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Essay

Why I Can Pray Again

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In my late teens and early twenties, I spent minimally an hour each day in prayer. That is not an overstatement. I persistently listened and spoke to God, to my friends, and to myself in prayer. There was a sweet communion in it. Jesus words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” were more fulfillment than promise in those days. There was little eschatological waiting for God’s presence, though that was balanced by much waiting for the fulfillment of my heart’s desires.

Two decades later, my experience of prayer is quite different. And that is an understatement. Most days I am grateful for a bit of hushed prayer, for a few minutes of silent meditation, for mentally stopping to consider God’s promises in between myriad tasks, or for remembering to recite the Aaronic blessing as my daughter drifts into sleep : “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

I often long for the luxury and spaciousness of my earlier prayer practice. For the quiet, the centeredness, the simplicity of that time in my life. I sometimes wonder if I am a living witness to the hazards of the academic religious life: too much study, discussion, teaching, and writing about God coupled with too little actual communion with God; too much social analysis with too little social action. While my particular vocation may present such challenges, I think there’s something else going on as well, something endemic to the context in which we all live.

It took days for me to pray for Nepal and just as much time for me to pray for Baltimore. When I heard about these tragedies, I had two weeks of the semester left, over seventy papers to grade, a workshop to plan, and a doctoral seminar to prep (which begins two days after the end of the semester). I had just received news that my grandmother was seriously ill, potentially near death, and I couldn’t get across the country to see her. Grief flooded my heart.

When I saw the television scenes of Nepal, read about the climbing death toll, and heard about the terror of repeated aftershocks; and when I heard about Freddie Gray shackled by his feet in a nickel ride (a term I had never heard before), and imagined him crying out for help until he could do so no longer–because his spinal cord was practically severed–I could not take it in. I told myself, “I cannot bear this.”

All the news hit my own protective cocoon, which sociologist Anthony Giddens describes as one of the ways we survive the information age (though at considerable communal cost). As I’ve written before on this blog, we live in an unprecedented era. We are inundated with images and stories of kidnappings, shootings, sexual assaults, torture, and natural disasters. We are drawn into the suffering, injustice, and senselessness in the world. We feel the weight of profoundly unmet needs for safety, wholeness, meaning, peace, and love, because we are connected (and know and experience ourselves to be connected) to all humanity. And sometimes, perhaps all too frequently, we just go numb. We disconnect.

I recognized my disconnection, and I felt guilty. I could tune out this tragedy, because I am privileged. I am incredibly wealthy by the world’s standards. I am white and I benefit from living in a racist society. I do not fear the police. I do not fear for my child’s life on account of her skin color. I have access to an unbelievable amount of resources. The list goes on and on. But this in and of itself did not lead me back to prayer.

I found my way to connection and therefore to genuine prayer at church. Or more accurately, the Spirit carried me back into prayer as others told the stories of Nepal and Baltimore in lament and in the preached word. My heart opened again to all the vulnerability and responsibility that comes with my social location. I could pray, because my community of faith prayed. Together we bore it all to God.

Today I can weep in lament in between writing this blog and grading papers, because the Spirit interprets the wordless utterings of our hearts. I can trust that my longing for shalom—for wholeness in all creation—coupled with the cry of those who experience its profound absence does in fact reach God’s ears. Because this cry is first and foremost God’s.

As I head off to the next set of meetings, I remember that these few moments of prayer are enough.

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