I must confess to a weariness in hearing others say and saying myself, ‘I’m praying for you.’ That doesn’t mean that I will stop praying, or believing in prayer. But after eighteen months of a world with covid, including having the ‘long haul’ version myself, several situations of friends facing life changing tragedies or even dying, places I dearly love like India being ravaged by the disease, and this week the stunning unraveling of Afghanistan and friends scrambling for safety, it just seems too much.
With all of the above and more that many of you have experienced, we hear that people are ‘praying’. We take them at their word, and try to pray ourselves, but honestly sometimes it has become a polite, Christianese way to say ‘have a good day’. Do you really pray? Really? I try and keep a prayer list and for those things I do indeed pray, perhaps not every day but often. But for many things, if I do not pray at the moment I tell someone I will, it does not happen.
This week on social media I felt again too overwhelmed to say I will pray, especially for the situations in Afghanistan where I have visited several times. But there was a lament and grief in my heart, which is actually a form of prayer that does not get enough attention. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch contemplative who I have received so much from, says this: I am beginning to see that much of praying is grieving’. So true. You see, many of us are trained to believe that the primary type of prayer is petition, the asking for something from God. But so many times, at least for me, the asking is not there, there are only groans.
Last year, as the USA convulsed mid-year in racial turmoil and later with political strife, I felt such a desire to pray. But many times as I tried to pray, there were no words. On two occasions, I woke up from sleep with deep groans. My wife even heard them one time, the other time I felt I had woken myself up with them. But I felt those groans were for this nation, a form of intercession. Groans, grief, lament: all important forms of prayer.
Yes, it is okay and right to petition or ask in prayer. But if you do not have words, then hold something or someone before God in mercy. Often I pray, ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayers’. For several years while I was making trips twice a year to Oxford to do my PhD, I would go for Sunday worship to the University Church there. On most Sundays, the time of congregational prayer would be led by the Priest offering various petitions. Then after each one, we would say as a congregation, ‘In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayers’. But on some Sundays, instead of us saying that, there would be the most beautiful voice at the back singing the words, ‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy’.
That is how I have felt for much of this covid year, which is stretching on and on. I don’t know how to pray, it seems in fact like God doesn’t want to answer even if I did ask. And so I wait in silence, my appeal in mercy to the God I love. Sometimes I groan, I lament, yet not without hope.
I am so tired of words. Of endless fighting and opinions on social media. This week has been comical if not tragic as so many people who have never been anywhere near Afghanistan have so much to say about it. I am also tired of words from people who say they will pray. And maybe if they do, they pray prayers that seem to reflect their political party, preferred cable news channel, or what they think God should do. Not bothering to take the time to wait and ask Him how to pray.
Honestly sometimes it feels like the photo that I put with this post. (I saw someone post this last year and can’t remember who, so forgive me for not giving credit!) Actually I was going to wait and use it on a blog post about leadership, but decided to use it on this post about prayer. Sometimes it feels like prayer is asking for a blessing ‘slide’ for yourself or people off a ship into a beautiful ocean, only to find that you have gone right into a waiting school of sharks. Not knowing how to prayer, and feeling like our prayers are meaningless at best, at worst only heartless and a way to avoid getting involved.
And so we pray. We lament, we groan, and yes at times we petition for specific things from God. And sometimes we have no words, and we wait in silence. I do a lot of that. Seems like more and more. And so often, at least for me, that waiting in silence brings an amazing peace that indeed I have been heard. Maybe not to receive the answer I want, in the timing I want, but I have been heard.
I will not stop praying. Whether it feels meaningless, or not.