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Prayerful Action in the Meantime?

How do we work and pray for justice “in the meantime”?  What does prayerful action for shalom look like when we are caught in that awkward, ordinary time between our painful present and God’s coming future?  

When theologians talk about the big story of the world and our place in it, they often use the phrase ‘now & not yet’ to describe our current chapter in the story: the time between Jesus’ definitive liberating action through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and the future coming of Jesus’ kingdom in which all things are made new.  W.H. Auden famously described this ordinary time as ‘the time being’ in his poem of the same name, a time in which, 

“The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience”

Auden’s phrase ‘the time being’, theologians’ ‘now and not yet’: they each describe the ‘meantime’ – the now of our lives through which we muddle, the time between gracious moments of revelation and clarity and the fullness of an ideal future that has not yet arrived.  

Lately, the news has got me thinking about ‘the meantime’.  

In my corner of the world, the temperatures have dropped from a comfortable 0 degrees Celsius to a frigid minus 40 degrees Celsius.  This drop in temperature comes at a moment in my city when the twin crises of homelessness and opioid addiction are rising.  Over 3,000 of my neighbours sleep ‘rough’ by the last official count.  These neighbours are now exposed to such brutal cold that they risk severe frostbite, loss of limbs to amputation, and – in some cases – death.  This, on top of the routine dehumanization of sleeping outside: people avoiding eye contact on the sidewalk, fitful sleep for fear of violence or theft, being ignored by those walking by.  

Understandably, many of these unhoused neighbours have gathered together for warmth and security and friendship, making impromptu communities of tents and shelters.  As these tent communities become more visible, a wider conversation follows:

“We need to dismantle these camps – they are unsafe!”  

“We need more affordable housing, not tents!”

“We need to provide these camps with heaters, water, amenities!”  

A common theme in all these public conversations is the tension between ideal futures and current needs.  The real solution to ‘tent cities’ is the creation of affordable, supportive housing and a serious attempt to address poverty, historic trauma, and systemic exclusion.  None of these things are quick fixes.  Now, in the meantime, people need safe, warm places to sleep and the opportunity to make their own choices about their lives in dignified, humane ways.  

So what does that mean for my city and me as a neighbour and citizen, today?  How should I respond?  What does solidarity, compassion, and justice look like?  I’m not sure.  

A similar dynamic runs through larger geopolitical conflicts, like the war in Gaza.  Ultimately a movement toward a just peace, driven by and for Palestinians and Israelis is needed – a movement that will inevitably be long, complicated, historically-rooted, and led by brave Palestinians and Israelis willing to look beyond today’s darkness to a new future.  But, in the meantime, children need to stop being killed, homes need to remain homes instead of being turned to rubble, and genocidal language and intentions need to be curbed.  How should I respond, in a city so far away, in northern Canada?  I’m not sure.

Prayer, in moments like these - in the meantime - should be marked by at least two things, it seems to me.  One: an openness to turn prayer into action, even in the midst of uncertainty.  And two: a willingness to see prayer ‘in the meantime’ less as a request for one outcome or another, or even as a request for explicit guidance from God, and more as a recognition that we ourselves are not God.  Put otherwise: prayer ‘in the meantime’ is a willingness to cede control of the future to the Creator and to be content with our own small fidelity to the God of justice and shalom.

Maybe all we can do is look to the Creator and recognize that the future is not ours to control.  

On the first point, I often return to Daniel Berrigan’s wonderful line: ‘And then there is the question of prayer, which consists for the most part in insisting that God do for us what we are unwilling to do for one another.  Resolve: let’s do for one another what we would have God do for all.  This is known as God-like activity.’  Well said, and a helpful corrective to the temptation to see our prayers as distinct from our faithful participation in God’s upside-down reign of love. 

On the second point, I’ve recently come across these words of Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th century French Carmelite nun known among Catholics as ‘the Little Flower’.  Toward the end of her young life (she died of tuberculosis at 24) she wrote “For me, prayer is an impulse of the heart, it is a simple glance turned toward heaven, it is a recognition and love in the midst of trial as well as joy.”  Thérèse’s words are a reminder that prayer in the meantime, those times when we are caught between the vision of Christ’s liberating future and the uncertainty of the present, maybe all we can do is look to the Creator and recognize that the future is not ours to control.  

In the meantime, we can move forward in prayerful solidarity with the oppressed, the poor, the suffering, and trust that God’s kingdom of love will one day come – on earth as in heaven.  Even if not today.

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