“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17-18 NRSV
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV
The picture above was taken on March 6th of this year in Kyiv, Ukraine. It is a United Methodist Church, meeting for worship on Sunday morning 12 days into a foreign country invading all around them. While we consider the difficulties of waking up early, getting our kids dressed, wondering how we’ll individually enjoy the worship service, or if it’s just easier to skip – Ukrainian Christians are meeting for worship with Russian troops actively bombing them.
It’s a question that has vexed me since I saw this picture. Other pictures show what we might call “Prayer in Action,” Ukrainian citizens taking up arms to join the fight for justice, but these people gather in worshipful celebration and contemplation. You can even check out their YouTube channel that they still maintain to push hope out to their siblings that can’t make it. I believe the “how” is because of the powerful pedagogy of persistent prayer, and it’s something I’d like all of us to consider incorporating into our daily patterns of life.
If you’re not an education major, “pedagogy” is “the method of teaching,” or “the process of getting a student from point A to point B.” When we think of prayer, we often think of petitions or praise – but what if prayer is mostly meant to prepare us for peace in the midst of panic.
Consider the two famous scriptures about prayer cited above. Both come from letters that Paul wrote to churches that were in the midst of adaptive cultural changes. There was the chaos of mixing Gentiles and Jews under a common banner of Christ. There was the chaos of trading the Lordship of the Roman State and Caesar for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. There was the chaos of potential death for claiming Christ as one’s Lord. And there was the ever-present chaos of wondering, “Why hasn’t Jesus come back yet?”
I want you to notice that nowhere in any of Paul’s letters does Paul tell these people who are in the mist of SO MUCH panic that prayer is an escape hatch. In Paul’s theology, God isn’t a genie in a bottle that comes alive with the right prayer and magically whisks you off to peace, prosperity, and personal enjoyment. Quite the opposite, for Paul, prayer is a connection with God that promises the persistent presence of God through panic, offering the peace that if God is there, then the worst will never be the last.
It might sound like a small difference, but how many of us have given up on prayer after we didn’t get our wish in a short window of time? Contrast that to the early Christians who lived under threat of death for over 250 years. Prayer is the persistent connection with God that guides our thoughts, reminds us of our true worth, corrects our values, and gives us the way to be at peace when everything else is panic. Not only is there a connection to trust that with God the worst thing will never be the last thing, but just a momentary pause from the panic gives us the space for the Spirit to move in us again and remind us not to give into panic – but persist with peace and the life that Jesus would call us to.
I believe Ukrainians are worshipping on Sundays in the midst of war because it is vital to connect with God regularly in order to stay sane in a chaotic world. I believe those who properly and persistently pray through times like the political process emerge more individually peaceful and more community polite. And I believe we should all adopt a more persistent prayerful pedagogy to make it from point A to point B. And you might ask…
Because our struggles aren’t bombs and missiles. Our struggles are priorities and time.
So, here’s how to do this in the 21st Century. Take out your smart phone, and either using a google calendar, a reminder on your phone, or an alarm – set 3-5 times a day to simply pause for a minute or more, no matter what you’re doing. In fact, the more you get into it, the more I’d encourage you to set your schedule around times of prayer, rather than “fit in” prayer when it’s convenient. During this moment, you can do a number of things:
- Breath Prayer. Breathe in and out, using a repetitive, focusing phrase. One I find helpful is very historic: (Breathe In) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Breathe Out) “Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.” I also use (Breathe In) “Jesus Christ” (Breathe Out) “Be Near Me Now”. Nothing magical, but you can bet the next encounter I have with panic, I’m wondering “What would Jesus do?”
- Centering Prayer. Similar to a Breath Prayer, do what Keri Lynn recommended a few weeks ago. Find a sacred word and repeat it slowly over a period of time, centering on that word but letting it take you deeper as the Spirit leads to other thoughts of God and God’s peaceful promise.
- Question Prayer. Speak a question into the void of eternity. Then sit and feel what God answers. If you don’t feel it, do it again and again, day after day. But don’t forget the silence, and don’t forget to listen/watch in between times of prayer.
- Pray the Psalms. Utilize the prayerful poetry of the Psalms. It’s amazing how we have the same emotional highs and struggles as those writing songs of praise, lament, and petition to God 3,000 years ago.
- Journal Prayer. Write your concerns, the concerns of the worlds, the joy you see around you, and what we have to be thankful for. Don’t put any structure to it, just write what you feel – and let God respond in the catharsis that comes from your vulnerability.
I wrote about prayer in action last week, but I don’t think those Baylor students just jumped off the couch ready to go without the pedagogy that comes from regular habits of encountering God’s grace, such as worship, prayer, Bible reading, service, and small group support. It’s the persistence that we show in prayer – that makes us powerful when the panic comes.