Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Life Issues

Learning How to Pray During a Pandemic

There are lots of ways to react to this pandemic. Become obsessed with it, watching the news 24/7 and keeping up with the articles that pop up every few minutes. Or find some form of escape, be it watching Foyle’s War or reruns of the Twilight Zone (especially the apocalyptic episodes). 

Prayer may be our most important response. We usually find ourselves here when we come to the end of ourselves. I’m guessing many of you have been more vigilant to pray. I have. And not some, house-trained, run of the mill drivel. Passionate prayer. Prayer that moves mountains. The times demand such prayers. Jesus told us to pray like this. Commands us to stand in the storm and rebuke the winds. Anything less is a failure of faith. This is how I am praying. Alongside compassionate care, it might be the greatest gift we, the church, can give to the world right now.

But such prayer must be prefaced with something even more urgent. We need to collectively acknowledge our need to get right. Too many of us have been distracted by career or entertainment or wealth to notice God. In the past decade or so, attendance at church has seemed to be more about fitting in with personal schedules. Corporate commitment and personal discipleship have moved to the periphery, rather than be fixed at the center. I have noticed this when reviewing files of those applying to go to seminary. The level of dysfunction has grown. Respect for an authoritative word is no longer a given.

This is not meant to be a rant–but more an observation. We have forgotten that this is God’s world to steward—not ours to abuse. These bodies are his temple to honor—not ours to do with as we please. The prayer he honors begins with Thy will–not my will–be done. Forgive us our debts. I’m drawn to the fact repentance is always one of the first words. None of us can check N/A. It is turning from a supposition we could ever manage our lives. Acknowledging our society’s moral failures, and doing it collectively, sets us again on the way. Otherwise, we remain imprisoned, literally and figuratively. 

This is why Jonah 2 continues to be the operative text for me in this season. As I posted earlier, it’s in our confinement we find ourselves coming to our knees. Jonah, full of self, was once again realizing he must become full of God. In the belly of the fish, he broke his silence with God. Have we? Jonah’s prayer is moving. Here the book shifts from narrative to poetry. There’s a reason. Poetry, by its very nature, is intestinal language. A language that flows out of the depths, language from the gut. Prayers that scream. Plead. Prayers we need to be praying!

 “In trouble, deep trouble (lit. ‘out of my straights’) I prayed to God…from the belly of the grave, I called, ‘Help!’”

Jonah’s language reveals a man who once enjoyed the freedom of self-determination. “I know what I want.” He chose to run from God. If he chooses to follow, it will be on his terms. But now Jonah is in the dark, dank confinement that eventually comes to those living outside of God’s will. Restraint has now replaced disorder. Seaweed imprisoning his head, Jonah has the sensation of dying (v 5). He has committed careericide—forsaking what he was made for–and now its painful reality is hitting him hard. Halfway through, Jonah’s prayer sounds like a man wondering if he is on an elevator to hell. He is about to hit bottom. There’s nothing underneath this underneath. And now he feels abandoned—like some of us. We had our dreams. Everything was going so well. The markets were in historic territory. My team was about to make the playoffs (well, on this one I can check N/A). 

Feeling spiritually abandoned has to be one of the most terrifying experiences. Is this happening to us? St. John of the Cross, confined to a literal, barbaric, dungeon, felt discarded. Listen to his words—

“Where have you hidden.

Beloved, and left me groaning?

You fled like a stag

having wounded me;

I went in search of you, and you were gone”

C.S. Lewis, whose world turned upside down with the loss of his wife, wrote—

“Where is God? Go to Him when your need is desperate, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. And after that—silence”

Many of us find ourselves in the agony and confusion and deep sense of letdown. This all makes no sense. I feel like an alien in this present universe. But as life often reveals—when God seems most absent from us, he is doing his most important work in us. Just like we see in Jonah’s prayer.

“Yet you pulled me up from the grave alive…salvation belongs to the Lord.”

Thank God for scientists and health workers and those who govern. Thank God for Costco and the truckers driving around the clock. But ultimately, thank God for being God. Jonah’s prayer trains us for prayer—calls us to pray with fury —with faith and with hope. There’s no place too low—too beyond God’s rescue. His love runs that deep. And so must our praying.







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