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?

How to Pray About A(nother) School Shooting

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I was blissfully unaware of the school shooting yesterday in Florida for much of the day because I was busy with meetings and preparations for Ash Wednesday. When I saw the “Breaking News” alert on my phone, I tried to ignore it as long as I could.

Not until I got home from the Ash Wednesday service last night could I spend any time processing what happened.

Since I have already announced that our Lenten focus will be going deeper in prayer, let me suggest a couple of important things to know about how to pray in the aftermath of big tragedies such as a school shooting:

 

  1. Because the blame game will shortly begin, it’s always good to pray a Prayer of Confession. The usual suspects will be on TV soon — the NRA gun lobby, a do-nothing Congress, the state of mental health services, those who knew the shooter was a threat but did nothing, etc. But we all shoulder a portion of the blame for this national trait of ours. As Americans, we are complicit in a culture that celebrates violence, shames those with mental disabilities, and does nothing to prevent future school shootings. A Prayer of Confession is the only way to approach God in this matter. 
  2. Pray for victims, survivors, and first responders by name. As names pop up on the screen or in news coverage, use those names in your prayer. This personalizes the situation for you, and has the effect of deepening your empathy and compassion. It’s one thing to pray for “all those affected by” an event, and quite another to pray for Reginald, Barry, and Leigh.
  3. Pray for the shooter. Our natural impulse will be to pray for the shooter’s destruction, or to leave him out of our prayers altogether. He has committed an atrocious and horrific evil. We want to avoid mentioning him, but the Truth-with-a-capital-T is that he is a beloved child of God, as surely as those whose lives he took. He is a human being who deserves dignity and respect, even if he did not extend dignity and respect in kind. Our prayer for this particular shooter ought to be that he finds grace from God such that he is driven to repentance.
  4. Very few words rise to the surface of one’s consciousness when trying to pray about a school shooting; thus, it can be a helpful thing to attempt praying without words. One way to do this is to watch news video footage with the sound muted. Let the images guide you; enter the scene with your imagination, and let the emotions you encounter lead you into prayer, either wordlessly or with words. Remain in silence for as long as you need to.
  5. Finally, pray for guidance to action. On Twitter yesterday, politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” for the shooting were mocked endlessly, because this has become the standard response to a recurring problem. If prayer doesn’t lead to corresponding action on our part, then one can rightly question whether our prayers were prayed in all sincerity. Ask God what you can do to counter the rash of school shootings in America.