How ancient prayers bring us stability for uncertain times: An excerpt from "Earth Filled with Heaven" by Aaron Damiani

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How ancient prayers bring us stability for uncertain times: An excerpt from “Earth Filled with Heaven” by Aaron Damiani

August 2, 2022 - Aaron Damiani

© Marina /stock.adobe.com

© Marina /stock.adobe.com

The following excerpt is adapted from Earth Filled with Heaven: Finding Life in Liturgy, Sacraments, and Other Ancient Practices of the Church by Aaron Damiani (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

For all its conveniences and wonders, modern life can be deeply unstable. Technology has both accelerated and unsettled human civilization. Novel ideologies leave many questioning what it means to be a human being or an authentic follower of Jesus. Families are breaking up while tribes are forming. More than ever before we seem to have more stuff but less peace, more knowledge but less truth, and more connection but less unity.

On a personal level, change can disrupt our status quo without any warning. Imagine with me some typical examples of how this can unfold for followers of Jesus.

Mary has lived in a tight-knit neighborhood for most of her life, as did her parents and grandparents. Mary is a widow who lost her husband to heart disease and her best friend to cancer within the span of eight months. Yet she remains a faithful member of her church, a loyal citizen who gives back to the community, a mentor, a friend, and an example to many. All around her Mary notices signs of decline: the largest employer in the area relocated, as have most of the young people. Drug houses and decay have taken up residence where neighborhood children used to play. Mary grieves that so much she has invested in now has an uncertain future. Even while she sings “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” at church, Mary wonders why God doesn’t preserve what is being wiped away in her life and in her town.

Jeremiah graduated from college three weeks ago and is ready to launch a career and a new stage of life. As he unpacks the last box in his apartment, his phone rings with his dad on the caller ID. “Jeremiah, your mother and I are getting a divorce. Please don’t worry. We want this to be an amicable process, and we both love you. It’s for the best.” Jeremiah is crushed. He knew his parents had conflicts like every other couple, but they were seeing a Christian counselor. His soul feels torn. His mind spins with new and terrifying questions: Can he ever truly go home again? What will Christmas gatherings be like? Will his parents still support him financially? Jeremiah was ready for change and risk, but now he’s looking for firm and solid ground to place his feet.

I feel the instability in my own life. As a pastor in the city of Chicago, I am concerned about the loss of sacred spaces where Christians can worship on Sundays. Walking around Chicago in recent years, I have sometimes caught sight of a beautiful church. Often there will be a cornerstone with the year of consecration, like 1871 or 1922. But when I look toward the entrance, I see a row of apartment buzzers right where the church name should be. What used to be a living, breathing gospel community for the city I love is now gone. The building was sold for its parts to the highest bidder.

This impacts me practically. Our church needs a space to worship on Sundays. After the recent pandemic hit, we lost access to the school where we met. The Lord provided a new space, and the building we worship in is now under contract with a developer. I recently got troubling news that the sale may be completed within weeks or months, and we may need to find a new space. I can still remember feeling the anxiety in my body at the breakfast table: Where will we meet? What will this instability do to our church that has already endured so much upheaval?

After breakfast, I did what I have learned to do on good days and bad: draw upon old prayers from the suffering saints of the past. I drove to the building where we currently worship, took out my Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and prayed the Morning Prayer liturgy as I walked around the church. Sure, I was praying that the doors of this building would remain open to us indefinitely. But the Scriptures assigned for morning prayer that day helped root me in something more solid: “O God, my heart is fixed, my heart is firmly fixed; I will sing and give praise with the best that I have.”

My emotions were not fixed—they were swirling with anxiety. My situation was not fixed—and it still isn’t. But somehow by praying this old psalm, my heart began to fix itself on the solid ground of God’s kingdom. It continues: “I will give thanks unto you, O Lord, among the peoples . . . for the greatness of your mercy reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Exalt yourself, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth!”

I remember praying those words while walking the concrete sidewalk toward Lake Michigan, looking up at the clouds, thinking: “Yes, Lord, more than a building for our church, I want Your name exalted in this city and Your Son enthroned in the hearts of the people who live here.” I was reminded of the times God provided meeting space for our church in times past. Ever so slightly, I felt my anxiety go down and my hope go up.

There’s just something about those old prayers, isn’t there? The prayers with the longest shelf life seem to come from the saints who suffer the most. The texture of their faith is etched into their songs and laments, their supplications and poems. They stand like war monuments in a park, ignored when we are young and carefree, yet treasured once we have personally suffered loss.

Horatio Spafford was a successful attorney in Chicago with significant real estate investments in the city. He had so much going for him: a happy family, a thriving career, and a strong personal faith in Christ during the Chicago revivals led by D. L. Moody. But then the great Chicago fire of 1871 consumed most of his wealth, and soon after his four-year-old son died from scarlet fever.

Exhausted from grief and overworked, he took his wife and four daughters to Europe for rest and spiritual renewal. He sent them ahead on an advance ship while he attended to a final work obligation. To his horror, Horatio received news that their ship was sunk from a collision with an iron sailing vessel, and all four of his daughters perished in the Atlantic waters.

From the devastation of his losses came these words:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” 

How many countless saints have sung the prayer of “It Is Well with My Soul” during their darkest and deepest trials and found their souls strengthened, consoled, and stabilized? Yet this hymn is just one of many old prayers available to us. What if, in a time of great change and disruption, our prayer and worship life became more rooted, ancient, and filled with prayers from Scripture?

This is one reason why the ancient forms of prayer are a timely gift. Prayer books such as The Valley of Vision, The Lutheran Book of Prayer, and A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians all take great pains to weave Scripture and sturdy-making supplications into everyday life. We Anglicans use the Book of Common Prayer, which contains prayers for morning, noonday, evening, and bedtime (compline). One of my favorite prayers from compline was discovered in a bundle of prayers from the early seventh century: “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

I don’t know what challenges the author of that prayer faced in his or her life. But when I hear that prayer, I hear the heart-cry of someone who just needed to sleep in peace after a harrowing and anxious day. Like the person who wrote this prayer, most nights I find myself wearied by the changes and chances of this life, needing to rest in the eternal changelessness of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Upheaval isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Jesus.

Adapted from Earth Filled with Heaven: Finding Life in Liturgy, Sacraments, and Other Ancient Practices of the Church by Aaron Damiani (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

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