What Shall We Pray for Today?

Jessica Young Chang, Morning PrayersMorning Prayers speaker jessica young chang MDiv. III (lower-case speilling requested by speaker), March 8, 2022.



By jessica young chang MDiv III
Harvard Divinity School

A reading from the book of Job, the 13th chapter, starting at the 15th verse.

"Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him."

When I worked last summer as a chaplain intern, my supervisor taught me that when praying with a patient to ask, "what shall we pray for today?" I can’t assume that because they’re in the hospital I know what they want from God. I think about this question--what am I praying for today–a lot lately. It’s timely that it’s on my mind, a week into Lent: some of us are moving into this season of penitence, reflection, and deepening spiritual practice. But why? Does some part of me hope that if my fast or abstention is ardent enough, if my devotion is sincere enough, God will answer my prayers? I don’t know about you, loved one, but I am praying for a lot right now: for the health of my loved ones who are aging poorly; I’m praying that my friends are accepted into their top-choice PhD program; for clarity on my own right next move, and the same for my Beloved; for justice for my siblings who keep losing our lives to agents of white supremacy; I’m praying that Russia would stop dropping bombs on Ukraine, and that displaced refugees, Afghan, Ukrainian, Palestinian, might be received with generosity and kindness and understanding. What do you pray for? Who are you praying for? What does it mean if the thing for which we pray goes differently than our prayers? Maybe it means we weren't praying hard enough. Maybe it’s a Divine comment on the quality or tenacity of our faith. Deeper than this, if our faith exists only as a doorway to us getting what we want, what is it really worth?

I don’t know the will of God; not because God is holy and inscrutable, though God may be these things, but because God hasn’t shared all of Their will with me. I don’t know if the things I pray for are things God wants for me. I think of contemplative and writer Thomas Merton, about whom I learned from my advisor and former MemChurch Minister, Stephanie Paulsell. Merton prays, “the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.” I think of 14th Century English mystic-theologian, and subject of my master’s thesis, Julian of Norwich, about whom I learned from our current Mem Church Minister, Matthew Potts. Julian prays, “Lord, you know what I want. And if it is not your will, good Lord, do not be displeased, for I only want what you want.” These thinkers teach me that perhaps the best possible outcome of prayer is not the new job or the doctoral program, not the healing or the miracle. Perhaps the best possible outcome is intimacy with Spirit, the closeness we have most keenly and sustainably when we acknowledge our need, our tenderness and smallness to They who hung the stars in the sky and put breath in our lungs, and who will one day be present when the rhythm of our breath ceases. I woke up early recently—like early early—thinking about what I would say this morning, and a verse I never think of suggested itself to me over and over: Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. This is an intimacy, a surrender, that is a tall order: we would give our desire for health, wellness, and prosperity over to the outcome God seeks for us even if it means our death, our disintegration. I don’t know if we will be capable of this level of intimacy or surrender in our lifetimes. I don’t even know if it’s a desirable model. But we can pray about it, right? Will you join me?

God-who-Hears, God-who-Knows, what a gift to remember that you walk and roll and crawl and kneel and prostrate and sob and skip and rejoice with us in all moments of our lives. God, you know what we want, you know what we need. Meet us where we are and abide with us as we go. Soften our hearts and transform our minds. Hear and grant us our petitions, and if you will not, God, then be with us in the midst of our confusion, our struggle and frustration, so that we may move ever closer to oneness with you.

Remembering now the words of your child and our Sibling and Teacher, Jesus, we pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine, is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.