The place of prayer in 2021
No argument. 2020 was one for the books; 365 days that most just want to forget. Good riddance! It is telling that the most notable quotes of 2020 were: “Wear a mask,” “Flatten the curve,” “Maintain physical distancing,” and “Wash your hands.”
My own sojourn through 2020 began with a heart-breaking closure of a church under my oversight followed by months of exasperating exchanges with former adherents. Then March arrived with COVID health and safety measures ending in-person church gatherings. My youngest son then contracted COVID in April and was incredibly ill for six weeks (and is still living with side-effects today). Supporting churches and pastors in their transition to online worship services brought a significant level of stress to my life during spring and summer.
When the opportunity for rest came, our summer family vacation was cancelled due to COVID travel restrictions. Hopeful, Janine and I looked forward to a mini vacation in September only to arrive in Kelowna during a time when the California fires pushed choking smoke into this normally sunny and scenic Okanagan setting. As we moved into fall, COVID restrictions prevented us from attending our middle son’s police college graduation. My year ended with a hemicolectomy. This surgery removed a section of my colon that harboured a large growth. Unfortunately, a complication developed and with it, significant anxiety. Six weeks of recovery followed. My physician ordered self-isolation meaning an in-person family Christmas could not take place. In the background was the potential for the pathology report to reveal if the removed growth from my colon was cancerous. When I submitted this writing, I was still waiting for my surgeon’s prognosis. Friends, in a nutshell, my 2020 was a tale of trouble.
I feel I have good grounds to claim that 2020 was cursed. I postulate that the Apostle Paul would be in agreement since he wrote: “…all creation [is] subjected to God’s curse” (Romans 8:20). This is simply life under the sun. Trouble is a part of every year and our sovereign Creator allows it. Job said, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (2:10). Even Jesus counseled, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33b). I recall a wise mentor advising me that life is fundamentally a sojourn of trouble and trial into which God pours grace, hope, love and joy. Based on this maxim, life under the sun in 2020 will continue in 2021 and each year after that until the end of days. The preacher of Ecclesiastes seems to concur: “History merely repeats itself. It has been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new” (1:9). The preacher paints life under the sun as a protracted and perplexing crisis of faith in an enigmatic God. Life is the futility of human effort – a chasing after the wind – where meaning and purpose are as elusive as shifting shadows. A cycle of vanities that ultimately culminates in death.
In stark contrast, the Gospel informs us that although all of creation lives under the sun, disciples of Christ experience that reality only in part. As Spirit-filled followers of Jesus, a new pilgrimage “under the Son” begins. We are now the beloved of a Heavenly Father – forgiven, redeemed, possessing purpose and meaning – on a sojourn of hope that ultimately culminates into eternal life in heaven. The Apostle Paul pens, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven…” (Colossians 1:13-14,23b).
While I was in hospital in the fall of 2020, I experienced firsthand the contrast between “life under the sun” and “life under the Son.” Like me, my hospital ward roommate (let’s call him Lenny) had a surgery on his colon. Lenny was a retired senior in poor health and by all accounts and conversations, without hope in God. He had no love for ‘religious’ church people. He was living life solely under the sun. Post-surgery, both Lenny and I experienced exactly the same serious complication. We both had to work through incredibly anxious periods as we waited for relief. Throughout this time, I heard Lenny repeatedly use God’s name in vain and in harsh sentiments express his great frustration with hospital staff. To be fair, he was hurting, and it was out of that pain he lashed out. He was living his trouble completely under the sun.
Although I too suffered with anxiety and worry about my physical complication, as God’s beloved I sought to rest these with Him. I recognized that ultimately my life was under the Son, not under the sun. While Lenny used God’s name in vain, I appealed to God for help. While Lenny became agitated with hospital staff, I sought to encourage them. The staff began to ask why I had such peace with my circumstances and why I had margin in my trouble to encourage them. I was able to hear the life stories of several nurses. The Holy Spirit then moved me to a greater compassion for Lenny. In obedience, I went to Lenny’s bed, told him I was a pastor and that I knew his anxiety. I asked if he would allow me to pray for Him. I literally saw his countenance brighten and lighten. As I placed my hand on his shoulder, his frail frame relaxed. I prayed for him, at one point saying, “Father, I ask that you work good news in this circumstance.” When I returned to my bed, his doctor came in with a treatment plan that brought him hope, relieving him of his stress and worry. When the doctor left, I pulled back the screen separating our beds and said, “God heard us, Lenny.” Lenny’s face beamed the biggest smile since we met four days earlier. God touched Lenny’s spirit and gave him a glimpse of life under the Son.
As Canadian Mennonite Brethren, we are being called to prayer this January. My sojourn as a disciple of Jesus from 2020 into 2021 has impressed upon me that prayer is the primary means by which we “set our sights” and “think about” life under the Son. This is affirmed by Paul: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3). Prayer corrects human myopia transporting one in spirit to a reality we understand as the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is ruled by the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We pray in faith as Mennonite Brethren believing that our words supernaturally reach the Son who exists beyond life under the sun. On this matter, Julian of Norwich claimed, “Prayer unites the soul to God.” More than that, prayer changes things under the sun. God ordains prayer not only as a means to relationship, but as a vehicle for personal transformation into Christlikeness. Even more, prayer impacts our circle of influence for good, and enables us to bear up well under our hardships; hence Scripture’s passionate call to this spiritual discipline (Romans 12:12; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
This January, as you heed the call to prayer for the life and work of the Mennonite Brethren, do so knowing that no matter what trouble 2021 brings – and it will come – Jesus promised, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33). Indeed, grace, hope, peace and joy are our traveling companions as we traverse 2021 under the sun.
Rev. Philip A. Gunther is director of ministry for the Saskatchewan Conference of MB Churches
1 Pilgrimage Journals is the unpublished work of Philip Gunther.