After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,Revelation 7:9-10, 13-14, 17
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
One of the best decisions I’ve made this year was to take advantage of the Nebraska Synod’s Seeking the Spirit Within Spiritual Institute and start meeting monthly with a Spiritual Director. Spiritual direction can sometimes feel a little bit like counseling, but what a spiritual director is really trained to do is to help you be attentive to where God is at work in your life and to help you strengthen that relationship. (I highly recommend it!)
In our meeting this month, my spiritual director and I ended up in a really great conversation about prayer. I confessed to her that prayer is kind of a mystery to me. I definitely think it’s important to talk with God (rather than just about God), and I think that prayer often opens up our own hearts to learn and be transformed. But I struggle sometimes when it comes to asking God for things in prayer.
There is so much to take to God in prayer. Especially these days, I am so desperately sad and angry about the state of things in the world: the ways we are divided from one another, the callousness of our leaders toward those who are suffering, the continued oppression of people living on the margins, this seemingly neverending pandemic that has already touched the lives of so many people I care about and taken at least one of them.
I know it is not God’s will that things should be so. I know that God desires all God’s children to live in peace, to enjoy justice, and to thrive in health and happiness. I know it especially because of texts like this one from Revelation. But there is this struggle. This world has been corrupted by the power of sin and brokenness, and God’s will is often interrupted, even thwarted (in the short term). But God is also constantly at work in this world fighting sin and bringing healing and redemption where there is brokenness – work in which we also participate!
In the gospels, Jesus tells us that God knows what we need before we even ask for it, and so I trust that – whatever I might take to God in prayer – God’s already on it. This is where I get hung up sometimes in prayer. I wonder: if God already knows what I need and is already working on it, then what’s the point of praying about it? I somewhat sheepishly confessed to my spiritual director that my attitude toward prayer is sometimes like my attitude toward calling my internet provider when service goes down: I know that they know there’s a problem, and they know that I know they know. I trust that they are working on it and I know that me calling them a billion times isn’t going to get it fixed any faster.
So why ask God a billion times for something I already trust that God is working on? This is the question that I have been wrestling with in my spiritual life. And the answer that’s bubbled up from these conversations with my spiritual director is this: the longing itself is an act of faith. What we lift up to God in prayer is not limited by our realistic expectations of what this world is likely to offer us. Instead, what we pray for is a reflection of what God has promised us. It’s a reflection of our hope and trust in the future that God has promised. Every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” in every way that we pray it, we are acting out our faith that God will make it so, whether it happens in this life or the next. Hopefulness and longing are acts of faith.
And hopefulness and longing will be prominent themes in our texts and liturgy as we come to the close of this liturgical year with All Saints Day and Reign of Christ, and begin a new liturgical year with Advent – the season of waiting for light in the darkness. This text from Revelation is part of our readings for All Saints Day. I thought that this was a particularly fitting text to lift up in this season, when we are all dealing with so much grief and change and loss, some of it still all too fresh. These texts remind us that God has promised us a better future – life eternal in the kingdom – and that this is the future we work and hope and long and pray for.
Whatever longing or hope or struggle you are wrestling with right now, I encourage you to pray about it wholeheartedly. As the old hymn goes:
Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge; take it to the Lord in prayer.
With hope and longing,
First published in St. John’s November 2020 newsletter.