Several years ago, I was part of a church fighting over marriage equality. The leadership wanted to bless marriages of all couples. But their decision proved fractious and a congregational meeting was called to discuss rising tensions.
A prominent layman explained why he rejected the plan. At the end of his remarks, he said: “I oppose this. However, I can tolerate the church doing it if I am never put into a position where it seems I approve. I suggest that we never include the names of newly married gay couples in the weekly prayers. Do not force me to pray for those people.”
I jumped in, responding: “This will surprise my friends, but I agree with you. It is painful to be ‘forced’ to pray for things we find objectionable. For example, I’m a pacifist. But every Sunday this church makes me pray for the military. I find that offensive. So, I’ll trade you. If we don’t pray for gay couples, can we stop praying for soldiers, too?”
Prayer is political. We just don’t often think of it in those terms. But there is no avoiding it at the moment.
The politics of prayer has been front and center in this week’s news.
When Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID, several national religious leaders (including leaders of some liberal denominations) put out calls to pray for the President’s healing. Many people objected — insisting that praying for him was akin to early Christians being forced to pray for the health of Caesar. Indeed, the latter group argued that praying for Trump was, in effect, “performative piety,” a polite sort of prayer mostly for political purposes with little theological or spiritual content. Lots of people feel confused as how to they should pray.
How to sort through this? How might you pray right now? I think it helps to recognize that there are different kinds of and settings for prayer, and understanding those differences is important.
In the United States, most public prayer happens in religious community. In churches, synagogues, and temples, prayer is part of a liturgy (sometimes a formal one, sometimes informal) — a structured flow of a worship service that is anticipated by the congregation.
Public worship nearly always includes prayers from the people and a pastoral prayer; sometimes the requests are general and sometimes very specific. “We pray that violence in our nation might cease,” “May our leaders be blessed with wisdom,” and “Open our hearts to care for the poor” are examples of general public prayer. “Heal Mary,” “Keep Joe safe as his unit deploys to Afghanistan,” and “Bless Heather and Susan as they celebrate their new life as a married couple,” are of the specific sort.
More people can easily pray the first, but the second group of specific intercessions is most difficult. What if you don’t like Mary? Are a pacifist? Or object to women marrying?
The purpose of communal prayer is to lift up common concerns, and our personal preferences and political opinions often get sidelined by denominational directives or congregational choices. Over the years, I have been “forced” to pray in public worship for a host of specific things I find objectionable. This happens at church — but it also happens in other public spaces. Politicians often offer blessings or prayers, and, as we’ve seen this week, so do pundits and news commentators. In all these settings, I’ve learned that the point isn’t necessarily my opinion. Public prayer is like a buffet of worries and thanks, of intercessions and offerings. Sometimes, if you don’t like a dish, you walk by and go with the next. You don’t have to agree with or love everything that is said. We aren’t called to be prayer pundits.
When a community is struggling with prayer, it may be better to lean toward general prayers: “God, we pray for all who are suffering from COVID, both our leaders and the poor, all who are frightened and sick” instead of “Lord, heal Donald Trump from this disease.”
Some believers object to “general” prayers, thinking them “performative” words without much meaning. In the example above, however, notice the general prayer is actually more theological than the second, more specific one.
“God, we pray for all who are suffering from COVID” reminds us that there are hundreds of thousands who need prayer, that the pandemic is still raging, and appropriately opens us to humility. Any one of us could be next to suffer from the virus. “Both our leaders and the poor,” strikes a cord of justice that illness is not confined to class and we all must care for one another. And finally, “all who are frightened and sick,” sounds our common humility. The first prayer — the “general” one — moves toward understanding and unity. The second prayer, “Lord, heal Donald Trump,” is specific. Yet, it requests a particular outcome from God (which is always problematic), no matter what God might have in mind. Even more troublesome, however, is that it cleaves division deeper and it makes those who refuse to pray for him feel guilty.
Public prayer isn’t only liturgical common prayer. Public prayer can also be prophetic prayer: “God, we plead for the cause of the poor!” “May your justice roll over the nation like a river!” “Lord, free us from immoral leaders!” The Bible is full of such prayers — including the prayer of Mary, mother of Jesus, who calls for the proud to be humbled, rulers to be cast from their thrones, and the rich to be sent away hungry. While white churches shy away from deploying prophetic prayer, historically black churches and Hispanic congregations aren’t nearly as reticent. But prophetic prayer is oddly appropriate right now, even necessary for us to see events more clearly. Indeed, how is Donald Trump getting COVID anything other than the proud being humbled, a leader being “cast down” from his position, and a wealthy man suddenly finding himself out of control?
Finally, no one can tell you how to pray. Private prayer is truly a matter for you and God. Again, the Bible is full of all sorts of prayers — from David calling on God to smash the children of the wicked on rocks (those are “imprecatory prayers,” where the faithful cry for vengeance on their enemies), to Job arguing with God, or Jesus begging for his suffering to be relieved.
Prayers are yelled, whispered, sung, and offered wordlessly. In biblical traditions, prayer can make God change God’s mind, seems to activate divine justice, and vindicates the cause of the oppressed. No prayer should ever make you feel guilty; every prayer from the heart is authentic prayer. Follow the suggestion of Frederick Buechner, “Go where your best prayers take you.”
Do pray. Offer public prayers, prophetic ones, private ones. Polite ones, challenging ones, angry ones. Ones that bless, others that call down justice. Every single prayer is welcome. All are needed. And don’t worry about prayer being political. It always is.
Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.
― Mahatma Gandhi
I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.
― Abraham Lincoln
What's prayer? It's shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who's to say? It's reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish into the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will . . . And sometimes, by God's grace, a prayer is heard.
― Frederick Buechner
Never pray for justice, because you might get some.
― Margaret Atwood
She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord . . . I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse.
― Marilynne Robinson
Open unto me, light for my darkness
Open unto me, courage for my fear
Open unto me, hope for my despair
Open unto me, peace for my turmoil
Open unto me, joy for my sorrow
Open unto me, strength for my weakness
Open unto me, wisdom for my confusion
Open unto me, forgiveness for my sins
Open unto me, tenderness for my toughness
Open unto me, love for my hates
Open unto me, Thy Self for myself
Lord, Lord, open unto me!
— Howard Thurman
THE COTTAGE publishes each Tuesday and Friday, with occasional weekend specials, alternating between commentary on religion and culture and inspiration for a more meaningful faith - all from an unexpected point of view. Subscribe for free and never miss an issue.