Lenten Prayer

with Jane Zwart

It’s been cold here in west Michigan and snowy. Spring seems a long way off. And Lent seems darker than ever: a close friend’s brother-in-law died unexpectedly last week; one of our Calvin students perished in a senseless auto accident this weekend.

It’s always hard to find the right words—even any words—in the face of suffering, of wrong-doing, of death. And to name those things in ourselves. Of course, words are ultimately inadequate to the task. And yet, I’m grateful for what T.S. Eliot called “the trying” (despite, as he points out, our “shabby equipment”) and for those who can help give voice to, at least a little bit, the complications within us and all around us.

My close friend and colleague, Jane Zwart, is just such a person. This past Sunday, she offered this eloquent prayer that articulates the complications of ourselves–and our lives.

May it bless you in this long Lenten season.

Prayers of the People, 12 March 2017

Lectionary Text:
Numbers 21:5-9 and John 3:1-17

Father in Heaven,
Here we are, your beloved and often petty children—your church.
And, O Lord, we sing, in full voice, your mercy and majesty. We do.
But, in all honesty, we air our resentments and our complaints in full voice, too.

Father in Heaven,
We come to you penitent and devoted and believing—
even as we come to you prideful and complacent and cynical.
We come with our laundry lists of sins and our resumés of good works.
We come grateful for blessings, too many to count.
And we come with estimates of what we think that you still owe us.
We are as inconstant as the Israelites, as impressed with our own competence as Nicodemus
We are, dear God, like them: people—from immortal soul to finite mind and faulty heart.
So change us. Make us your people.

Dear Christ,
Intercede for us again.
Let us look on your cross and see our meanness crucified,
our self-righteousness crucified,
our disdain crucified,
our egoism crucified,
our hate crucified,
our sin—crucified.
Let us look on you and see our God crucified, and let us die to our old selves.

And, Jesus, let us look on your tomb and see your resurrection.
And our own.
And the resurrection of the saints who have gone before us.

Holy Spirit,
May we be born again in you.
And born, we pray, into an ever-wider family of God.

God, we pray for that family.
We pray for our families: our siblings and spouses, our parents and children.
But we pray, too, for children whose names we don’t know.
We pray for kindergarteners malnourished enough to look like toddlers and for adolescent refugees who have suffered more than most octogenarians.
We pray for Syria’s newborns: what must they think of the world?
We pray for their parents, their neighbors, their friends. We pray for their oppressors.
Lord, what must you think of the world?

Lord, have mercy.

We pray for our neighbors and our friends.
We pray for those whose days hinge on doctor’s appointments, on hospital visits.
We pray for those hemmed in by grief or worry.

God, we mourn the deaths this past week of two young women, both college students—at Calvin, Tara Oskam, who died last night in a car accident, and, at Hope, a first-year student named Ruth.
Even as their deaths strike us as untimely, as unfair, we know they have never left the palm of your hand.
Hem those who loved Tara and Ruth in with your love, with a peace that passes understanding.

We feel the weight of the people we have lost, O Lord, but that is not the whole story.
So we pray with those surprised by joy, as well:
by the birth of a new, tiny person;
by a job offer;
by forgiveness;
by a rebirth from above.

Dear God,
Here we are: your children.
We love you with all of our imperfect being.
Be near us, we pray.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.


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