Monday, September 16, 2019

Pray For Everyone

Although religious life in 21st-century America is a long way from that of 1st-century Rome, I get the feeling that the relationship between the followers of Jesus and people in positions of authority in this day has begun to take on some of the characteristics of the parallel relationship in Paul's day. In 1 Timothy 2, when Paul wrote to Timothy and urged him to remember all people in prayer, mentioning specifically "kings and all who are in high positions," I bet several people among Timothy and his companions rolled their eyes. Why pray for those in authority when those in authority are using that authority to undermine the way of Jesus, to persecute disciples, to arrest, torture, and kill the followers of Jesus? Because, as Paul wrote, "there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all."

Every Sunday, we pray for "Donald our President, Asa our Governor, and Lioneld our Mayor." In our church, in which most (but not all) parishioners proudly identify as liberal Democrats, those prayers aren't easy for everyone. Several of our lectors have told me that they have a hard time reading that part of the prayers. Knowing that the President's name is coming up, they get distracted and often make a mistake--not on that name but on other parts of the prayers immediately before or after. None of them has told me that they wish we left his name out. I think we all recognize a need to pray for our leaders, whoever they are, but that doesn't make it easy.

Recently, someone asked me if we could change what we pray from "our President" to "the President." I don't know if that was a serious suggestion, but I interpreted that remark as a need to express to me disappointment, frustration, and perhaps even despair. My response was pastoral rather than pragmatic. In a time of stress and fear, it is important to acknowledge those things that hurt us, and, taking Paul's instruction seriously, it is important for us to seek the strength we need to pray for those who hurt us.

Regardless of your political persuasion, it is hard to pray for those with whom you disagree, those whom you think represent everything you stand against, those whom you understand to be undermining the values you hold most dear. That could be a President or it could be an ex-spouse or a boss or the person who broke into your home and pilfered through your things. Prayer, when engaged seriously, necessitates intimacy, and I don't like being intimate with people I don't like.

Keep in mind that, as a Roman citizen, Paul had access to reasonable jurisprudence than very few Christians had. That's a distinction that we cannot forget when we read Paul's words. I, too, enjoy many of the same privileges, and my perspective is tainted by them. I don't fault those who cannot pray for those in authority because they are threatened by them; however, many of the people who express to me a struggle praying for those in authority share most of the privileges I enjoy. There's a difference between refusing to pray and being unable to pray, and I leave that to you to explore.

Think about your theology of humanity. Think about your theology of prayer. What do you believe is fundamentally true about human beings? What do you think happens when we pray? If you, like Paul, believe that all people share the same Creator and believe that Jesus Christ and the unconditional love that he represents are God's gift to the whole world and believe that, when the Son second person of the Trinity took upon itself human nature in the Incarnation, God united God's self not only to a 1st-century Palestinian Jew but to all of humanity and believe that prayer is how we bring ourselves and those for whom we pray into God's presence, then how we think about the people we hate and what it means to hold them up to God in prayer is radically different from our instincts.

But sometimes it's better to start with practice than theology. That's why Paul tells us to offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all. We pray first, and our hearts follow. Pray for our enemies, Jesus says. Prayer has the power to change us. You cannot be intimate with God and not be changed. You cannot enter into the presence of the God who loves everyone and everything unconditionally and leave that encounter with prejudice and harboring resentment. Getting to that place in prayer, though, isn't easy, yet it's essential.

Pray for everyone, especially the people for whom you find it hardest to pray. Don't pray that God will magically change them into the kind of people you like. Pray for them until God changes you into the sort of person who can recognize the common humanity between you and them--until you have for them the same love that God has for them.

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