Praying the News

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The last few weeks the news has been sickeningly familiar: bombings, war, violence, accidents, murders, disasters, fear, misunderstandings, hate—the list of humanity’s failures and sufferings goes on and on.

 How do we respond as Christians?

What can we do about all these distressing things that continue to happen around us?

Here is a possibility: We pray the news. It’s an idea I picked up several years ago while at a conference on contemplative prayer. I became captivated by the idea and began experimenting with praying the news. I discovered it can make a difference not only in my world but also in how I approach the world.

At first thought, praying the news can simply a quick prayer after reading the headlines or listening to the news. But it’s more than that. It involves what Anabaptists believe about spirituality: that it involves both action and contemplation. We cannot effectively act without prayer, not can we effectively pray without acting.

To pray about the events occurring in our world, we must believe that God does listen and does respond to our prayers on behalf of others. There are three requirements to pray the news effectively: faith, stamina, involvement.

Faith: The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The mystery and confounding aspect of prayer is that we can’t measure its effectiveness. We don’t know when we have prayed for something or someone, and it happened as we had prayed, that it’s a direct result of our prayers. Frankly,  we tend to explain away results rather than believe in answered prayer.

For example, I lived in Los Angeles during the two trials of the police officers who beat Rodney King in the early 1990s. During the first trial I didn’t pray at all for the legal process, for the jury, for the witnesses, for the truth to be told and not distorted. The result of that verdict: Los Angeles was gripped by fear and anger and hostility for more than three days in riots across the city.

During the second trial, I prayed diligently. I know churches throughout the city were also praying for justice and peace. The result after that verdict: peace and—depending on who you talked with—justice.

We can explain away the difference. The second judge was wise to have the verdicts read on a Saturday at 7:00 a.m., the city officials were prepared, and on and on. Or we can believe that God—in response to our prayers—gave the judge wisdom and enable the city officials to be prepared. At some point we choose to believe that God is listening and moving on behalf of the prayers of us who are God’s children.

Stamina: We pray for the world because God has called us to pray. Paul encourages u in Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”—to pray diligently. Paul understood how easy it is to give up praying because we don’t often see measurable results. Or something good may happen and we can stop praying about. We need to continue praying.

Diligent, unceasing prayer is work. It takes concentration. It requires stamina made by strong by faith. If all we can do is pray for five minutes, we must pray those five minutes. But we must also strive to increase the “prayer muscle” by working up to ten minutes a day.

Involvement: To pray effectively requires involvement. A basic level of involvement is the news media. If while watching the news we hear of a murder, we can pray for the victim’s family, for the surrounding community, for the investigation, for the perpetrator. We can pray about the fear the victim’s family will experience, the anguish in imagining final moments, the rage against the murderer.

But we must not stop there. We must go on to pray for a government. Pray God’s goodness into that system. I sometimes pray God into a system by using the image of someone breathing into another while trying to resuscitate that person. Breathe God into systems.

If there is a bill to be decided, pray for the committee, pray for the committee staff, pray for the lobbyists, pray for the family of government officials. Pray for wisdom and for eyes that see and ears that hear for those government employees. And, engage with government workers, including staff and elected officials. Act on your prayers on behalf of others.

Occasionally I like to use Pavlov’s psychological discovery in my prayers. I’ve prayed for dictators and warlords like this: whenever the lust of power sweeps over them, I ask that God will put either a bad taste in their mouths or that an overwhelming nausea may seize them. My hope is that they will eventually equate power with physical illness. Will it work? Beats me. But I am called to pray regardless of the results.

Praying the news can change our lives as we learn to act in tandem with our prayers. And praying the news can change the lives of others as we act with wisdom and insight as a result of our prayers.

Have mercy (continued)

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Gracious God, Merciful God‑

This Sunday is Pentecost and we praise you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We praise and bless you for the gift of Easter which had to precede Pentecost.

We also praise and bless you as the creator of our world.  We thank you for the beauty and mystery of nature.  We thank you that in the midst of storms, you are with us.

We praise and bless you as the merciful one. We thank you that your mercies are new every morning.  We thank you that you love to extend mercy to us.

