It becomes harder to pray as I look around at near-daily mass shootings, the war in Ukraine, my family’s illness, and the deterioration of my denomination. I feel like I’m talking to myself. Prayer seems like the only thing I can do, my only option, and it doesn’t appear to have any impact on the carnage unfolding in Walmart breakrooms, at the Raleigh Christmas parade, in a Colorado Springs LGBTQI club, in my dad’s lymph nodes, or missile attacks on Kyiv’s elementary schools. People keep dying at the worst possible time of the year for people to die.
Tragic, unexpected death is never welcome, but it always seems worse when it happens at Christmas. For some reason, we want to be together at this time of year. Despite our petty differences, we feel drawn to the Thanksgiving and Christmas table. When a seat is made vacant, whether through cancer, murder, or war, it hurts in indescribable ways, that’s a pain you can’t put into words, let alone prayer that has any emotional or spiritual coherence. Our prayers are more like self-soothing babble because that’s all we know how to do. If you can find eloquent words to match this societal hurt, you’ve not felt the punch in the gut brought by the cumulative pain of recent days.
When we pray on Sunday morning, the only people we know who are listening are those in the pews. It is a supreme act of faith to assume that God is listening, especially when our words appear to have little impact on reality. We pray for peace and see more war. We pray for love to see hate grow stronger. Something isn’t working. We’ll focus on a single miracle at the expense of hundreds of unanswered prayers. We sit, wait, speak, and hope God will act. Our prayers, while heartfelt, are inherently passive. Have we considered acting upon our prayers? What if we matched our words and our actions equally? We become both prayer and an answer in-progress. Imagine prayer as a cooperative endeavor. We would call this liturgy “the work of the people.”
The immediate reality our prayers change is the reality we change ourselves. If we want to answer a prayer, we must become the answer. We prayerfully and actively invest in the kingdom of God, which is at hand. If we convince ourselves to wait for God (or others, like Congress, a President, public opinion, etc.) to act, more people will die. I believe God wants to hear our prayers and see them become tangible actions.
It is hard to pray. The world is in a difficult place. We shouldn’t shy away from naming our challenges. Are we content with being desperate observers, or do we want to be active participants in God’s ongoing kingdom? The answer to that question depends on how comfortable you are with being more than a passive prayer.