Prayer is hard for me these days (years). I’m not against it. I just don’t do much of it in the traditional sense.
I grew up praying for anything and everything: signs, relief, personal assistance, personal protection, personal experiences… forgiveness, confirmation, affirmation…obligation. I was not a part of a very liturgical tradition, so prayers were rarely prewritten and read or spoken in unison. Rather, prayers were passionate and personal monologues one would improvise to God while being led by the Spirit. There were structures: you open with honor and reverence, acknowledging lordship titles; repent; make some humble requests while sprinkling in some more lordship titles; recognize belief in Jesus as the pathway on which these words travel up into the infinite, and the church says… “amen.” These structures take different forms and look and sound a bit different as you move around regionally and culturally, but it all typically hinges on a personal invocation for a Divine Being to do something. Something to which God could say “yes,” “no,” or “not yet.”
Eventually, I came to realize my process, this way of belief, while comforting at times, necessarily implied an arbitrary and capricious nature of God. A God that would keep my family safe but maybe not yours. One to be with me in education, job interviews, and negotiating tables, or protect me in health, travel, relationships, and traffic stops, but maybe not the kid next door?
Because my interpretation of ancient texts is more accurate? Because I’m a good little servant? Because I pray harder? Because God has favorites?
It cannot be any of those things because I’ve studied and lived enough to know that none of them are true.
Prayer had to change. It had to die and hopefully resurrect. It had to become less me and mine but more all of us, more contemplative, more meditative, but honestly, so far, it’s just been more rare.
Last week, our daughter tested positive for COVID-19 after showing some cold-like symptoms, but the other three of us in the home didn’t. My wife and I were both relieved and anxious to see if her symptoms would worsen. My people told me to praise God. Of course. That’s what people are going to say around here. But from my perspective, almost 130,000 of my fellow countrymen and over half a million of my fellow humans have died from this virus and counting. Many more will have lingering issues from having carried it, something I can’t know my daughter avoided for a long time still. I’m not going to praise that. I can’t. I’m very thankful that her case is mild and the rest of us have avoided it altogether, but assuming that circumstance is because God did my family a solid would mean he gave very little of a shit about those families out there who are not as fortunate. Many of whom I’m sure are more pious and prayerful than I am.
I don’t believe in that god…
That god is a popular one though, so I would never offend… or pretend. I’m reverent and present when group prayer happens, but I’ve only prayed out loud publicly one time since prayer had to change. It was not recent, and I felt like a fraud. On my own, I’ll still throw some extemporaneous nonsense into the ether from time to time, but nothing resembling my foundations. The only time I’ll do anything that could pass as traditional, non-liturgical prayer is if your loved one is in need and you specifically ask me to. I will honor how you believe, deal, or grieve whether it’s my thing or not.
I make this admission because I was recently asked to read an adapted prayer of lament for racial injustice, originally written by Rev. Dr. Sharon R. Fennema, in an online service for The Table (in Oklahoma City.) I agreed but felt quite a bit of anxiety about it per all that stuff I just said. I wasn’t particularly worried because the Table is a community with plenty of wayward souls on various fringes and is sensitive to our type of hang-ups. I was glad to fill in, but I feared that fraudulent feeling I’d felt that last time in a more evangelical setting. I pre-read the prayer to ensure I could be honest in it, and I was overwhelmed.
In every cry of lament or seeming request to God to lend Its hand, there lies next to it the recognition that WE have failed to be those hands. For every acknowledgment of God’s moving, there is a request that we become so moved. It is as much a call to human action as it is an acknowledgment of the Divine. It neither shifts blame nor responsibility. It provides as much conviction as it does relief, as the spiritual journey should. I barely got through it and wept profusely once my camera was off, having prayed a ‘true’ prayer for the first time in a long time.
I greatly appreciate The Table for being a fully affirming community open to ALL regardless of where you sit on the spectrum of belief or any other spectrum. And I greatly appreciate Rev. Dr. Sharon R. Fennema for her inspired words of lamentation. I leave you with them:
Adapted Prayer of Lament, written by Rev. Dr. Sharon R. Fennema
God of the cross and the lynching tree, of the jail cell and the street corner, of the bible study and the police car, look upon the world you have made. See how it is full of hatred and how violence inhabits the earth.
Gunshots ring out under the heavens that declare your glory, singing the destruction of your children. Do you not hear the songs? How long, O God, will you keep silence? How long will we fail to be your voice?
The streets and sidewalks of your dwelling place flow with blood, pouring out the cries of your beloveds. Do you not hear the cries? How long, O God, will you keep silence? How long will we fail to be your voice?
The breaths snatched from lungs swirl on wind that blew creation to life, echoing with the last gasps of your dear ones. Do you not hear the gasps? How long, O God, will you keep silence? How long will we fail to be your voice?
The bones that you knit together in a mother’s womb are broken, rattling with the earth-shaking suffering of your people. Do you not hear the rattling? How long, O God, will you keep silence? How long will we fail to be your voice?
The clanging of cell doors resounds amidst the music of the spheres, tolling the lives stolen by systemic oppression and unspeakable violence. Do you not hear the tolling? How long, O God, will you keep silence? How long will we fail to be your voice?
The crashing of fire-licked windows mingles with the praise and prayers of generations, shattering the refuge and safety of your sanctuaries. Do you not hear the shattering? How long, O God, will you keep silence? How long will we fail to be your voice?
In these days, as in days past, mothers and grandmothers have become mourners. Fathers and grandfathers have become grievers. Children have become wanderers in vacant rooms. Kinfolk have become pallbearers. Communities have become filled with empty chairs. Remember the people you have redeemed, Holy One. Remember the work of salvation brought about by your love. You made a way out of no way for slaves to cross the sea on dry land. Arise, O God, and defend your own cause. Raise up in us the cries of outrage.
You made water to flow in the desert for Hagar and Ishmael when they were driven out. Arise, O God, and defend your own cause. Raise up in us commitment to the long struggle for justice.
You cast out demons so that people might be restored to community. Arise, O God, and defend your own cause. Raise up in us the determination to drive out racism, even from ourselves.
You witnessed the death of your Beloved Child. Arise, O God, and defend your own cause. Raise up in us the grief that cannot be comforted.
You brought new life from the crucifixion of state violence and the wounds of abandonment. Arise, O God, and defend your own cause. Raise up in us the courage to speak truth to power, and hope to hatred.
God of the ones with hands up and the ones who can’t breathe, look upon the world you have made. Do not forget your afflicted people forever, so that we might praise your holy name with joyful lips.
Amen.written by Rev. Dr. Sharon R. Fennema, Assistant Professor of Christian Worship and Director of Worship Life, Pacific School of Religion. Copyright 2015 United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved.