand before Thee, face to face?
In this laborious world of Thine.
Tumultuous with toil and struggle
Among hurrying crowds,
Shall I stand before Thee face to face?
And when my work shall be done in this world,
O King of Kings,
Alone and speechless, Shall I stand to face?