***

Because of your mercy we are encouraged to confess and to receive mercy.  We confess our distractions from you‑‑that our lives are so filled with other things, duties and responsibilities that we forget you. Forgive us for our absorption of social media, of politics, of our anger rather than focusing on you.  Have mercy on us God and help us to turn our minds and hearts to you.

***

We confess our meanspiritedness toward others. We confess that our hearts are too small.  And having small hearts limits our abilities to see and to hear others with attentive love.  We cannot see the good in others, we cannot hear their voices longing for love.  Have mercy on us God and enlarge our hearts so that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear.

***

Gracious God, Merciful God, we thank you for your forgiveness.  We thank you for your gracious and merciful heart.  Because we are forgiven we are now bold to bring others to you.

***

God we bring before you the families grieving across the nation.  God have mercy on us as our world creates young men who hate others because of their race, their religion, their sexuality. We pray for wisdom and boldness to reach out to these young men and offer them mercy, healing, and love. We watch and listen in disbelief to the stories of violence‑‑we cannot believe that humans can do these things to one another.  We grieve because our country is being torn apart. Oh God, we ask‑‑in fact, we plead and implore you‑‑to breathe peace into the world. We ask for wisdom and courage for those working for justice and peace.  We ask for wisdom for us in how we are to respond to these painful situations as well as how we should talk to those in power.  We don’t know how to pray for our leaders but we offer them to you, trusting that you will move and act in their lives.

***

Holy Spirit, wind of love, we praise and bless your Merciful, Gracious name.  Let us proclaim that you are our God and we are your children.  We praise your holy Name.  Amen.

 

(My earlier prayer, “Lord, have mercy” can be found here.)

 

Unidentified. Wonders by Their Hands, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55766

Praying For My Enemies

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

As I read the newspaper, I came across an article that quoted then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich saying, “I’m not going to get in an argument with Jesse Helms.” The now-deceased Republican congressman from North Carolina was advocating that Congress cut back on AIDS funding because, according to Helms, the disease allegedly “was caused by deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”

Gingrich’s refusal to correct—or, even condemn Helms for his statement, infuriated me. His refusal equaled assent to me. In ager, I crumpled up the newspaper, tossed it aside, and prayed, “Please let Newt Gingrich get AIDS.”

Of course, I immediately regretted it and repented of my prayer, but I held onto my vengeful feelings. Because I held on to those feelings they began to fester inside of me–I grew angry and bitter, stewing over his comments. As these feelings continued, I couldn’t listen to him on the news or read about him in the newspaper without becoming enraged. I was making Newt Gingrich into my enemy.

Over the next few weeks I realized that I readily make other people my enemy, including folks who interpreted Scripture differently from me, folks who held different political views from me and people who had made life choices different from my own. Simply put, I was developing a hard heart.  And yet, I wanted to take Jesus seriously when he said to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:38-48).  Often Jesus’s words are given lip service but rarely practiced as if Christians mean to follow in spirit but not in daily life.

During the following Advent season I decided to practice praying for my enemies, beginning with Gingrich. I told myself that it wouldn’t cost me very much of myself—silly me, I thought wouldn’t have to open my heart too much for God to actually work in my heart. I thought this would be sly way of circumventing God and not too dangerous for me, so I launched into this discipline with bravado. Additionally, I decided to read some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing about loving one’s enemies. As an Anabaptist Mennonite committed to creative nonviolence, I was familiar with MLK, Jr’s writing about nonviolence and loving one’s enemies. I recalled reading the particular sermon on loving one’s enemies and I had an intuitive sense that God wanted me to re-read it.

In November 1957, King preached a sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He began his sermon by emphasizing the importance of Christ’s command to love one’s enemies. “Jesus was very serious when he gave this command;” King said, “he wasn’t playing…this is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master.” Although I might have entered into my Advent discipline with bravado and a bit of swagger, Jesus proved to not be playing with me. That first week of Advent, I resisted the discipline of praying for my enemy. As I prayed with a reluctant heart, I discovered that I resented sharing God with Gingrich. I simply did not want him to experience God’s loving presence–I did not want God to love him. I wanted to keep God all to myself.

In King’s sermon, he rhetorically asks: “How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: in order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing yourself.”  God was beginning to change my heart by letting me see my heart, my resistance, and my selfishness. I was beginning to analyze myself, as King suggested.

