More Thoughts and Prayers? Hell Yeah!

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Let’s revisit the #ThoughtsandPrayers meme that has been circulating on social media recently.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear politicians offer nothing but “thoughts and prayers” every time a mass shooting occurs. Because it’s shorthand for “I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m not going to do anything about gun legislation.”

And yes, it’s infuriating when the NRA offers nothing but “thoughts and prayers” and then shifts the blame for a shooting to something other than the fact that assault-style guns are easily available.

If #ThoughtsandPrayers is nothing but a weak and anemic response to a culture of gun violence, then I am also not a fan; we all want real action. If the Parkland, Florida shooting has done nothing else, it’s sparked an immense backlash against the NRA and the politicians who are in their pocket. It’s possible that real action will result, thanks to the teens of Parkland and the rest of America.

But let’s not throw prayer under the bus. I fear that the act of praying has been unfairly caricatured as a measly response to tragedy and injustice. Prayer is too often seen as something done after the fact and after the accident; it’s viewed as something you do for the patient, the victim, the one who is suffering. We think of God as the cosmic 9-1-1 operator: “Send help, please!” Or God is the Great Hospital Chaplain in the Sky: “Don’t let my friend die!”

Don’t get me wrong; prayer can be a source of great comfort and help in time of distress. The Psalmist often cried out to God in moments of terror, pleading for his life.

But that’s not the only function or purpose of prayer, people! Prayer can be a revolutionary, counter-cultural act of resistance to the powers that be! Prayer can -- and should -- be a rousing call to action in the name of the God of justice! I just don’t think we know how to do it right … at least not yet.

The baptismal vows of the United Methodist Church include the promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world … accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” How do we go about doing that sort of thing? Well, it starts with prayer — I’m convinced of that.

Not a namby-pamby sort of prayer, not the kind of stuff we typically do in a church sanctuary, not merely repeating the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary. No, there’s a kind of prayer that is stronger and more durable than this. It’s prayer that might more accurately be called “spiritual warfare” though I shy away from this term because of its connections to a brand of Christianity that I resist.

What I’m saying is that a proper Christian response to the evil of gun violence in America would include a healthy dose of aggressive, passionate, forceful prayer.

I’m reminded of the time Jesus came down from the mountain after being transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John. Upon reaching the rest of the disciples, he discovered that they had been unsuccessfully trying to cast a demon out of a young boy. The father complained to Jesus: “I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, but they couldn’t.”

After expressing a bit of frustration with his so-called followers, Jesus healed the boy. Then his disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”

Jesus replied, “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer” (Mark 9:14-29, Common English Bible). (A number of early manuscripts also included “and fasting” to the end of the verse.)

The point is that there are some things that we are asked to do that require something stronger than wishes, thoughts, and actions — they need prayer. Prayer is a forceful appeal to God that the will of God be done; in so far as we know that God desires shalom for the world, then we know what God’s will is. We know that God does not desire that children be shot and killed by other children. We know that God does not want our country to be awash with guns so that one’s life is always in danger. We know that, in God’s eyes, every person’s life is full of value, worth, and dignity.

Thus, we can move out forcefully with prayer on our lips and in our feet and in our hands. Don’t forget that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt with prayer in his mouth; that Elijah defeated the priests of Baal on the mountaintop with prayer in his mouth; that Jesus faced arrest in the garden of Gethsemane with prayer in his mouth; that the civil rights leaders of the 20th century in the American south led every march with prayers spoken and sung.

And it was prayer that brought down the Berlin Wall. The pastor of a small parish church in Leipzig, East Germany, named Christian Fuhrer, held weekly Monday evening prayer services, which he called “Prayers for Peace,” beginning in 1982. In 1985, he began advertising that the services were “Open To All.” The weekly services began to swell as a kind of protest against the oppressive regime.

By 1989, the government began to exert pressure against the church, Pastor Fuhrer, and the people who attended the prayers. On October 7, 1989, hundreds of people were arrested outside the church. The Communist Party announced that on Monday, October 9, people who gathered to pray would be countered “with whatever means necessary.”

