Whether we are gathered or scattered, we are one in the Spirit. We are one body of Christ.
These days, our whole church is scattered each of us in our own homes. It is really good that we’re doing this. By staying apart and staying home, we’re helping to protect those who are most vulnerable. It is really good. And I don’t have to tell you, it is really hard. If you are experiencing quarantine fatigue, you are not alone. If you are feeling the struggle of isolation, you are not wrong. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this.
These days, many of us are hearing and telling each other: “Well. All we can do now is pray.” On the one hand, I get it. I think we might be right. On the other hand, if a doctor comes out of the room and says: “We’ve tried everything. Now all we can do is pray,” yeah, that doesn’t sound like good news! It sounds like a feeble acknowledgement spoken with a sigh of resignation. You never hear this as a statement of triumph. “Look at how we are succeeding, we are crushing it! All we can now do is pray!” Nobody says that!
“All we can do now is pray” is a tender and honest admission of defeat. And it’s not wrong. I really believe this is a season when our prayer is critically needed. It’s just… For a whole lot of us, prayer itself is part of the struggle. A whole lot of us believe that we really should pray, okay. But if you’ve ever tried it, then you know. Prayer is weird and hard. It really is. Until it isn’t.
If you are feeling the struggle of isolation, you are not wrong. If you are feeling distant from God, there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this.
It could be that in each of us, we harbor a deep longing. This season is making us more aware of our longing than ever before. We want to be together. We’re missing human touch. We might be missing God. What I can promise is that your deep longing is holy. I know it might seem empty. It might be exactly where your prayer has gone missing. But your own longing might become the very place where the prayer of the Spirit finds you. It might be where God is praying for you.
I find it encouraging to remember that this longing for connection is woven into our whole tradition. You hear the Psalmist calling out to God from across a chasm: “How long O LORD? How long must I bear pain in my soul and sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:2).
We remember our Jewish forebears who were in exile, displaced from their homes and scattered as a people. From the middle of exile, they told the stories of God’s power and God’s love. Our Christian forebears built a whole practice of exchanging letters with early church leaders who could not show up in person. Being alone and apart is not our failing or our shame; this longing has been part of the story of our faith since the beginning.
Today the Narrative Lectionary gives us two scriptures that tell the story of the early church in Thessalonica. The first scripture comes from the book of Acts, Chapter Seventeen, verses one through nine.
What happened next was that Paul and Silas escaped and made it to Beroea. Soon thereafter, Paul went on to Athens while Silas and Timothy got the church going in Thessalonica. When the three of them finally met up, Timothy told Paul that the Thessalonians were missing him and wanted to hear from him, so Paul wrote this letter to the church. The second scripture comes from First Thessalonians, Chapter One. I’ll be reading verses one through ten:
I invite you to consider what Paul is trying to do. He’s reassuring these church folks that they received the Gospel, not just with words —it’s not like clicking Agree on the Terms and Conditions —but they were chosen by God. They received the Gospel with the full conviction of the Holy Spirit! They have the Spirit of God in their church, and good thing, but don’t think that will exempt them from persecution!
Nevertheless, their faith is real and somebody needs to notice and say it out loud. Your faith isn’t a false pretense. Our faith is sometimes an honest admission of defeat, you can believe that. And our faith could be more powerful than we think; it could be more possible than we think.
These early Christians believed in the story of the Messiah, the promise of the Gospel. At the same time, their hearts were weary from grief. Paul writes this: “As for us, brothers and sisters, when… we were made orphans by being separated from you —in person, not in heart— we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face…”
Paul continues, “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us that you always remember us kindly and long to see us —just as we long to see you.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17 and 3:6).
Now look. All this is is a letter.
It’s just a paper heart taped in the window or a mask sewed for a stranger. It’s just a thank you note to a nurse or a card mailed to somebody who lives alone. It’s a letter written to somebody who’s locked up. All Paul has are words —and love, and here he is trying to throw a lifeline across a chasm. I know that we are scattered and struggling, he tells them. I know the forces of loneliness and persecution, of shame and depression, and I’m trying to reach you.
Your longing is my longing. Our longing is where the Holy Spirit can find us.
The people of Thessalonica are feeling their longing more acutely than ever, so Paul goes and pours out his courage right into their sorrow. He starts out by saying: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith, and labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3).
I will admit to you. When I read those verses, my first thought was, Really? Do you think Paul really prayed constantly for the members of this church? He might have. Do you think it was one of those always in the back of his mind, he’s thinking to God, bless all the people in all the churches… Or do you think he devoted time every day to remembering all the names of all the people… What do you suppose his prayer life was like?
It could be that prayer is more powerful than we think. Could be that prayer is more possible than we think.
If you have found yourself struggling with prayer, you’re not wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with you! Prayer is weird and hard, until it isn’t. It could be the case that something in you already wants to feel a closeness to God. Prayer is giving yourself permission to follow that impulse.
The first thing to know is no matter how you begin saying a prayer, no matter how you attempt to address the Divine, just about every prayer begins with an unstated confession that goes something like this:
You are God, and I am not.
I don’t know how to pray, only that I want to. I think.
I know, I want to want to pray.
Then see what happens!
This introduction is a tender and honest admission of defeat. It’s a signal flare making our own longing able to be found by God’s own longing.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul comes right out and says that human people have a hard time with prayer. “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul explains. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
It is God who remembers you constantly, who calls you by name everyday in her prayers. God prays for you with sighs too deep for words, see prayer is more possible than we think.
It’s also more powerful. In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. There’s no way to pray, or to want to want to pray, and not have that change things.
You’ve heard me say this before. The walls of prisons and jails are not neutral. They’re not just physical structures made of concrete or steel. Walls that divide us bear spiritual power. The walls themselves repeat the announcement that if you’re inside, you could be forgotten. You could be feeling despised, and worthless, and maybe you should! The walls themselves can be taunting and cruel… and shockingly wrong, but here’s the thing.
Prayer is the natural enemy of a prison wall.
Prayer is not hindered by steel or concrete. It reaches the people on the inside with the promise that they are loved, that their lives matter to God and to us. It reaches the people on the outside with the promise that we are remembered. It upends the expectation of violence by issuing an act of compassion. There’s no way to pray and not have that change the power in the world.
Your own prayer matters. Your own longing for God is holy. The sighs of the Spirit are praying for you, and what if this keeps turning the world toward love and more love? What if all we can do is pray, like we can’t even help it…
May it be so.