By the middle of the second week I noticed a breakthrough in my heart. I began to pay attention to Gingrich as a person and I watched and read the news with my heart rather than just my head. I imagined Gingrich as a person with hopes, dreams, sorrows, and losses rather than a one-dimensional political figure in the national media. I wondered about his family, his staff, and the people who were close to him. I began to pray for his family, that they might experience God’s presence during the Christmas season. I prayed for Gingrich and his family throughout Advent, into Christmas, and I continued praying for them until Epiphany.

Newt

Newt Gingrich

After Epiphany I assumed this spiritual practice was completed, but God invited me to continue the practice of praying for my enemies for an entire year. I chafed against this invitation but in conversation with my spiritual director my heart began to soften until I was able to surrender to this practice of praying for my enemies. God wanted to transform my heart from bitterness and hostility to generosity and compassion.

King described this heart shift as discovering “the element of good in [one’s] enemy.” In his sermon, he advises, “every time you begin to hate that person …realize that there is some good there and look at those points which will over-balance the bad points.”

I learned during the year that when I view people as my enemies, I objectify them. They no longer are persons with hearts, souls, dreams, and disappointments like myself. Instead, they become one-dimensional characters who are then easy for me to dismiss and disregard.

Jesus understood this aspect of human nature, and in response he called us to mirror God’s nature by challenging us to love our enemies rather than objectify them, leading us to hate our enemies. This attitude of love toward all, including our enemies, causes us to become like “children of our Father in heaven,” as seen in Matt. 5:45.  Praying for my enemies is a serious attempt to see my enemies as God sees them. There is a Hebrew word, chesed, that is translated as loving kindness and compassion. When I pray for others, I begin to see the world as God sees the world with this loving kindness and compassion. And when I view situations and people with loving kindness and compassion, I begin to deeply love just as God deeply loves. When I pray for my enemies I begin to reflect the nature of God.

Dr. King said in his sermon:

 … and when you come to the point that you look in the face of every [person] and see deep down within [them] what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love [them] in spite of. No matter what [they do], you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that [they] can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate [them], find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

I discovered during my year-long discipline that I began to feel more generous toward Gingrich, and my other enemies by default. I was no longer stingy with love and mercy, giving them out in measured teaspoonfuls, fearing what might happen to me if I was loving and merciful toward those who harmed me. Rather, I began to realize that with God there is more than enough love and mercy to go around for everyone and that, indeed, there is so much love and mercy within God that God blesses both the righteous and the unrighteous.

King described this love and mercy as an “overflowing love … and when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love [people], not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.”

As I prayed, I became humbled — I had to if I was to be honest with my “self-analysis.” In the midst of opening my heart to God about my enemies, pouring out my pain and anger, I became more sensitive to the pain and rage in the world around me. I discovered that it becomes difficult to honestly pray for my enemies without being reminded of how God is able to love me despite my own disobedience and insensitivity. In my self-analysis, I became grateful for God’s deep love and patience toward me.

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After the year was over, I stopped praying regularly for Newt Gingrich—although I continued to occasionally pray for him and his family. A few years after my year of praying for him I was visiting the Mennonite Central Committee–Washington office and I learned that Gingrich and his second wife rented an apartment in the same building. I was captivated by this information. Before I left Washington, D.C. my colleague graciously showed me to the foyer outside the Gingrichs’ apartment and left me alone. In the foyer were some chairs that sat along their apartment walls and I sat down, placed my hands on their apartment walls and prayed for Newt Gingrich once again. With an honest, open heart I asked God to provide abundant love within those walls, that the former Speaker of the House of Representatives would see the world with God’s eyes, ears, and heart. And, in full sincerity, I asked God to bless him.

I’ve returned to King’s sermon this past year as I’ve listened to and read so many acrimonious responses to the election. Avoiding family members or friends who disagree with me is not the answer. Unfriending or blocking someone because of their enthusiastic support of a particular presidential candidate or party is not the way of love.

King concluded his sermon, “Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all [people], so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul.”

Loving my enemies is hard work and requires a discipline of will over emotions, intentional prayer for that person, and for my own conversion of heart. Loving my enemies requires me to see the face of Jesus in the other—and this is the most challenging discipline. Praying for my enemies opens the way to loving my enemies.