When All We Can Do Is Pray: Reflections on Ukraine

Sometimes the only thing we can do is pray. I have heard that saying a lot in Christian circles. It is spoken softly in hospital rooms. It is screamed across social media in the midst of gun violence. It is spoken in hushed tones as parents wrestle with disappointments during teenage years. It is offered in comfort in the midst of natural disasters and cataclysmic events half a world away. And it has definitely crossed my mind more than once while watching the latest footage of the crisis in the Ukraine unfold in what seems like real time across a host of different platforms. 

We have heard hundreds of heroic stories. President Zelensky standing with his cabinet in Kyiv declaring, “we’re still here.” Aid groups and citizens rushing to provide food, medicine and help. The Pub Theology creators also shared as story of a Ukrainian pastor who is simply doing what he can to share the gospel, in word and in deed amidst the crisis: 

“The whole church prayed on their knees for our president, our country, and for peace,” said Ukrainian pastor Vadym Kulynchenko of his church in Kamyanka, 145 miles south of the capital, Kyiv. “After the service, we did a first-aid training.” Rather than a sermon, time was given to share testimonies from harrowing days of air raids. Many psalms were offered, and Kulynchenko’s message centered on Proverbs 29:25: “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”

Even people on the outside Ukraine are rallying in support of the Ukrainian people. Earlier this week, Roman Abromaovich, the Russian owner of the Chelsea football team, declared that he was going to sell the team and donate the proceeds to “victims of the war in the Ukraine.” 

These stories are both heartbreaking and heartwarming. They remind us of both the best and worst of what it means to be a human in this broken, sinful world. 

What is happening now is talked about in terms of being “unprecedented.” It is not. Invasions like this one have happened in other neighboring areas of Russia. They have happened previously in Europe as Germany expanded its borders. They have happened, and continue to happen, over and over again in the Middle East. 

We have also talked about the crisis in terms of being “unexpected in our lifetime.” Yet, my grandmother lived through two world wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and almost lived to see the war in Iraq before passing away at 98 years old. Many people of her generation witnessed all of those things. We have been fortunate in the United States to be removed logistically from most of the fighting the world has experienced over the last century. We have not lacked conflict and violence as a species in any decade since the world began.  

The reality is that wars and crises, such as the one in Ukraine, have always been a part of human history. Jesus actually tells us that until He comes again, we will experience these things again and again as the birth pangs of what is to come: 

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:6-13).

However, that reality does not make what is happening any less difficult to comprehend or less horrific. It does not make it any less heart wrenching. It does not make it any less  devastating or scary. This is the first major crisis many of us have seen.

Jesus did not say these words to discount or condone these things, but to let the disciples know that these things are part of life in a fallen world. He said it to encourage them to stay steadfast in their faith. He said to help them remember to both turn to, and trust in, God in the midst of what they would face. 

So, taking into account Christ’s words, how as Christians do we approach the current crisis? How do we navigate the fear, anger, powerlessness and outrage that we feel? Here, Jesus provides an answer as well. Rather than giving into fear, rather than resorting to violence, Jesus encourages us to follow him. In the book of Matthew Jesus’ statement to remember the brokenness of the world and hold fast comes directly before Jesus goes to the cross. He finishes his teaching and then the final part of His journey to Golgotha begins.

And we know how Jesus faced that night. He prayed. 

He gathered His disciples together in the garden and spent the night in prayer to God. He knew what was going to come and He knew the only way to face it was to God in prayer. 

All of scripture points us to this posture in the midst of crisis. Psalm after psalm in the Old Testament cries out to God for salvation, for peace, for an end to violence. In fact the Psalms even cry out for God to engage violently with our enemies while preserving the faithful. They echo all of our fears. They echo our anger. They echo all of our desires. As Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel, one of my seminary professors, once noted, the psalms give us a Biblical vocabulary for our grief, our pain, and our frustration. The psalms also give us permission to bring all of what we feel and struggle with to God. 

David does not hold back when he calls out to God in fear and sadness:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1).

The psalmist does not mince words when they cry out for God to do justice: 

Arise, Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice” (Psalm 7:6).

Yet each psalm acknowledges that it is God’s kingdom and God’s justice that we seek. It is God’s kingdom and God’s justice that we need. It is God’s peace, God’s great Shalom in which the lion lays down with the lamb, in which our swords are beaten into plowshares and the work of cultivating life and love become the sole, and soul, focus of all of humankind. To that end, Jesus teaches us how to pray. 

Jesus tells the disciples to pray the words of the Lord’s prayer. It is through our seeking and obeying God that the kingdom will come. It teaches us that we can rely on God for things beyond our control and for our daily needs. And when we are at a loss for words, unable to articulate our greater needs or the needs of the world around us. It too can give us a vocabulary for the unspeakable. 

Walter Brueggemann gives a great example of such a prayer in his poem/prayer “Waiting Bread…and for God’s future.” It echoes with loss while affirming the call of Jesus to come to our Father in prayer and to trust God for our future:

Waiting for Bread…and for God’s Future

We are strange mixtures of loss and hope.

As we are able, we submit our losses to you. 

We know about sickness and dying,

about death and mortality,

about failure and disappointment.

And now for a moment we do our failing and out dying in your presence,

You who attend to us in loss.

As we are able, we submit our hopes to you.

We know about self-focused fantasy and notions of control.

But we also know that our futures are out beyond us, held in your good hand.

Our hopes are filled with promises of well-being, justice, and mercy.

Move us this day beyond our fears and anxieties into your land of goodness.

We wait for your coming, we pray for your kingdom.

In the meantime, give us bread for this day.


~ Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann’s words, built around the Lord’s prayer, remind us that prayer re-centers our eyes on God. Because sometimes all we can do is pray. In moments where we are powerless to affect any other change on our own, prayer recalls us to a posture of hope and allows us to shed our despair. 

And so we too can pray. We can pray that the crisis in Ukraine would come to an end. We can pray that the people would be protected. That the combatants would lay down their arms. That there would be peace. We can also pray that God’s kingdom would truly reign and bring an end to all violence, aggression and evil in every corner of the world. That God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will would be done…on earth as it is in heaven.  

Sometimes the only thing, and the best thing, we can do is pray.

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