October 25, 2017

The Double Sorrow and the Place of Prayer

Prayer involves alignment between the words we speak to our Father in heaven and the actions of our lives on earth.

Certain kinds of tragedies awaken a double sorrow.

Take, for example, Stephen Paddock’s massacre of 58 concert-goers in Las Vegas. What a horrific act, and what griefs it has left in its wake! 58 lives lost, hundreds injured, millions who will feel less safe at public events in the future. The sorrow is incalculable.

But added to it is a second sorrow: the societal conditions and political climate that have made it impossible to do calm, reflective analysis of what happened and take meaningful action in response. It is no accident that the US leads the world in mass shootings.

Because there is so little capacity for sturdy analysis and action, many politicians resort to this step: calls to prayer.

In the week following the Vegas shooting I read dozens of articles about these calls to prayer. It’s not often that the public square holds capacity for significant reflection about a dimension of Christian worship. These conversations invite all of us engaged in leading worship to ask, “how do these calls to prayer relate to Christian understandings of worship?”

All of us have been in very difficult situations in which the most appropriate words are, “All we can do now is pray.” The doctor sits us down and says, “There is nothing more we can do.” The terrorist holds a group hostage. The car is spinning out on black ice.

But how do we respond if the “all we can do is pray” call is used to justify inaction, to avoid calm deliberation and well-discerned trial and error actions, thereby further entrenching societal polarization?

Scripture certainly addresses this issue. The Lord speaks through Isaiah, declaring, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1: 15). Amos picks up a similar theme: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5: 23-24).

These passages suggest that calls to prayer can never be separated from a life of communal faithfulness. We find this conviction expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on the Lord’s Prayer: “What does the third petition mean?” “‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ means: Help us and all people to reject our own wills and to obey your will without any back talk. Your will alone is good. Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to, as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven” (LD 49, Q 124). The catechism expands on that lovely phrase from the ancient church, “Ora et labora,” i.e., “pray and work.” Prayer involves alignment between the words we speak to our Father in heaven and the actions of our lives on earth.

I’m grateful that questions about prayer are being raised in the public square, but the dynamics at play are very complex. I find this topic difficult to write about, because it seems like it’s almost impossible to address such things today without readers assuming that the speaking voice is aligned with one side of a horribly polarized debate. Surely Jesus cannot be claimed by any parties within a cultural polarization? And calls to prayer definitely cannot be embedded in partisanship.

I wonder if Isaiah and Amos remind us that calls to prayer might look like this: “as your leader, I urge you to pray about the horrors of this situation, and, also as your leader, I publicly commit that I will leave no stone unturned in taking these sorts of significant actions within the next weeks. . . .”

Perhaps it’s also helpful to remember that Isaiah continues the warning he declared above as follows:

“Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’” (Isaiah 1: 16-18).