Prayer, Covid, Presidents and Loss of Control

Added about 3 years ago by Graham Turner

GUEST BLOG: It is easy to adopt the collective delusion that we are generally in control. #BookOfTheMonth author Graham Turner shows that letting go of this notion and embracing our situation could lead to a welcome renewal of our relationship with God.

For us to adopt this delusion that we are in control, of course, all we need is for a few people (we each have our own list) to pull their fingers out and carry out their tasks properly. By that we mean, they should do things the way we want them done. This holds true for life within the church as well as for society and politics as a whole.

Well, if we still think we are in control of our destiny after these past twelve months, then we really are deluded.

A big question for us now is, “How do we pray in Covid and politically uncertain times?”

For many of us the pandemic has removed our assumption that we have a reasonable handle on our health and wellbeing. (Those who have suffered much already know this is not true.) The storming of the Capitol in Washington last month made us worry that our Western democratic institutions may not be as robust and eternal as we once thought. Do we now sound like the couple on the Emmaus road who beat their breasts and sighed, “But we had hoped”? Yes, maybe, but we too had hoped the wrong things.

The type of experiences we see in the loss of control of the virus and the Washington Capitol incident are often referred to as a first-world problem. Folk from numerous countries and communities across the world have always know that health care is fragile and political stability tenuous. This has been true throughout history. The lament- and angst-filled lines from the Psalms reveal to us that we do not enjoy full mastery over the natural world and certainly not over ourselves.

Soon we will come to our second season of Lent tainted by this pandemic. We’d all prefer a jolly season of dancing and feasting, but that’s not going to happen. Instead we are going to have to dig deep to find our way through our “valley of the shadow of death”. We need the vaccine, but we need more than a vaccine.

Thomas Merton’s insights on life and prayer in difficult times were often interesting, sometimes irritating. What do you think of these words?

We do not go into the desert to escape people,
but to learn how to find them;
we do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, 
but to find out the way to do them most good.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, London: Burns & Oates (1962)

Sometimes we volunteer to go to the desert; sometimes we have no option. Early in Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus was “thrown” out into the desert just as later he would “throw” evil spirits out of sufferers. According to Mark, it appears he had no choice in the matter. We certainly have had no option about being in today’s wilderness place and, if you are like me, we really don’t like being here either. However, while we are in this extended liminal place we must ask ourselves what we are going to allow it to do to us?

Desert wisdom is on another level to our social media noise. Wilderness places are not just places of threat though, but also of life and healing. These ordeals are not new to us. Our lives are full of desert experiences: deserts of difficulty, suffering, loneliness, rejection, failure, sickness, loss and abandonment. We may have our digital entertainment, central heating and vaccines, but we are not without our deserts.

Like Jesus, we too are forced to re-enact the historic journey of God’s people through the vast deserts of the Sinai Peninsula. It was while in their wild place that they were formed around a different radical agenda: an anti-empire, an anti-Egypt way.

Our present experience must not merely remain a pain we stoically plod on and endure. It refreshingly carries an invitation to re-orientate our agendas, casting adrift the old attachments and falling into the Jesus empire. First, it makes us ask the question, “Who on earth am I when what normally defines me is taken away?”

Thomas Merton’s point is that re-orientating our agendas and finding out who we really are is a crucial step in doing others “most good”. If I do not in some senses submit to being “thrown” into this wilderness place, then I will remain a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal and of no good to anyone, and possibly harmful.

Our prayers in Covid times may not always feel a lot like praying. There may be much huffing and puffing and sighing. Some parts of life may feel they are disintegrating. Life may simply feel flat and boring. Such experiences are not new—most of us have read the Psalms.

An uncomfortable engagement in ongoing struggles is sometimes what life with God is like. I may be in a real-life desert or simply sitting on the sofa in front of a flat screen television. It makes no difference: the invitation is the same. Accepting this may be the most good we can do to other people for the present and it could deepen of our sense of God-reality for all time.

For over thirty years, Graham Turner has served in a variety of parishes, mostly in urban neighbourhoods. Through community enterprises and businesses he has worked tirelessly to help overcome social injustice while also exploring a range of Christian traditions to help deepen his own faith as well as that of others. After an initial engineering apprenticeship and obtaining an electronics degree, he studied theology to enter the Anglican ministry. He is now a full-time chaplain at a public-sector prison in the North West of England.

Graham’s book Alternative Collects: Prayers to a Disruptive & Compassionate God is our February #BookOfTheMonth—order your copy today.

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Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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