Prayer in a time of anxiety

By R. William Carroll

It’s no secret that these are troubling times. I’ve found myself talking, writing, and preaching a great deal about how we might be faithful in such times by what we do. In an editorial for the Covenant Journal, I found myself urging both political engagement that serves the common good and conscientious stewardship of finances:

If you belong to a congregation like ours, you are probably facing some difficult budget choices as you enter a season dedicated to financial stewardship. As an outsider to your congregations, I would urge those of you who can to consider giving more. There will be anxious people who tighten their fists, and there will be others who need to trim back on charitable giving of all kinds in precisely the hour when it is needed most.

In the congregation I serve, my own stewardship sermon relied heavily on the Convention address of Thomas Breidenthal, the ninth bishop of Southern Ohio, one of the best sermons I have ever heard. You can download a copy of it here. In that sermon, Bishop Tom reminded us that it was at the time of the Great Depression, that Bishop Hobson, the third bishop of our diocese, established the Forward Movement and that he did so as a way for those in the grip of poverty and despair to begin moving forward together, day by day. He also reminded us that it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, with Europe on the brink of starvation, that our diocese helped establish the fund that became the Presiding Bishop’s fund for World Relief, now known as Episcopal Relief and Development. He also used an image that I found quite compelling. He told us that we are called to be like trees at a time of drought: to sink our roots deeper (in prayer) and spread our branches further (in service).

Having already tended to the branches in several different contexts, I would now like to turn to the roots. I do so in precisely the same spirit as my earlier calls to action. For Christians, action is always rooted in prayer. The heart of this prayer, of course, is corporate worship, above all the Eucharist, in which through the Church’s Spirit-graced act of giving thanks, the Lord Jesus gives himself to us anew and draws us ever more deeply into his dying and rising. It is here, above all, that we become rooted in the vine, so that the branches might bear fruit. It is here, above, all that we find strength to expend ourselves for our neighbor, because Jesus, in his Body and Blood, has given himself for us.

But it is also necessary in times like these, to clear space for personal devotion, both in the context of the community’s celebration and in private. We need to ask for God’s help for ourselves and intercede for the needs of others. There is a danger here, however, because this praying can become just another form of action. We also need to sit still and listen for God. We need to empty ourselves of the many thoughts, to let go of the many distractions, and pay attention to the still, small voice of God.

One reason we are so anxious is that the problems we confront are bigger than we are. There is no obvious place to begin. If we thought too much about the challenges that face our country and the world right now, we would find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to act. The problem with prayers of petition and intercession is that they lie far too close to action. When we pray like this, we are in danger of asking God to help us with our priorities rather than asking how we might get in on God’s.

In true prayer, our roots need to go deeper, or we will never find the living water for our desert journey. We will not find the serene joy and power to face the difficulties of the present moment with confidence. Nor will we even know what to ask for. To intercede effectively, we need to do so from a posture of listening for God—of radical availability to the Holy Spirit. We need to break in to the heavenly throne room, in a way that’s only possible if we relax in God’s bosom and discover how deeply and completely we are loved.

Another reason we may be anxious is that the present crisis is unveiling to us the depth of brokenness in so much that we formerly took for granted. Above all, it is revealing our own brokenness, poverty, and finitude. Only in the near presence of God and in the light of God’s countenance can we face the mess we have made of our lives without shame or fear. The contemplative tradition, with its insistence that we listen to God with no expectation for how God will answer, has much to say to us in times like these.

For Christians, contemplation is never an end in itself. It is meant to serve love. Centering prayer, to name one form this tradition takes on the contemporary scene, must never become “self-centering prayer.” But to rush to action, or even to petition, without taking time to hear God’s painful silences and bask in God’s loving presence, is just as dangerous as a contemplation that turns in on itself. In paying attention to our relationship with God our Creator, we receive guidance and renewal for times like these. More than that, however, we also receive the greatest gift of all, quiet confidence that our Being is not in the end our achievement but instead a gift from God’s most generous hands.

Friends and family may let us down. We can lose our job, our home, and even our life. Even our young and gifted president-elect, in whom so many of us have placed our trust and hope (pray for him!), can and will disappoint us. But still the love of God abides.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

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