Earlier this Spring, I taught a class on prayer called “March Meditation Madness.” We explored various types of prayer over the course of several weeks, from "body prayer" which involved yoga-like movements to making “Protestant Rosaries” to perhaps more familiar petitionary prayer.
I loved the class for one simple reason: I learned far more than I taught. And one of the concepts I learned was that of “holding space.” Today, I want to share with you some thoughts about the practice of passionate prayer in light of this idea of “holding space.”
But first I want to acknowledge my own struggles with prayer. Often in Christianity and in our culture, it feels as if people speak of prayer as a quid pro quo exchange with God: we give God prayers and God gives what we want. Because the simple exchange doesn’t work, then we sometimes nuance the exchange: if enough people pray on our behalf then we’ll get what we want.
Years ago a friend of mine expressed relief that a hurricane bypassed his city. “My church prayed hard,” he told me, “and the storm made landfall north of us. The church was saved.” He genuinely felt the prayers of his congregation steered the storm northward. But all I could think of was the schmucks who lived where the hurricane hit. If only they’d asked their friends to pray.
To me, this idea of prayer as a numbers game makes our petitions into a contest like American Idol. Contestants win the Idol competitions because enough people call, text, or message on their behalf. But prayer is not an idol competition.
Another common idea I hear about prayer revolves around unanswered prayers. When the hurricane hits, how do we understand prayer? Often I hear people articulate something along the lines of “God knows better then we do what we need.”
At one level this answer appeals to me - it seems that God ought to know better - but then I think of all the unfulfilled prayers I’ve offered and those of people I care about. Prayers for health, for jobs, for happiness. Not every unfulfilled prayer gets answered in a better way by God. Sometimes the hurricane just lands on you.
And so the “God knows better” line of thinking doesn’t work for me. Because, if I ask for chocolate chip cookies and you give me broccoli, it doesn’t matter that you know that broccoli is better for me. I still want the cookie.
I pray in the face of unfulfilled prayers; because for me, prayer is not about influencing God’s behavior or winning God’s favor. To me, prayer is not an exchange in which I get what I want or God gives what I need.
But then what is it? Years ago I attended a retreat and heard a phrase which wormed its way into my mind. I think it came from writer Marva Dawn, who spoke of worship as a “Holy waste of time.” She meant it as a rather cheeky comment. But serious too. For she saw worship as a counterpoint to all the stress and frenetic energy our culture puts into making, selling, and consuming things. As the market took over more and more psychic space, she longed for worship as a completely different kind of moment.
For a while I played with that idea in my head too: prayer as a holy waste of time. While I liked the way this idea made prayer a counterpoint to our consumerist culture, it didn’t capture for me what happens in prayer.
Prayer often, though not always, brings me to a place of settled peace. It’s this experience in the midst of prayer which makes it matter to me.
I’m sure that as your pastor I should have some fancy theological word for what prayer means to me. But for years I’ve known more what prayer was not for me than what it was. “I knew it when I saw it.” Which is why the phrase “holding space” felt like a revelation when I heard it.
One of the best explanations of this term comes from Heather Plett. She began her explanation with a story.
When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.
While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.
“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”
Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.
Plett went on to describe Ann as someone who was “holding space” for her and her family on their hospice journey. The term works for all kinds of journeys. It means the kind of support that offers guidance without judgment, creating an environment where people can explore and find their own answers, and provides a container for the most raw and varied of emotions.
Plett wrote of “holding space for one another” as an approach to relationships. But it also works as a way to think about prayer.
I often find myself praying at the side of hospital beds. And usually I begin those prayers nearly the same way each time. “Holy One, we lift up into your care…” Beyond whatever words I say, the prayer seeks God to hold the person. I try not to pray for outcomes but instead invoke God’s presence.
My most profound moments of prayer don’t come from finding a desire met, don’t come from getting what I asked for, but instead the most spiritual moments come as the deep awareness of being held. I don’t pray to direct the path of the hurricane. I pray so that when the hurricane hits, I won’t feel alone.
Another author further helped me understand this concept when she wrote, “Holding space is about allowing a situation to unfold without fueling the emotions that may be part of it. Holding space is trusting that by allowing a person to express their emotions freely, their deeper healing is already at work. Anything you say while holding space must be free from your judgments about them and their situation.”
A friend of mine critiques churches and Christians as people who always tell others what to do. He’ll say, “I hear too much about ought, gotta, and shoulda.” I know how he feels. No one wants to be shoulda on.
Which is why holding space for one another matters spiritually. It develops in us the capacity to care for someone without determining what’s best for them, to be present without out judging, to hold but not control. I think that’s the way God loves us; and so prayer becomes for me the chance to try to love like God.
But it also seems to me that prayer as holding space for each other matters at this particular historical moment. In our prayer class one day we each brought in news stories and then offered extemporaneous prayers about the situations in those news stories. When I think about the news stories we brought in or the news stories that grab my attention, one recurring word comes to mind: dislocation.
Refugees flee Syria; dislocation.
A national spotlight shines on the evictions of women in Milwaukee; dislocation.
A factory closes; dislocation.
People work harder, longer, and still don’t get ahead; dislocation.
Symbolically we think of home as a place of belonging. But increasingly people struggle with where and how to belong. Anger, fear, and intolerance is one way people respond to this experience of dislocation. Which we often see in our politics: some of the people most experiencing economic dislocation are the most concerned with debating who belongs in the homeland.
Which makes the prayerful practice of holding space deeply restorative. In the midst of dislocation, we need to hold space for another another.
I realize this may seem like a sermon a long way off from the scripture readings today. But the reading from Revelation most makes sense to me as the prayer of a person trying to hold space. Our reading today came from a part of the Book of Revelation which imagines a new heaven and a new earth in fantastical ways. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”
The symbolism of the Book of Revelation can be hard to understand. But it helps me to remember all of the dislocations which happened in the years before John wrote it. The Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem; and the Mother Church of our Christian faith disappeared along with countless Jewish residents of the city. The Roman Empire experienced devastating Civil War: four different claimants to the throne, perhaps four horseman, tearing apart the empire with their ambition. Mob violence struck terror in many cities of the Roman world. People suffered a tremendous sense of dislocation.
A hurricane of violence struck the Roman world of John; a storm of destruction which leveled both Jerusalem and Rome and cities in-between. Dislocated by those experiences, John prayed for a new city. “Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.”
To me, the impossibility of the dream - no more night, no more shadows - kept John’s vision from becoming an actionable plan. Instead, his heart was holding space for what would come.
Which is what I want to do when I pray too. God doesn’t need my laundry list of ideas. God doesn’t need my directions. But what I need is that holding space, that open space, where I can be known and accepted without judgment.
And so I pray, because it opens that holding space for me. And I pray, because it opens that holding space for others. Alleluia and Amen.