Freya Bradley is one of the founding members of Just Love, Oxford and all round good egg. Having graduated from Wadham last year, she now works for IJM as an injustice fighter.
Last term, Naomi wrote this wonderful three-part series on the relationship between solitude and justice. Last year, Hannah made us a video about avoiding “social justice burnout” through prayer and community. While at Oxford, I found it so encouraging and sustaining when we prayed, worshipped or studied together as a Just Love group. The rhythms of individual and group prayer are, hopefully, slowly becoming part of all our lives.
However, I wanted to write a bit about life beyond graduation, without these structures. I’ve now been an intern at International Justice Mission UK for three months. IJM is a global organisation fighting everyday forms of violence. While partnering with everyone regardless of faith, IJM has ingrained the rhythms of prayer and spiritual formation into its working life. How does this play out in the everyday? I’d like to explore why we practise this, and the spiritual orientation of hope it gives our work.
“Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17
For me, prayer has grown and altered over the seasons of my life – not because God has, but because I have. We cannot sound the depths of the life, newness and creativity to be found in God, and my desire to belong to Him grows little by little. I am, I have discovered, unquestionably useless at Serious Christian Morning Quiet Time. I prefer to write in a journal, to find a chapel somewhere, to pray the Examen, to natter as I go about the ordinary work of cleaning or gardening, or to meditate on Scripture. I pray short and supplicatory prayers in my head when someone asks me for advice. I will often pray as I’m walking somewhere, bringing to God my worries or people I love, or giving thanks for the world around me (if you have ever cried because you saw a particularly beautiful leaf you will understand). But for most of my life, I’d never been in a work situation where prayer was appropriate or encouraged. I found this often led to a disconnect between what I was praying and what I was doing with the majority of my day.
“Give us this day our daily bread” – Matthew 6:11
At IJM UK, we pray individually at the start of each morning, and as a team in the afternoon. We also have quarterly prayer days, and each staff member takes a day of solitude each year to withdraw and pray in a quiet place. These scheduled prayer times are not magic. As a child I thought we said grace before we ate in case the food was poisoned. I no longer think this (except regarding cauliflower cheese, which requires this kind of direct petitionary intervention); nevertheless, I do see how we can fall into the trap of superstition or bargaining (“if I…then you will be compelled to…”).
But prayer is not a spell or formula: if my mind wanders in Morning Prayer one day, it does not mean everything will go wrong and I’ll accidentally delete all the donor records from the system. I am not praying in the hope that God will reward my piousness or because I live in constant fear. I pray to submit my work to God, to ask Him to protect my mind and spirit from some of the very tough stories I will hear that day, to ask for His presence to be with my colleagues. Wisdom, faith, discernment – these are gifts of the Spirit, (1 Corinthians), the ones for which I find myself making whispered requests most frequently. The daily half-hour is a time of stillness – a hard-won discipline for an easily-guilty mind like mine which would prefer to hasten into the day’s task. I often ask God for enough strength, joy and wisdom “just for today” – if things are difficult, I resolve to trust Him just for the next twelve hours and see what happens.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” – 1 Peter 5:7
Afternoon team prayer is scheduled for the time when most of us hit our post-lunch lull. We stop for another half hour to be reminded that we are reliant on God. We encourage one another, celebrate breakthroughs, and intercede for difficult situations all over the world. It re-shifts our perspective from being intimidated and paralysed by the sheer ubiquity of the injustice we are hearing of. It explodes the impulse to hole ourselves up in our safe churches and shut our eyes to a world where such violence exists. It heads off the temptation to be constantly “striving” – for the approval of colleagues, God, or ourselves. We bring our frustrations and tiredness, we build one another up and agree with one another in trying to obey God and do the best work possible. We read some of the Bible together too, and let it speak to our successes and disappointments. This time together is spiritually formative: we grow closer to Jesus and more open with one another as we present ourselves to God’s Word and spend time in His presence.
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”- Colossians 4:2
Working in a community of spiritual formation is perhaps the aspect of IJM’s practice that is most markedly Christian; it is what other activists and campaigners might find most bizarre about faith-based organisations.
Prayer loses time. It does not count as productivity. It does not have an empirically measurable performance impact. It can sometimes be considered divisive when trying to partner with other organisations. It is slow.
But, as Naomi reminded us, this is how we are supposed to operate: “In relationship with God people of prayer become people of action with clarified motivations and attitudes”. My colleague Steve put it like this: “Prayer…is the very practice that should form, inform and even transform our actions.” When I pray, all my to-do lists, worries and ideas start to untangle in my mind. I can once again see the connection between my work and the work of my organisation. I really honestly believe we could not do this work without these rhythms – and without all the people around the world praying with us.
During this term of “A Life Laid Down”, I encourage you to:
– become an IJM prayer partner! Prayer Partners stand alongside IJM by committing to support the vision and work of the organisation with prayer. You will receive fortnightly emails and join IJM staff and thousands of others around the world as we pray for breakthrough and God’s help. You can sign up easily on the website (www.ijmuk.org)!
– try something new: stop feeling guilty about being bored in your Quiet Time and try something new in your prayer life. A new place, time, partner, or practice, like praying the Examen or practising stillness. Get to Just Love Friday morning prayer (8am, Jesus Chapel). Richard Foster’s book Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer is very short, helpful, and last time I checked, £2.99. There is also Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (Ruth Haley Barton), which I’m currently reading. Preston Yancey’s Out of the House of Bread has also just been released.
– Where is God calling you? Ask God what He is trying to teach you through this term’s theme. Is there a career or a country or a community he is pulling you toward? Is he calling you to fostering or adoption? What might he be asking of you – for life, for this year, or just for this term? For all of you who are finalists, prayer is a great antidote to that “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO AFTER GRADUATING” pressure.
“May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope” – Romans 15:13