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Praying in Hope When There’s Hell on Earth

Snatching an hour of sunshine, I sit on a bench beneath maple trees, feeling the breeze gentle on my face, the light’s warm fingers caressing my shoulders. The sun-warmed tang of autumn is in the air.

Cars drive past in an endless stream, and an ambulance siren wails, fading, then growing louder again as it turns a corner. As I sit here I’m not far from the world, its drama and trauma. But there’s something about stepping off the sidewalk, pausing to sit, looking up and staying for a while, that feels like I’ve gone farther than two blocks from my home, feels like I’ve stepped out for a bit and rested.

Here on the bench, I can’t stop looking up. What is it about these maple trees that so captivates me? Is it the tenacity of the last few leaves still clinging?

The way even (or especially!) in their dying they shine gold with the sun’s own glory?

Is it the juxtaposition of autumn leaves and next year’s seeds, death and birth keeping company on the almost-bare branches?

Perhaps it is all of these that, together, feel like vibrant hope.

Perhaps the beauty calls to me so acutely because, in this world of Covid and climate change and only five (yes, five!) percent of Afghan families having enough to eat, I’m desperate for the reminder that death doesn’t get the last word.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done,” I pray again and again, alongside “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.” Your beautiful, righteous kingdom come, with its King who, Isaiah says, “will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (42:4).

A Story from the Frontlines

I wrote a while back about the Afghan family I’ve stayed in contact with over these twelve years since I lived in their village. I heard yesterday from the son, a bright, sensitive, hard-working young man of fifteen.

His mother, a newly trained doctor, is continuing to care for patients though she hasn’t been paid in four months. His father needs surgery. His eldest sister can no longer attend school because schools for girls past grade six have been closed. They want to leave the country and can’t find a way out.

Sometimes the weight of all this feels crushing. These are people with whom I’ve eaten, danced (okay, only once when someone dragged me to my feet at a wedding) and helped to be born. People I love. I want to find them a safe place to live, lay a table and eat together, help them find hope again. It hurts to feel helpless.

A Confession

I’ll be honest. Sometimes when I glance at the news headlines in my inbox, I don’t want to read further. Sometimes the world feels too overwhelming to tolerate and I want to shut it out, push it away, hide from it. And there’s a time to step away for a while. None of us can pray for every need in the world, let alone meet them all, and absorbing those needs without the capacity to do anything about them can be toxic.

But, while I need breaks, I also know that hiding from reality, or the accompanying emotions, doesn’t make them go away. It just makes them feel more overwhelming. This too: When news from next door or the other side of the world grips my heart with particular grief, that grief—or anger, or longing to reach out and do something—is, I think, an invitation to participate with God in his work in the world. And I don’t want to miss being part of his life-giving, hope-bringing work in this world that so desperately needs Him.

It’s hard to feel helpless. But as I shared a couple of days ago with a small group of friends, and together we prayed, I was reminded that even when my own arms are too short to reach, there is One who is right there with them, One who loves them even more (far more!) than I do, and who is able to meet them in their suffering. One who answers prayer, specializing in bringing life out of death, creation out of chaos. We are not helpless because the Creator of the universe is our help.

A Word About This Blog

This place is about listening together to the heartbeat of God and making our home in Christ’s love. It’s grounded in the principle that we can’t give what we haven’t received. Before we can love those around us, and as we keep loving them, we have to receive God’s love in our own most tender, hungry places.

I believe that with all my heart. And I believe that the inverse is true as well. If I listen to God’s heartbeat for long, I will hear his love not only for myself but for others, and be grieved in the ways he is grieved for those who are suffering. If I really want to make my home in Christ’s love, I need not only to listen to God’s heartbeat, but to let him help my own heart beat in rhythm with his.

So then, how do I pray when I find myself aching or angry or wanting to shut it all out because it hurts to feel world’s pain?

How do I pray when the executive director of the World Food Program says, “”Ninety-five percent of the people [in Afghanistan] don’t have enough food, and now we’re looking at 23 million people marching towards starvation, . . . The next six months are going to be catastrophic. It is going to be hell on Earth.”

Perhaps the better question is how do I not pray then? How do I not bring this hellish situation to the One who has already passed through hell on our behalf and proven that he can turn, has turned, is still in the work of turning death to life?

I am praying that God will teach me how to pray in deeper hope and trust, able to turn more fully toward the need as I see it against the backdrop of the One for whom nothing is impossible. Part of this, I think, is praying together, as I did the other day. Part, too, is keeping my eyes intentionally not just on the bare branches, but on the golden leaves, the hope of seeds, the wisdom of the Creator who sets death and life so close together.

Praying Together

As a way to practice this hopeful prayer, I’ll be personally focusing each week on a particular need in Afghanistan, bringing it to the One who knows and cares. For those of you who might also feel Afghanistan heavy on your hearts and wish to pray with me, I’ll share how I’m praying. I realize we’re all called in different directions, so I’ll do this separately from this blog, sent only by email rather than posted online. You’ll need to sign up at this link if you want to receive these special Afghanistan prayer emails. (And if you have friends, or a prayer group you think would like to pray with us, please send this invitation along to them as well.)

The emails will be brief – just a short paragraph about a particular need, a photo, and an invitation to pray. Sometimes the needs will be a snippet from the news, other times a glimpse into the life of a family that I or a colleague are in touch with. I can’t promise you won’t ache as you read and pray. Part of letting our hearts beat in rhythm with God’s is sharing his ache for the wrong in the world. But I can promise that, God helping us, we will turn again and again to the hope and beauty of our God and what he is doing in the world, even when the branches seem bare.

We will, together, cry to the One who is Love, who is strong, and who is wise, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron. 20:12).

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Katie Coons

    This post was really meaningful to me. I live in Vermont, and now we have started welcoming refugees into our state, and with a housing shortage, the needs are to welcome them into our homes until housing can be located. Your writing has prompted me to pray and see how I can get involved. I sense maybe God calling me to respond somehow. Thanks for writing and praying. Keep it up!

    1. Carolyn Watts

      Thanks for sharing this, Katie. May God continue to guide you as you wait on him!

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