The Blessing of the Absent

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Every time I see a plane, my heart breaks a little.

Twelve years ago, I went to Dundee, Scotland, for the first time, meeting friends whom I’ve grown to love and whose work inspires me. There, in the middle of their city, they are loving people with the Gospel, whether it means listening, talking, preaching, serving, waiting, or opening their homes. In two-week installments, over subsequent years, I learned from them what the Church looks like in a post-everything society: it’s a tiny, warm light, a hurricane lantern that will not flicker in the dark and gale.

Life happens, however, and despite my intentions to go back and visit—and to take my wife and children along—many things have gotten in the way. Yet I’m still connected to my friends in Dundee. I watch planes trail across the sky, and I ache for that good company. Mostly, though, what I can do is pray. My friend Bruce, a community worker there and pastor of a church, is an avid runner, so I pray when I go running. This is silent prayer in my head, mind you, as I have not mastered the military art of sing-songing whilst I jog.

I don’t know what I’ve been told,
Praying while my lungs ex-plode!
Dear Lord, hear my wheezing song;
Help my Scottish friends a-long!

—Adam’s silent jogging prayer

Okay, in seriousness, running is an inspiring time to pray for one’s friends, especially in the realm of endurance. In truth, though, it doesn’t feel like much. Who can say, within the one-way train that is spacetime, what the fruit of my labor is? God answers, but I can hardly see it. It reminds me of our ongoing and worldly-wisdom-driven conversations on social justice. A meal fed to the hungry is commanded, wonderful, and much easier to perceive. Money that helps to dig a well for clean water is worth giving in obedience to Christ. Yet the injunction to pray is just as powerful.

I feel like even James, the brother of our Lord—and writer of a famously practical epistle—might have wrung his hands at us, seeing how we often divorce caring and neighborliness from Christ and the Spirit. You can see it in the smarmy way we write and share memes.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Gondor,” proclaims Theoden’s grim face at the news that Gondor is under attack.

It’s irony stacked on irony, a layered lacework of cynicism covering the reality that the Scriptures tell us: “Always pray, and never give up.” “In everything, by prayer and petition, bring your requests to God.” It’s a question that paws at our doubts: does prayer work?

No. But does God work in response to our prayers? Absolutely.

I needed it reinforced, so I got to attend my own Hutchmoot session this year. It was the session of the absent. I wanted to spend my days in Nashville, catching up with a few friends, participating with all of you who got to go. Hutchmoot! A glorious refraction of God’s superabundance which we cannot quite define (because we are inside it). Who wouldn’t want to swim in those waters? Yet the schedule didn’t work out, but I was reminded of previous years and requests from Pete Peterson and others to pray—for presenters, for attendees, for any within the concentric ripples of influence. I tried to take these little nudges to heart, and though I can’t prove it, I believe that I did participate.

No, I did not sup upon John Cal and Company’s glorious repast (the mouth waters at the very thought). No, I did not sit awash in heartbreaking lyricism. No, I did not burn tobacco near my face with friends (though I did do it alone, thinking of John Barber). But by God’s grace, where I submitted to the Spirit and prayed, I learned that prayer is a particular and curious way in which we are the Body of Christ.

Who can say, within the one-way train that is spacetime, what the fruit of my labor is? God answers, but I can hardly see it.

Adam Whipple

The world holds a double standard in regards to these things, and we grow increasingly infected by it. People beg for and promise nebulous “good vibes” to each other on social media yet grow derisive at the idea of Christians praying for this or that thing. It’s a method of guarding one’s heart against the whelming tide of Gospel truth. If we can pluralistically allow people their prayers while also contending that such prayers are naught but ethereal word-spillings, we can keep ourselves from obligation. Yet if the notion ever creeps upon us that something is actually happening in response to these privately spoken half-poems, something transactional or conversational, we may resort to irony as a defense. Otherwise, we’re obliged to change our minds.

“Instead of praying, why don’t you do something about it?” people ask.

And we do. We pray.

If The Rabbit Room had a flagship book, it just might be the liturgical prayer collection Every Moment Holy. Its very existence is an injunction against the diabolical lie that the Body of Christ can be sundered by miles. Through prayer, we participate in each other’s pilgrimages, shouldering burdens, standing alongside each other in an unseen war. It’s not magical; we cannot by formulaicism in prayer expect quantifiable results. It is, however, mystical, in that we are playing some part in things hidden, not thralled to the laws of physics. The God of All Creation interacts with us not merely as the adoptive Father of one, but of many siblings.

We see a clannish—and, to my mind, beautiful—evidence of this in that we account our blood families unbreakable by distance in the final earthly analysis. The Bride of the Lamb is no different. Indeed, she is more so, by dint of the wholeness imbued through the Peace of Christ himself. Jesus defined the family of God as grounded in a greater reality than blood ties many times. When his family came to take him in hand over what they might have seen as antics, he used language that seemed disdainful of his own mother and brothers.

“Who are my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus replied to the man. Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

—Matthew 12:48-50

When describing his incarnational mission, quoting Micah the Prophet, Jesus talked about the sword he had brought that would divide father and son, mother and daughter. This too is a reality. Blood may be thicker than water, but the God the Holy Spirit is immutable.

To you Hutchmoot attenders of 2019: I’m pleased that you got to participate in person. I hope the fruit of that weekend is growing even now. Perhaps next year, or some year after, I’ll get to participate in person. For all of us who were absent, though, we join you in prayer, and we are grateful.


2 Comments

  1. Bethany J. Melton

    “It’s a question that paws at our doubts: does prayer work? No. But does God work in response to our prayers? Absolutely.”

    What a provoking piece. I needed to hear it all; thank you.

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