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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Prayer for Times of Turmoil
distributed 8/18/17 - ©2017

"I'm not sleeping well," Donna told me after church last Sunday.

The escalating tensions between the US and North Korea had been intense. Then, on Saturday, came the news of murder and mayhem in Charlottesville. (The ongoing idiocy of a president who is unable to stick to condemnation of white supremacy and racist violence hadn't yet taken shape.)

Sipping our coffee and nibbling on cookies, we reflected on the distressing news coming hard and fast, and the toll that it takes on our spirits.

That's when Donna told me that she's using her time awake late at night for prayer. I replied that she seems to have a much more solid spirituality than I do. My late nights are more prone to simple anxiety.

I'm trying to learn from Donna this week, and to reconnect with more faithful ways of living in these very trying times. In the short format of these Notes, I can't outline all the components of a deep and fulfilling prayer life. But for today, I offer to you (and myself) five short pointers that seem essential to the prayerful grounding that helps us keep going in times like these. (These are stated from a Christian perspective, but similar approaches are found in most religious traditions, and some secular wellness.)

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1. Values and vision
At its most basic, prayer has to do with putting our focus on God, on that which is ultimate, that which is most true.

The conversation with God might include some unloading about our fear, anxiety, anger, and other emotional turmoil -- some spiritual venting -- but more importantly, prayer calls us to emphasize our relationship with God. It calls us to step away from a focus on ourselves and our turmoil, and to begin to put attention on God's purposes and qualities.

Rather than stewing about everything that is wrong with the world, prayer brings our thoughts toward the things that we most deeply desire for Earth. Broadly, we remember the guiding biblical vision of shalom, of peace with justice for all creation. More immediately, we might call to mind Paul's list of spiritual fruit, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23) -- all of which stand in stark contrast to the worst in the news these weeks.

Reorienting ourselves toward that which we most profoundly value is an act of hope, of commitment. Some of that hope is future-oriented, because we do long for a world of peace with justice that isn't here now. But placing our hope in God also centers us in the moment, and affirms where we place our confidence right now. We don't just hope for peace, we dedicate ourselves to being peacemakers. We don't just wish for self-control, we commit ourselves to be disciplined. We orient ourselves toward that which we know is true and good.

2. Meditation and mindfulness
Prayer can happen in all sorts of times and places. It can be a spontaneous burst of joy, confession or awe. Centering prayer, though, the kind that nurtures and sustains us in times of turmoil, requires some time and attentiveness.

Christianity often joins practices of meditation and prayer, and there are many disciplines to guide that meditation. The spiritual traditions of Buddhism speak of "mindfulness," an attentiveness to the self in this moment. What is it that I'm really feeling? Is it anger, fear, grief, or something else? Other than keeping me awake late at night, how are those emotions impacting me? Am I breathing too fast? Does my stomach hurt? Am I unable to concentrate? Are my relationships with friends and family being damaged?

Meditation and mindfulness both require a stepping back from distractions. These practices need a quiet time and place. Especially important for these days, we need to take a break from non-stop news and social media. We cannot be centered when images of violent riots are replayed on our screens every five minutes. We cannot be mindful in the midst of Facebook's ongoing cacophony of rants, opinions, jokes and cat videos.

3. Forgiveness
Earlier this year, the haywire political situation in the US led me into anger and judgment. When I wrote about those reactions, my pastor encouraged me to delve more deeply into forgiveness -- an exploration that I shared in Notes.

My greatest discovery from last April was of the difference between forgiving and excusing. Excusing or condoning the harm done by others, pretending that it is all OK now, lets the wrong-doer off the hook. Forgiveness, though, is about a change in myself. It is a conscious decision to stop hating. It is a choice that the past will not control me.

In these times of turmoil, of willful violence and taunting threats, hate is debilitating. Prayer in these days demands some level of forgiveness, of letting go of the anger. For me, that doesn't come easily. Perhaps the middle of the night is a good time to work at that kind of release.

4. Community
In the middle of the night, when sleep won't come, prayer is probably going to be solitary. (It may not be appreciated if you call your pastor or spiritual director at 2 AM.) Even in the dark of the night, though, prayer draws us into community. We know that we are not alone in either the challenges that we face, or in the hope that sustains us.

"We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses," reads Hebrews 12:1. There is a rich lineage running through history of those who have faced desperate times with courage, faith and hope. There are heroes and companions all around us who exemplify our values and commitments.

When the hatred and violence of the Klan seem too strong, remember the clergy and laity who stood before them in Charlottesville with non-violence. When I feel alone, I will remember the 1,000 people who rallied in Denver last Sunday afternoon -- on less than a day's notice -- to march in solidarity with Charlottesville. I will remember the healing power of being part of that community.

Prayer puts our focus on God -- and it ties us to the community of folk who share those values and goals.

5. Gratitude
"And be thankful." (Colossians 3:15) Gratitude is implied in the claiming of God's values as our own, and in the affirmation of community.

Prayer that is sustaining provides a shift in perspective when it embraces gratitude. We might start with lament and complaint, with anxiety and fear, but we can end with appreciation and joy. This gratitude is not only for contrasts to the complaints -- for those who stand against the Klan -- but for all the blessings of life. In prayer, we remember beauty, laughter, life and love.

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Last Sunday, a short conversation with Donna helped me to take a closer look at my life. Her words about prayer reminded me to be more intentional about shifting away from anger and anxiety, and turning toward prayerful alternatives.

We're in for a long struggle, I'm afraid. Conflicts, violence, warped policies and the ravaging of nature are not going to disappear soon. Too keep going in the work of resistance and healing, we need to take care of ourselves. Cultivating a life of prayer is one part of that self-care.

Remember to keep the focus on what is good and right. Find the time and space for meditation and mindfulness. Practice forgiveness. Be strengthened by community. Be grateful. Those five practices might help when you can't sleep at night. As they are cultivated and disciplined, maybe sleep will come more easily.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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