Praying as We Can
Andy Black

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [Jewish leaders], Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

I have a Facebook “friend” who I’ve come to think of as a kind of wise mother to at least my corner of the social media world. Most recently, due to contact between some of her children and a fellow student who had been traveling abroad, her family, who lives in Rhode Island, went into quarantine in late February, about two weeks before the rest of the country. She’s been sending notes to the rest of us from the future, as it were.

Last week, she had this to say:

There is one thing we all need to be getting a hold of right now. We are going to need it, and we are going to need to be able to share it in the days to come. That is inner strength: mental, emotional, and spiritual. I’m not saying this is easy to acquire. I’m just saying that it has to move up to a top priority now. It’s as important as masks and food. I think we’re going to have to start getting ruthless. If you’re lonely, get daily and weekly habits of connection. If you’re tired, rest. Put meditative prayer and a walk in the sunshine at the top of the list. Seek beauty and kindness. Kids’ schoolwork and other chores will have to get done in whatever way will accommodate this. If you find yourself increasingly depending on alcohol or sugar, deal with that, now. It may take a while and it may take some work, but this is what we all need to be doing now. We are in this for the long haul.

This seems to me exactly what a wise parent conveys: encouragement (“I’m not saying this is easy”) together with firmness or realism (“we’re going to have to start getting ruthless”) and an urgent call to action (notice all of the times she says “now”).

It was and is a word I need to hear. There is much that can and should be said about the political protests we’re now seeing on the steps of state Capitals across the country . . . but I get the sense that most Americans can identify with the frustration, the anger boiling up and boiling over that we see visibly expressed in these rallies, even if they cannot identify with the photos or the rallies themselves. When very little feels normal we feel vulnerable—out of control–and that wears on you. Those of us privileged enough to have little regular concern about meeting basic needs are used to spending time planning for future activities and responsibilities. In so many ways we can’t do that right now. All of this saps our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual strength. Our sense of personal security, that might normally help us bear with others, dissipates. We’re tired.

I confess I’ve felt all this within me. And I’m sure those who are quarantined with me would not be surprised to hear me say it.

For whatever reasons, we have entered the Easter season just when our society seems to be realizing that we have to have to shift gears from the initial surge of adrenaline, and from rallying to the cause–maybe even enjoying the adventure of it all, just a little bit?–to the long haul. 

Earlier in the Gospel of John (16:33), Jesus had offered his disciples truthful realism (“in this world you will have trouble”) together with encouragement (“but take heart, I have overcome the world”). In the passage above, as the risen Christ appears to them, he offers them peace. Twice. Peace as they’re sheltering in a locked room. Peace in the middle of a kind of vulnerability some of us can comprehend a bit better today than we could a month ago.

He also breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, as they are called to action (“I send you”).

I have two brief thoughts to share about this. 

First, the strengthening gift of God’s Holy Spirit is as near to us as our next breath. It’s available now. Not when we believe that we’re finally mature enough, or holy enough, or calm enough. Now. And it’s the only real source of personal, existential security in a world that was never in our control.

During stressful times like the past month, I tend to kick into internal overdrive, with thoughts and plans, and thoughts about plans, churning out by the second. What goals can I set? What can this time mean for my family, for each one of our kids, for Lake Nixon? Etc.

And as Jen might possibly tell you, I am capable of confusing thinking about something with actually doing it. I might get a jolt of spiritual uplift when I remember an inspiring and insightful charge like “do small things with great love” and convince myself that I’ve actually done some small things with great love. Ironically, I can contemplate or recall great thoughts about the importance of simply being present with God and to God, even while thinking those thoughts become a subtle way to avoid doing that very thing. 

Sometimes this is simply laziness. Maybe I also have some awareness that truly being present to God requires me to face up to the fact that I am never in control of the world. A world I tend to experience and interpret as “my” world.

This is simply my best quick attempt to say that prayer—becoming present to God in order to receive God’s gifts and ask them for others–is both really hard and incredibly simple. I am very much a beginner. But the time to start, or start again, is here and now. As near as the next breath. Because prayer is both really hard and also incredibly simple it requires humility.

Second, I am reminded that some clever person along the way described this passage from John 20 as “Pentecost for Introverts.” The much more famous account of the giving of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 2, features awesome special effects: a mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire, people suddenly speaking and understanding languages that had been wholly foreign to them. But in this episode, something no less dramatic takes place but the action is as unassuming and earthy as Jesus breathing on his friends.

One version is not better than another. But today, this passage reminds me of another one of those memorable and wise statements of spiritual guidance: “Pray as you can; not as you can’t.” 

We are all learners and the time to start, or re-start, is now. We’re in this for the long haul.

***photo by Dawid Zawila

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