Praying in an Apocalypse
It turned out that the very reasons why I lost prayer - grief, heartbreak, longing for justice, action, rage, stubborn hope - were actually a threshold for prayer.
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I remember the moment I finally lost my old pathways of prayer altogether. It’s been more than sixteen years and I can still feel the cobblestone streets of Bonn under my feet, the press of people flowing past me as I stood like a stone in their river of movement. I was in the midst of another miscarriage and far from home. My husband and I longed for this particular baby and, days before, as the signs of loss began to accumulate, I faithfully deployed all the methods and formulas of prayer in my arsenal.
Basically, I named and claimed all the things.
I came of age in a segment of Christianity known as the prosperity gospel. So I was taught prayer was the means of controlling outcomes. The bigger the faith, the bigger the “blessing” (which almost always meant health and material wealth). We shouted Bible verses to remind God of Their out-of-context promises in Scripture and called it praying. I was taught to pray like an overcomer, demand like a victor, expect miracles as a birthright.
I remember that moment on the street because that was the moment I stopped.
I simply stopped praying like that, right then and there. I admitted that this was over now. I had been taught formulas for prayer, rules for prayer, in order to get what I wanted from God. The loss of that baby was a revelation of grief and longing that opened my eyes in a way that books and sermons never could. I became part of the vast company of those with unanswered prayers and it was my own unveiling.
Mine was an ordinary, quite common grief, a personal apocalypse, but it was the cumulative tipping point just the same. And I’m not alone, I know. After all, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become almost meaningless as wave after wave of violence and brutality crest. Saying the words, “I’m praying for you” has shifted from being a sincere comfort to a derisive dismissal in the wake of tragedies and large scale trauma. “Save your prayers,” we say, “what we need is justice.” Prayer can feel inadequate to the threats and realities of our time, a pat on the head, an over-spiritualized acquittal of responsibility.
Sometimes one of the greatest gifts God gives to us is losing our religion. We have to be as committed to unlearning the unhelpful, broken, false or incomplete things if we want to have space to relearn the goodness, joy, and embrace of God. So losing prayer as I first knew and understood it gave me the room to reimagine and relearn how to pray. It turned out that the very reasons why I lost prayer - grief, heartbreak, longing for justice, action, rage, stubborn hope - were actually a threshold for prayer.
And that has come in very handy during our current apocalypse.
Now I don’t mean “apocalypse” in the way some of my fellow Christians may speak of it. Sure, there are wars and rumours of war, earthquakes and pandemics running through the news like a world’s worst Bingo card from a sweaty tent preacher come to life.
When I say the word apocalypse, I actually mean it in the truest sense of the Greek word apokálypsis which means simply “unveiling.” What was once hidden is being fully revealed. Apocalypse is revelation.
And so yes, we are living in the midst of an apocalypse. The curtain has been pulled back. The unveiling of white supremacy, patriarchy, religious nationalism, inequity, and deep division is happening in almost every segment of our culture from government to the arts, politics and policing, the church to academia and beyond.
These days feel apocalyptic to us precisely because they are. The apocalypse has touched our lives and the answers we were once given, the prayers we once prayed, the certainties we once took for granted, our political opinions, our leaders, all of these have crumbled like the house built on a foundation of sand in Jesus’ parables.
Prayer can feel futile in times of apocalypse. What’s the point of prayer now? And yet an apocalypse can expand our invitation to prayer. I learned this by paying attention to who keeps praying during an apocalypse. I learned this by sitting at the feet of Korean grandmothers in prayer circles and Black church leaders of the past and present and my dear friend who prays blessings for others while literally undergoing her own cancer treatments. Prayer isn’t inactivity or passivity there; it is the practice to keep us rooted to God and one another as we keep loving in the face of fear, contending for hope in the midst of despair, fighting for justice in our world.
Prayer keeps us engaged with God and with the work and with each other.
But reimagining prayer for an apocalypse begins with honesty. In acknowledging the heaviness of our grief and sorrow, we can broaden our hope and our capacity for joy. We don’t need to pretend we aren’t angry, that we aren’t cynical or afraid, that we aren’t feeling hopeless or uncomfortable, anxious or exhausted. Our prayers can be laments of grief or cries for justice and challenge. It’s often only in naming those things that we find room to reclaim an imagination for hope and healing and goodness. We get to yell, weep, give thanks, sit in silence until we sink down in the love of God that has always been holding us whether we knew it or not. Praying these days is also an act of resistance at this moment in our time, a way for us to open our hearts and minds to love. It is worthwhile. Perhaps never more than when we find ourselves filled with longing and rage and grief.
In case it hasn’t been incredibly obvious so far, my faith tradition is Pentecostal adjacent - was it the apocalypse talk that tipped it off? - and so I believe that prayer also gives me room for naming and calling out what the Apostle Paul called “powers and principalities” because in these days I don’t know what else to call evils like white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, nationalism, colonialism, transphobia, and the spectacular bungling of the duty of care to the most vulnerable among us during a worldwide pandemic. Prayer lets me name them for what they are even as I take the work of dismantling those same powers and principalities to the streets, to my work, and to my own heart.
It took losing prayer for me to learn that there is room for our whole self in prayer. We can bring our whole body to the moment of prayer, a space in time when we meet with God in both words and wordless knowing. We’re in good company when we’re in that space - that is how a lot of the Psalms came to be. In fact, the Bible gives us a more fulsome and complete view of prayer than we somehow picked up along the way from formulas and tv preachers. We can pray with silence, with our bodies, with ancient prayers, liturgy, rage, swearing, adoration, confession, repentance, demands, yearnings, and all in-between.
And praying during apocalypse keeps us open to the possibility of healing, of renewal and restoration, perhaps even resurrection.
Perhaps I don’t pray the way I used to pray with formulas and demands for outcomes but apocalypse, both personal and communal, also unveils the deep knowing that God is with us. God, with us, not only when we are winning or when we are getting our way or when there is peace in our communities but God with us precisely in the protest marches and policy making and poetry, and even with a brokenhearted young woman on the streets of Bonn.
I’ve never returned to that spot on the street in Bonn. I left all of my formulas and answers about prayer behind me there. The path from that place led me to reimagine prayer. It turned out that prayer is one way we do speak prophetically, explore new paths of faithfulness, embody a challenge to the powers that be, and remain rooted in as the prophet Micah said, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Even - or perhaps especially - in times of apocalypse. However we pray or meditate or sit with an awareness of goodness and Love, prayer can be a radical act of hope for the grieving, tenderness for the hurting, a challenge for the comfortable, a permission slip to name what isn’t right, and a sanctuary while we are engaged in the work of living well with our neighbours in the days before us.
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