Joining the Eternal Song
Early on in our communal life, we read about Antony of Egypt, who left relative privilege to brave the desert and do battle with the Devil. Praying among the "wild beasts" of the abandoned spaces, Antony learned the limits of his own strength and the incredible power of Jesus' name. Praying as part of a "we" that included Antony, we saw our economically depressed neighborhood as an "abandoned place" in our society. Though the demons of addiction and systemic injustice looked fierce, Antony's life emboldened us to pray and live with the confidence that Jesus would prevail. Sustained by the new we, that great cloud of witnesses, we persevered in our work.
All the Time in the World
Neighborhoods like ours—where blatant injustice reigns—anger you to the point of saying, "No more. This has to stop." Some activists march and hold sit-ins, go to city hall and to jail, because of abstract ideals. But most people alongside whom I've been handcuffed are driven by injustices they have witnessed firsthand. I'll never forget the night when, trying to stop an execution, I went to jail beside a man exonerated by DNA evidence after 15 years on death row. All he said was, "I hate being locked up. But I can't stand here and watch them kill a man like me."
Among the songs today's activists inherit from the civil rights movement is a spiritual that says, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes." This especially resonates when people you know are suffering. Though you might like a vacation, just the thought of escaping while your friends have nowhere to lay their heads, no food to eat, leaves a bitter taste.
This is why so many activists, Christian and secular, experience burnout. There's always more to do and plenty of reasons to do it. So we press on, reach down deep, and try to give a little more. Good people have died doing this. I've seen it with my own eyes.
But we do not have to despair. One of the most important lessons I've learned from liturgical prayer is that, by God's grace, we have all the time in the world to do the work of Christ's kingdom. We pause for prayer morning, noon, and evening as a confession that our work depends not on our efforts, but on the faithfulness of a God who has already redeemed the whole creation. We pray with Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyr of El Salvador, "Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us …. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own."
Like the past, whose wisdom guides us, the future, too, is a gift. We do not achieve it through our efforts but receive it gratefully, as we learn to sing the eternal song resounding around the throne of God. "Holy, holy, holy!" we cry, with angels and archangels and all the saints who have gone before us. "Heaven and earth are full of your glory." Then we resume our work until it is time, soon enough, to gather and sing again. This is the sort of life you can go on living forever.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is co-compiler of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan). His work was featured prominently in Christianity Today's 2005 coverage of the new monasticism movement.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous articles on liturgical prayer from Christianity Today and sister publications include:
Monastic Evangelicals | The attraction of ancient spiritual disciplines.(February 8, 2008)
Unceasing Prayer in an Uncertain World | As the peace and unity of Europe collapsed, the monastery of Cluny pointed a new way forward. (January 1, 2007)
Learning the Ancient Rhythms of Prayer | Why charismatics and evangelicals, among others, are flocking to communities famous for set prayers and worshiping by the clock. (January 8, 2001)