On the evening of Oct. 9, over 8,000 people crowded into the church to pray, in defiance of the authorities. Other churches in Leipzig opened their doors to hold the overflowing crowds, which some estimated at 70,000. At the end of the service, Pastor Fuhrer opened the doors of the church and led the congregation outside to march through the streets, but fearful that the police and soldiers would open fire.

But they didn’t attack. Pastor Führer said later, “They had nothing to attack for. East German officials would later say they were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer.”

Exactly one month later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the fearsome divide between East and West was finished.

Here’s the lesson of that story — the powers-that-be really are ready for anything, except candles and prayer. They are ready for riots and violence and clubs and guns. They are ready for bloodshed and broken bones. But they absolutely tremble before people who are so radical as to require nothing but a candle and a prayer for peace.

I think we need more of THAT kind of prayer. Who’s with me?

The True Meaning of Trump's Favorite Song

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Earlier today, President Trump appeared at the CPAC. He gave a long, winding speech, full of his “greatest hits,” including a recap of his 2016 election win, the promise to build a wall, chants of “Lock her up!”, and surprisingly, another reading of “The Snake.”

Reading the lyrics of the old soul classic by Al Wilson had been a staple on Trump’s campaign. He implored the crowds to hear it as a warning about immigration, which he did again this morning at CPAC.

The song is straightforward. It tells the story of a “tender hearted woman” who finds a “poor half frozen snake,” and moved by compassion, takes the snake home, where she warms and feeds the creature. After the snake recovers, he takes a vicious bite out of the woman. As she screams, “I saved you, and now you’ve bitten me, but why?”

The snake hisses, “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

The moral of the story is straightforward — some people simply can’t be trusted, or once a snake, always a snake.

As Trump uses the story, however, there is a sinister twist. He means to say that you can’t trust the people you let into a country, whether migrants, asylees, Muslims, or refugees. In fact, the song seems to say, these kinds of people are quite dangerous. Welcoming the stranger is a mortal threat to the safety of a country.

I could write volumes about why this view of immigration is cynical, misinformed, and downright evil.

Instead, I would like to suggest that “The Snake,” unbeknownst to Trump, is actually the story of the gospel. It’s not a preposterous concept — the woman and the snake immediately conjure the well-known tale of the Garden of Eden. In that story, the serpent tempts Eve into disobeying God’s command, which unleashes sin and death upon humanity. At the end of the tale, God says to the snake, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This has traditionally been read by Christians as an early prophecy of Christ; he will “strike the head” of Satan and reverse the curse, bringing an end to the sin and death.

We Christians believe that this is precisely what Jesus did. But how? What did Jesus do to bring this result about?

Well, he did something strikingly similar to what the woman in the song did. He loved the snake!

In story after story in the gospels, we see Jesus giving love, compassion, and healing to criminals, sinners, and illegals. He loved his enemies. He spoke truth and justice in the streets and in the marketplace. And when evil came for him, like the suddenly-revived snake, he gave himself up for the vicious bite!

He didn’t fight the snake; he didn’t regret taking the snake in. Instead, it is through receiving the bite itself, that Jesus won victory. That’s what Christians claim every time we say that Jesus was crucified and resurrected for our sins. We are making the paradoxical assertion that Jesus defeated evil and death by dying.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know. But that’s the beautiful mystery of the Jesus story. Love is stronger than evil, stronger even than death.

The conclusion to be drawn from this awareness is that we must be unafraid to take in snakes. We must engage in the radical trust of agape love. We must not “return evil for evil,” as Saint Paul put it (Romans 12:17). We must not draw the sword, for “he who takes the sword dies by the sword,” as Jesus put it (Matthew 26:52).

The only way to true life, abundant and free, is to risk warming, feeding, and caring for the stranger, for the immigrant, and yes, indeed, even for the enemy.

I don't think that's exactly the message Trump was going for ...