August 11, 2020

Listening Prayer amid the Pandemic

This is what we, the church, may need at this time—to sit, silently, in the presence of God.

One of my favorite scenes in Anne of Green Gables is about prayer. When Marilla learns that the orphan she has welcomed to her home has never prayed, she’s aghast. She firmly instructs Anne to kneel down and say her prayers. Anne asks, “Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”

Lately, I’ve resonated a lot with Anne. Sometimes, it sounds good to just feel a prayer. Of course, I’ve also been praying with words as Jesus-follower and pastor should. But just as we’re all experiencing pandemic fatigue, I’m experiencing praying-about-the-pandemic fatigue. It’s one thing to pray for an individual whom I love for years on end, a person with a name and a face. But this...virus. It’s harder to pray for a bad thing to go away. Maybe it’s me. Maybe you have more perseverance. But I’m fatigued.

And then I think about how prayer is a conversation with God. Prayer is relational, not simply a wish-list to read off to the Almighty. Prayer is a conversation, and here I am, loading it up with requests that God has already heard. God doesn’t forget. He remembers. How many times do I need to make the same request, I wonder.

Here’s some requests I’ve petitioned numerous times in the past four months:

  • I’ve asked God for COVID-19 to go away.
  • I’ve prayed blessings on the scientists developing a vaccine, that the ones that don’t get along would cooperate, and maybe even become friends. I’ve prayed that they’d later look back and think, “That was a miracle, the way we got along when we were developing the vaccine.” And then, realizing that there was a miracle, they’d start to look for the mover who made the miracle and they’d find Jesus.
  • I’ve prayed that school would be back in session. Partly because I really like for other adults to teach my children, but also because of the children in homes where no one is able to teach them, and where no one is able to fully care for them.

God has heard these requests, and God doesn’t forget. So what do I do now, in this fatigue? Where is this big field, Anne Shirley, and may I join you in it?

Last week, when I was cleaning out piles of unused school materials, I found one child’s notebook marked “Religion.” (My children go to a private school.) It was mostly empty. 

But on one page, I saw some words written in pencil. I had to turn the notebook over because they were written on the wrong end. “Der God” it said. “How ar yow doing?” 

Dear God, how are you doing?

That prayer my son wrote has been coursing through my mind and heart this past week. Dear God, how are you doing? I tell God how I’m doing all the time. I’m mad, I say. I’m tired. I also tell God good things: I’m delighted by the beauty of the sky, this flower, the trees. I’m thankful for my husband. I’m thankful for hope in Jesus. I go through that litany of prayers about COVID.

I say these things to God. But until last week, I had never, not ever, not once, asked God how he was doing.

So I’ve started to. I’ve set aside the litany of requests. I sit in silence, “God, how are you doing?” 

I don’t necessarily expect an answer. And of course, I could read Scripture and find answers to this question. God is immutable, after all. But I’m not. And so I ask, like one does in any good relationship, and I listen.

And this has been a gift, just like the gift of presence when someone is grieving. You don’t have to say the right thing or go to the right verse. You just have to be there and sit.

God, how are you doing? Maybe this is what Anne Shirley was talking about, sitting in the presence of God up there on that big hill.

And I’ve wondered if this is what we, the church, may need at this time. To sit, silently, in the presence of God. Dear God, we can pray, how are you doing? 

Because, after all, Paul reminds us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27).

God, how are you doing?

And may the Spirit keep praying for us according to God’s will. Amen.

Digging Deeper

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.