On Prayer in 2020
Today I wrote a prayer for graduates of Elon this year that I plan record for the conferral of degrees. I think this is the prayer I will use, but it might not be. Or it might be.
To be honest. It’s hard to pray these days. I feel altogether too vulnerable to pray, like every breath is a prayer, but it’s all done with my tongue tangled and my heart bent over. Prayer seems both too big and too small, too intimate and too distant, altogether hopeful and hard.
I keep trying to pray, to put words together for us, because I believe that prayers matter, that the attempt to frame them shapes (at least) the one who is praying, and binds us to the ones we pray over. And because prayer is a way of living more than an occasional recitation.
If I begin to ask for what I need, or what we need, the list is long. Even endless. I can go on and on, in the face of the needs of this one community, those who suffer, who struggle, the isolated and hurting. Add then there’s the world, the hotspot cities and counties, medical and service teams, the unemployed, hungry, sick, and worried, the dead and those who mourn them, those who bury and memorialize them, and the vulnerable earth receiving our dead. There are so many needs to cover with prayer.
Specificity in prayer is overwhelming at best. Not to be specific is vague, an odd kind of denial, and even seems disingenuous. “We pray for all our many needs” just doesn’t cut it. And even when the list is long, I struggle against ingratitude, as if somehow we don’t already have what we need and more, as if prayer is just a list of ask, as if we don’t have so much to be grateful for, and for which to give thanks. We do. Giving thanks is powerful but not all there is. Look around; it’s not all praiseworthy, while we must give thanks for the breadth and depth of what is.
And then there is the matter of what it all means. Do we pray to change the world we live in? To direct God, to soften or transform ourselves? Is the silent turning of our hearts enough? Who hears our hearts in the squirming recesses of compassion, empathy, sorrow, as we simple see the faces of those we love and wish to bless, as we lift them to the Holy One full of Grace?
Somedays it’s hard to pray and other days it seems that is all I muster all day long. Speaking with a student about a family struggle is a prayer. Listening to uncertain career plans is a prayer. Sending a card, watching the news, chopping for supper and smelling rice cooking, planning a zoom birthday call is a prayer. Some days are one solid prayer. And some days I can’t get a word out of the tangle that is my heart and mind. Sometimes there are words, sometimes quiet, breathing, or holding.
So, we pray in our ways—walking down the street, angry for justice, breathing in and out, washing our hands, planting tomatoes, stringing words to hold our dreams for the moment and the future. We pray at our laptops, and especially over webex classes, over exam prep. We pray over books and family concerns. We pray with our heads and hearts and hands and feet. Somehow it all matters even when it seems that it doesn’t.
May our sighs and hopes, our struggles and blessings be seen and heard by the great heart of God, by the eye of the Universe, by the holy Vulnerable who is always near. Do come near, I pray, and hear us.
Jan Fuller has been the University Chaplain at Elon since 2011. She is an Episcopal priest and deeply invested in helping students to find their own spiritual paths while interacting with others in differing paths with appreciation and respect. Raised in Beirut Lebanon for the first half of her life, Jan is the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries to the Arab peoples of the Middle East. Jan’s education includes a Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, and a B.A. in English and French from Hollins University. Jan describes herself as a “war-zone survivor,” who retains a sense of humor and love of gentleness. She loves Arab art and food, and all kinds of music. She intends to find the gift in every day and to live her life as a way of giving thanks. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org