Time to Pray (Even If You Don’t Believe in It)

After many days of dangerous denial, it seems most people are finally taking COVID-19 seriously. That means Christian leaders are starting to offer their regular religious responses and reflections on the worldwide pandemic. There are common things Christians tend to say in crisis situations like this and wow are they somewhere between unsatisfying, terrible, and downright sadistic.

Some, like self-described ‘revivalist’ Rodney Howard Browne, are claiming to have special power over the incredibly infectious virus. The other day Browne claimed he will cure this virus just like he cured Zika, at least for Florida. This is religion as magic, where believing in an idea or making bold claims is taken to be enough to overcome and remake reality. Browne defied local, state, and federal directives to cease holding large gatherings until he was arrested for endangering the lives of thousands.

Some, like Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., are still holding to a remnant of what were the American far right political talking points during the days of denial, that it’s all a hoax, a media scare, a small thing blown far out of proportion, a foreign attack, and less harmful than the damage done to the economy or the stock market (those are not synonymous). This is religion as power, devolved into the binary that is American partisan politics. It’s as dangerous as magic religion but worse (to me) because it seems more likely to come from a place of naked cynicism and deliberate manipulation, and the scale of its influence is far broader. (Magic religion is cynical and manipulative in its own way, but there seems more a chance that even leaders like Browne really believe the crazy they’re peddling.) There’s no claim to magic here, just a willing trade off of lives for money and power, and a sanctifying of such evil bargains made in the halls of power.

Both magic religious leaders and political power religious leaders continue holding in-person services, despite local and state orders against such meetings of more than 10 people. Their arrogance makes them especially dangerous not only to their own people, but to everyone else the virus infects through the chain they refuse to break. It is immoral – the religious word here is sinful – to so blatantly refuse to participate in caring for the well-being of all people. This is exactly the opposite of what Christian practice requires.

Others, like theologian Tim Keller, have offered the old standard trope, taken directly from Job’s friends, that things like COVID-19 are the just judgments of God meant to lead humans to repent of our sins. Yeah, that’s a thing Christians say a lot. This is religion as social control, where actions that lie beyond what is culturally acceptable are deemed damnable by God and enough build-up of naughty no-no’s results in punishment on a broad scale. Of course innocents get punished in the process but that is the price humanity pays for offending its sometimes wrathful creator. The main goal of this religion is to justify God, to explain whatever horrific things come along as not somehow incongruous with an all-loving and all-powerful God. Both “love” and “power” have to be contorted as needed to squeeze around the vagaries of life to maintain the religious status quo. Among all the other sins, asking questions of this whole system of thought is particularly not allowed. As I said, this is precisely the religion Job’s friends express (in over 30 chapters of excruciating detail and repetition), and it’s essential to note that God speaks at the end of Job and specifically condemns everything Job’s friends said and orders them to repent. Those demanding repentance were the ones who had to repent. That irony is altogether lost on those who say such things today.

In a Time magazine article, N.T. Wright has offered a far more reasoned response, and yet one that seems fairly fatalistic. Wright says Christianity has no answer for this novel coronavirus beyond lament. This is religion as shared coping mechanism, where what matters is grieving graciously, joining with God who laments with us, adhering to a nobility of heart, but specifically not offering any explanation. It’s certainly less immediately dangerous than magic religion or political power religion, and more rationally palatable than social control religion. Wright answers well the “silly suspects” like Browne and the 2020 equivalent of Job’s friends. And it’s both true and remarkable that central to Christian teaching is that God mourns, suffers, and dies along with us. The great shortcoming in Wright’s explanation is its sole focus on having or not having an explanation, as if rejecting the explanation of Job’s friends and offering a non-explaining explanation moves Wright beyond the rationalism that he is in fact utterly trapped in. Lament is not a placeholder for an explanation of evil. It is not in itself what Christianity can offer the world in this moment, though it is foundational for three practices that provide more actual power and more tangible hope than anything I’ve mentioned so far. Christianity has no answer by way of explaining, we only have answer by way of action.

1. self-sacrificial service – From the very beginning of the Christian faith, followers of Jesus took care of people in need. They quickly became known for taking in orphans, caring for those with communicable diseases, and cultivating communities of friendship across all the usual boundaries of class, race, gender, and age. Compassion and sharing in the mourning and suffering of strangers made these practices possible then and now. Many of the virtues we see embodied by our healthcare workers have deep roots in the Christian tradition. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, cleaning crews, and other medical staff are literally risking their own lives to provide care to us and our loved ones, following (whether they know it or not) the command Jesus gave his followers in John 15.12-13: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” They actually go beyond even this command in risking their lives for strangers. 

