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Just as the pandemic seems to be easing a little, here we are again in a state of anxiety, daily attending to the grim news from Ukraine, wondering what fresh horror tomorrow will bring. Meanwhile, the latest IPCC report came out this week, emphasizing yet again that the serious impacts of climate change are happening now now now and issuing yet another urgent call for action:
“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all. (very high confidence).” (SPM.D.5.3, SPM-35)
It’s hard to process all this. We thought American politics were a mess (they are). Many of us have been watching our denominations fracture (again). Covid is now more manageable—maybe—but who knows what’s next. And now we’re scrambling to understand the mind of a “dead-eyed zealot” pushing a stupid and morally repugnant invasion while the world falls apart around us anyway.
And so we pray. Or try to. Our prayers—well, mine anyway—seem awfully puny against the grand machinations of world events. Actually, my prayers also seem puny and ineffective against the small machinations of my own personal troubles. So I keep thinking about that line in the old hymn, “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart.” You know the one?
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
I find that line comforting. Oh, I know the concept isn’t “correct.” After all, “There’s no such thing as unanswered prayer. God always answers, but sometimes the answer is no or wait.” Yeah, yeah. But it sure feels like unanswered prayer. It sure feels like prayers aren’t having much effect.
In more recent renditions of the hymn—I suppose to avoid theological incorrectness and to enhance the pious sentiments of the hymn—the line is often altered to:
Teach me the patience of unceasing prayer.
Not, I’m afraid, nearly as comforting. Nor as true to experience (sorry, I Thessalonians 5:17).
I’m all for theological correctness in our worship words, including the words we sing. I’m even on record arguing extensively that what we say and hear and sing in worship is crucial to spiritual formation and therefore must be right. Let’s purge out the sexism, ableism, racism, colonialism, creeping Gnosticism, trinitarian modalism, and various other nefarious isms. Sure.
On the other hand. And here I’m in a quandary. Because sometimes there’s a dismaying distance between what is theologically correct and what our experience feels like. And sometimes we need to talk about experience. And sometimes it definitely feels, experientially, as if God is ignoring our prayers, busy doing something else, just not paying attention.
The Psalms fully acknowledge such experiences. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? And so on. In fact, if we were to remove from the Psalms all the pleas to a God-who-seems-distant, there wouldn’t be much left. Even Jesus, we recall, prayed this way in desperate moments.
Many of the hymns I sang as a kid, including “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” were written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. That was a more sentimental time, but also a time that took for granted the inevitability of trouble and sorrow. In retrospect, I realize those hymns formed the piety of my parents’ generation, shaped by a Depression and a world war or two. The faithful in those generations came to church expecting some consolation for trouble and sorrow. Many of the faithful today do too. And you can’t receive consolation without acknowledging how trouble and sorrow feel, especially when it all comes in relentless waves and God doesn’t seem to be doing much to calm them.
I share with many people a love for the poetry of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century pastor and poet. Herbert was extremely skilled at capturing the often subtle difference between theological or pious correctness and the way things actually feel. His poem “Denial” begins in a state of desperate distance from God:
When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears:
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
The poem continues through four more stanzas of disorder and broken verse, taking God to task for ignoring the speaker. To embody the speaker’s bewilderment, the meter rhymes on lines of uneven length and leaves the last, clipped line of each stanza hanging there, unrhymed and lame.
Then the poem concludes with a final plea:
O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.
I love teaching this poem and prompting students to figure out in real time the trick of the last stanza. The speaker remains in a state of prayer, still pleading—nothing has changed, really. Yet the last line, at last, rhymes. Aha! God is already mending the poet’s rhyme, even while the speaker is still in the subjunctive mood, still praying for an answer. Prevenient grace embedded in metrical form.
All this to say, the true complaint is the prayer, and is also the answer to the prayer.
I still want divinely engineered results. I still want the answer to my prayers to be “Coming right up!” And I do believe God is at work in the world right now, even amid looming climate impacts and geopolitical crisis. That’s the theologically correct posture, and sometimes I can even perceive the evidence. The IPCC report, for example, also takes pains to insist that we do still have a window for significant action. I know from my own media travels that we have the tools for climate mitigation and that many, many people around the world are putting their shoulders to the wheel on this.
In the more bewildering and discouraging moments, though, the most consoling words are the ones that speak truly about experience, while simultaneously laying that experience before God. The true complaint is the prayer, and is also the answer to the prayer.
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear;
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Hymn text by George Croly, 1854, as edited in The Psalter Hymnal, Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1959. The title of the hymn in this edition is “Spirit of God, Dwell Thou Within My Heart.” Text of “Deniall” from The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox, Cambridge UP, 2007 (although I modernized the spelling).