There are at least three ways that prayer transforms the way we see the challenges of life.
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
I first met Christ as a child through prayer, and my early relationship with Jesus was formed almost entirely through discovering Christ in the midst of suffering as I fumbled my way through prayer and Scripture reading. Both were a relief from various traumas and pain. I tangibly experienced the nearness of God to the brokenhearted, and that has continued to sustain me through the joys and sorrows, miracles and violence, celebration and lament of life in this messy world. Suffering and challenges just seem to be a part of life; and yet, a year and a half into the pandemic I’ve been surprised to discover how that this particular season of suffering has changed my prayer life.
In 2020, I experienced:
• Multiple family deaths
• Cultural turmoil, which changed significant relationships
• Children home from school, which dissolved habits and patterns
• Deep betrayal from Christian leaders offering overly-tame and carefully nuanced thoughts on racial justice
• Disrupted social patterns which have slowly depleted me both physically and emotionally.
Prayer through past storms and furnaces has been clarifying, a relief, a breath of fresh air. But this time it has been different.
Not only has prayer not been a relief, but long-developed practices have been difficult to mentally and physically sustain. But what prayer has been through this season of global and ecclesiological crisis has been … anchoring. It has anchored me in reality. Prayer has anchored me in a way that exposes my tendency to minimize, rage, become cynical, self-righteous or even overly optimistic. While this season does not offer much escape, it can become one that allows prayer to begin to shape our entire perception of reality.
In The Prayer Tradition of Black People, Harold Carter describes the prayer of slaves:
“The slaves were deeply involved in prayer and song in praise houses long before any organized missionary thrust sought to Christianize them. Prayer colored their total existence and was not merely an escape from reality. They knew that God had acted in history and delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt.”
The prayer of these slaves anchored them in reality while sustaining them through oppression and evil. Anchoring prayer is the kind of prayer that cultivates a hopeful and patient eschatology. It allows both individuals and communities to be honest about past and present suffering and hopeful about the kingdom that will one day come. This kind of prayer facilitates a rich life with God in ways that embolden individuals and communities to endure struggles against injustice, initiate reparation, and participate in restorative and reconciling work. It is prayer that is both contemplative and missional, individual and communal, and rooted in the present and future reality of heaven and earth.
Perhaps prayer is most needed right now for a lot more than relief, comfort, personal intimacy, direction, or insight. All those may very well be precious fruits of prayer, but in a season in which we bounce between fighting and withdrawing, perhaps what is most needed is prayer that colors our “total existence” and anchors us in the reality of Christ and his kingdom. Here are three important ways prayer can anchor us during this season.
1. Prayer Anchors Us in a Vision of God’s Kingdom.
A vision of God’s kingdom enables Christians to endure prolonged seasons of defeat, suffering and injustice. As we endure injustice and resist power structures that harm the most vulnerable and erode community, we will face exhaustion, burnout, and despair. If the person comes from privilege, he or she may detach and return to a life of comfort and ease. Over time, these leaders often move further away from the struggles of the most vulnerable as busyness and cynicism become a way to dissociate from pain. If the exhausted individual is part of a marginalized people group, he or she often have no other choice but to remain in the situation, depleting their internal resources. By remaining, the person may seek unhealthy distractions in an attempt to numb their pain or could dissolve into despair, finding their faith has eroded under the weights of darkness.
The only way to prevent either path is to retreat into an experiential union with Christ. This requires a substantial encounter with the reality of God’s kingdom. It cannot simply be an abstract idea that allows one to minimize current pain in light of the promise of heaven to come. Rather, seeing and inhabiting the reality of God’s kingdom on earth allows individuals to be nurtured and restored by abiding in the truth that God’s will is being established on earth as it is in heaven. Christians can anchor their tired and even physically wounded bodies in the reality of God’s kingdom and seek restoration as prayer opens space to allow the truth of God’s character and righteous actions to wash away fear, resentment and despair.
2. Prayer Anchors Us in Repentance and Lament.
Repentance and lament help those praying to invite the Holy Spirit to attune their motives, will, and narratives to more closely align with God’s heart. Repentance and lament are ways of moving away from abstract prayer and practicing concrete prayer, activating our Christian faith and cultivating patience. These concrete prayers are essential to the practice of repentance and lament as they anchor us to the real and substantial pain around and within us. They not only provide tangible ways to be connected and present to suffering and pain, repentance and lament also cultivates patience, they allow us to endure significant and prolonged seasons of struggle.
Repentance and lament help us develop a fortitude that allows us to see our sin and the impact of the world’s sin with greater clarity, while also surrendering to the Spirit’s work of pruning and nurturing our lives with a greater measure of God’s grace and mercy. This allows for patient acceptance of our limitations, failures, and sins as well as patience for God to permanently establish his righteous rule and rid the world of evil. These prayers activate us toward justice, allowing our repentance and lament to become avenues that specifically name the complex ways we harm others and ourselves as we live outside of harmony with others.
3. Prayer Anchors Us in God’s Healing, Mystery and Joy.
Prayer anchors Christians in God’s healing, mystery, and joy. Anchoring prayer facilitates an intimate relationship with God and is one of the ways the Holy Spirit helps us discover and restore the particular places they are in need of healing and greater surrender to God’s truth. If you read the prayers of Christians from the margins, you will witness an intimate prayer life that has consistently pursued God’s healing and joy.
Anchoring prayer intentionally pursues and produces a richly intimate encounter with God. Howard Thurman describes it this way:
“When the hunger in a man’s heart merges with what seems to be the fundamental intent of life, communion with God, the Creator of Life, is not only possible but urgent.”1
Anchoring prayer cultivates an urgency and expectancy for one’s hunger for God to merge with its very purpose for existing: to commune with the “Creator of Life.” This intimate encounter and longing for communion with God can begin to dominate and guide us. A desire to live in harmony with others strengthens as one tastes greater harmony with God. Having deeper communion and fellowship with God reduces one’s tolerance to being distracted by disharmony and disunion with others. The intimate realities of anchoring prayer cultivate a life open to God’s healing, mystery, and joy and opens us to greater love toward others.
Anchoring prayer makes the central place of a Christian’s life communion with God—allowing their inner hunger for God to become the “dominant and controlling” force of their life. This prayer journey allows individuals and communities to experience God’s healing in unique and specific ways as they welcome God’s light to inhabit every part of their lives. To those who cry out to God with no other hope of healing, this kind of prayer can be restorative physically as well as spiritually and emotionally. There is a confidence in Christ’s power to intersect, heal and rescue.
Through this pandemic, I have had to release expectations for a prayer life that has developed over a life of practices and habits. Instead, I’m learning to surrender to the simple need to be anchored. In this season, prayer has been needed to color my entire existence. It’s looked like less words and more silence. Less petition, more telling God what I notice and being still long enough for him to reorganize those observations. Less insights into Scripture and more chewing of a phrase or scene from Scripture over and over in my heart and mind. It’s looked like intentionally offering naps as acts of worship. Letting the sound of laughter become a trigger for praise. Paying attention to feelings of resentment, sorrow, frustration, disappointment, betrayal, and fear and inviting Christ’s love to melt away the layers one at a time. Far more confession, far more relishing in the grace of repentance, far less grasping for relief. The comfort, rest, and safety net that prayer has once provided seems like a distant memory throughout this pandemic, but remaining anchored in reality has been a new kind of holy ground.
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- Howard Thurman, Disciplines of Spirit, p. 95.