And self-sacrificial service does not end with our healthcare heroes. All of us have a part to play in this moment, all of us have sacrifices to make for each other. Some of us have to continue doing less glamorous, but still essential work like stocking grocery shelves and making deliveries. There is personal risk in these roles as well. And the rest of us have to stay home, giving up various creature comforts, watching as savings and investments evaporate, staring into a suddenly unknown future with way too much time to worry about where this road takes us. Christian theology teaches us that we ought to stay at home and practice social distancing because there is no distance between us, that what we have in common far outweighs what separates us, that any material loss we suffer pales in comparison to the suffering of those who fall seriously ill and/or die from this virus. We set it all aside because these are reasonable sacrifices to make for each other in the light of the sacrifice Jesus made for us and set as an example for how we serve each other. Each of us doing our part to help slow the spread of this thing, putting our neighbors well-being above income, convenience, and business as usual is a deeply Christian response.

2. solitude – For those of us whose service to each other is to remain at home during this time, the hardest trial is the dramatic increase in solitude. Even in larger families (there are six of us in my house), we are alone with ourselves far more than most of us normally are. Many of our usual distractions have been taken away. We are increasingly left to confront the reality of our own existence, the very thing we most avoid in our society’s business as usual. But this is nothing new or unknown to the followers of Jesus. Again, early on in the original Jesus movement, his followers found that life in the Roman Empire (especially Constantine’s Christian Roman Empire) made it nearly impossible to follow Jesus well. These followers turned their lament into action, giving up wealth, social standing, and all manner of creature comforts. They became the Desert Mothers and Fathers and left us with much wisdom for various ascetic practices, including living through extended times of sequester and solitude. One of my dearest hopes for this season is that for many of us it can be a Sabbath, a period to rest and reflect on our lives, to listen to our own souls, to find out who God is for ourselves. Wherever you are (or are not) on your own faith journey, there is much you can learn in solitude about yourself, the nature of reality, and the truth of the divine, that you can learn in no other way. In The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton draws this from the records of the desert followers:

A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.  Thomas Merton

Merton explains in his introduction:

What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in “the world.” They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was “given” in a set, stereotyped form by somebody else.  Thomas Merton

This is (hopefully) a unique time in our lives. If your act of service is to stay home, I encourage you to embrace the solitude, spending time meditating on what is good, beautiful, and true, and spending time in utter stillness and silence. You will find yourself in silence. You will find God in silence.

3. prayer – our greatest power is not any silly magic like Browne claims. Actually, it is a far greater and deeper power than that and all are able and invited to participate in it. No human has the ability to wave their hand or say a few words and make COVID-19 go away. Even Jesus on earth did not heal everyone on the planet, not even all the people he encountered. But the words we say and the thoughts we think do have real power. There are various ways I could try to explain this to you but none of them is all that satisfying, and that would get us back into the explanation loop Wright rightly wants to exit. But it doesn’t matter what you think about prayer, how you think it works, or even if you think it doesn’t. The power of prayer isn’t even contingent on belief in Jesus, God, or any faith or religion at all. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Christianity – the removal of all religious barriers to communication with the Divine. Without any rite, ritual, initiation, or religious hoop jumped through, you can speak to – and hear from – the Divine. There is no barrier between you and prayer, no training required.

We are in a moment of worldwide crisis. This is a time to make use of every tool, every method we have. And prayer is a tool we have, a tool humans have used for thousands of years across a wide variety of religions and faith traditions. In recent years, various research studies have attempted to track the effectiveness of prayer on medical outcomes, with varied results, but again, that’s just more explaining.

Instead of all that, I invite you to try it for yourself. Add prayer to your daily routine during this time. Spend 15 minutes (or more) asking for a better outcome than what looks likely right now. Don’t try to use religious language or any formulaic words. Just speak honestly how you feel and what you would like to see happen. Turn your worries, fears, grief, mourning, and lament into prayers. If you aren’t used to praying it will feel awkward at first. Find a way of praying that feels most natural to you. Here are some suggestions for the kinds of things to ask for:

  • ask that people who are struggling to breathe and survive this virus recover from it
  • ask that people who are vulnerable to it not get it
  • ask that healthcare workers have the strength and perseverance they need
  • ask that necessary workers be protected from catching the virus
  • ask that government leaders exercise uncommon wisdom 
  • ask that researchers find effective treatments and a vaccine quickly
  • ask that all of us have peace and neighborly affection, that we come together through this

These are some general things to pray for (you may think of others), but prayer seems to be more effective when it is more specific. Pray specifically – by name – for people you know who have COVID-19, who serve in the medical field, who have to leave home for work right now, or who are feeling especially anxious at this time. Pray for yourself. Ask for what you need. Don’t try to make bargains or promises, there’s no need to barter. Just ask. Send as many good thoughts and vibes as you can at this situation. Pray every time you wash your hands. Try it for 4 weeks and decide for yourself if you feel like it’s making a difference. As Karl Barth said,

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.  Karl Barth

Join the resistance. Stay home. Wash your hands. Embrace the solitude. Pray. Whether you believe in it or not.