A young professional in my church recently reached out to me with some prayer concerns. As we talked on the phone, he searched for words. It turns out he was struggling with more than his prayer life; he was struggling with his faith.
At one level, his request was for information. What language and concerns should shape his prayers during the COVID pandemic? But at a much deeper level, he was wrestling with the essence of his relationship with God. What was he supposed to do with his despair? Where is God in all this? And what about his fatigue as he carries on with job, family and the uncertainty of the coming school year for his kids?
But there was more. What about his anger? Anger at irresponsible policies that have only compounded the spread of the virus. Anger at politicians who want to score points more than they want to heal bodies.
This young man has a solid walk with Christ and takes his faith seriously. Prayer is a regular part of his daily life. But now he finds himself unable or unwilling to pray. “I don’t have faith that things will get better,” he confessed, “and that scares me. It just feels disingenuous to pray.”
My guess is that he speaks for many, many people. His honesty is a reminder to the church. During this strange pandemic season we need to do more than encourage people to pray. We need to talk about how to pray and what to pray. Here are some possibilities.
Silence is a form of prayer. After all, prayer is not all talking. It is agonizing, meditating, ruminating, listening and wondering. Silence can offer perspective. It can be life-giving. We are to embrace it, not run from it. Emptiness and silence free us from the notion that we’re in charge. At the very least, times of quiet provide space for constructive brooding.
Lament is biblically sanctioned complaint. Some of us will be very happy to learn that complaining is permissible! But lament is more than complaint. It is verbalized and ritualized grief. Most Americans try to avoid grief. We want to cover the deep pain in our lives with happy thoughts. But that’s like placing a napkin over a volcano. Prayers of lament help us sit with our grief and authentically feel the loss. Our lamentations must be important. The Bible has a book by that name. And of course, many psalms are laced with lament.
We can pray our rage. Prayer is getting real with ourselves, others and God. Psalms of imprecation (6, 12, 35, 59, 83, to name just a few) are plentiful and remind us that prayer is not sanitized, innocuous drivel. It is gut-wrenching, honest wrestling with life’s absurdity and unfairness.
We have much to learn from ancient prayer practices. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed and have nothing verbally to offer, I pray kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy.” More than once, my insomnia has been conquered by offering breath prayers. Breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Breath out: “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Any simple phrase can be inserted and repeated, as we pray in the rhythm of our breathing. In centering prayer, a simple, monosyllabic word can be repeated over and over — love, hope, justice, shalom.
Prayer books offer guidance. While many of us were raised on extemporaneous prayers, written prayers may offer us a new path during this coronavirus crisis. When my heart is heavy and no words come, The Book of Common Prayer speaks for me in fresh and relevant ways.
Of course, many denominations provide prayer books. One recent iteration of these ancient prayer guides is Common Prayer — A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, compiled by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro. When we pray “common prayer,” we are humbly acknowledging that previous generations also endured plagues. They loan us their anguished cries to God so we don’t have to re-invent them.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “History does not move forward without catastrophe, happiness is not guaranteed by the multiplication of physical comforts … and human nature is not as good or as harmless as had been supposed.” Prayer is not about easy answers or cheap shortcuts. For followers of Christ, prayer eventually leads us to the mystery of the Cross, the cruciform nature of our faith — and that life is full of contradictions, disappointments and undeserved suffering.
With the exception of my “very mature” readers, most of us have only read about the Great Depression and World War II. The coronavirus pandemic is this generation’s first big test. We’ve never met an enemy so persistent, so disruptive or one that threatens our very existence. COVID-19 is not going away soon. We’re in this for the long haul. I don’t know about you, but I need deep roots to endure this storm.
Doyle Sager serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo. He loves the intersection of theology and pastoral practice and enjoys mentoring young leaders. He also works with several movements engaged in advocacy and justice issues.