Prayer for the Discouraged and Fearful: 13th Sunday after Pentecost

O God, these are times that try our souls and our faith. Our world is full of assault weapons and political insults. So much violence on our streets, in the news, on our small screens and big screens makes us want to buy AK 47’s instead of putting on the “full armor of God.” Taking up a cross, turning the other cheek, forgiving mass murderers and terrorists – those things seem so hopelessly naive. No offense, Lord, but Kevlar vests seem like a better bet against an active shooter and the arrows of evil than the “breastplate of righteousness.” (Ephesians 6)

We’re afraid, Lord, afraid for our safety, our freedom, and our future as a nation and as a human race. We’re afraid for our children, for those who try to keep the peace, and for those trapped in an economic system where the deck is stacked against them. You’ve taught us that perfect love casts out fear, O God, but our love is imperfect and our fear threatens to cast out love, especially for those who need love the most.

We pray for victims of abuse and hate who become abusive and hateful. We pray for the victims of violence and other traumatic life events that drive them to flee from their homelands illegally or legally, for those who seek refuge in drugs or other forms of harmful self-medication, for those so desperate to escape the prison of poverty that they resort to crime. We pray for spirits and relationships and health broken by the burdens of unjust life circumstances, for the bullied who become bullies and their victims, for the homeless and the hopeless, for those trapped in ideologies that prevent compassion and understanding of other beliefs and believers. Lord, hear our prayers and our desperation in the face of so much fear and misery.

We see so many others lose faith and hope and turn away from you, Lord. When Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67) we are sorely tempted to say, “Yes, Lord, being a Christian disciple is too hard!” The strong and ruthless, not the meek or the peacemakers, seem likely to inherit the earth if there is anything left of it when the plundering and bloodshed are over.

Fear and faith wrestle for our souls, and even though it makes no sense to us or the world we hear ourselves saying with Peter, “We will follow you, Lord. You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God.”

Thanks for giving us moments of courage we did not know we had, for assuring us that our “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5). Help us hang on through the night, O God of promise; hear our prayer. Amen.

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Prayer Inspired by Solomon’s Request, I Kings 3:9

God, I bet you get tired of my whining and begging and calling it prayer. You don’t need a laundry list of all the things I think I need or deserve since you already know what I’m thinking, what I’m coveting, even when I wish you didn’t. We worry a lot these days about privacy and who has access to our information when we really should be more concerned about what you know about the secret desires of our hearts and minds.

Every time we pray you offer us the same deal the young King Solomon got – to ask for whatever we want. And if we ask for the right thing, the answer is guaranteed. But if we ask for wealth, status, power, comfort or other selfish rewards, no matter what the prosperity gospel advocates say, the answer will be ‘No, try again.’

Solomon could have written the great old hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”* It says “Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word…. Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always.” Solomon doesn’t ask for riches or power, he asks for the wisdom to govern God’s people, “an understanding mind…able to discern between good and evil.” O how we need such wisdom in our troubled world today, O Lord!

God, you know that we need the real necessities of life. Help us to trust you to provide those while we seek after the truth that sets us free from our worries and cares and concerns. Don’t let us confuse knowledge with wisdom. This isn’t about education and degrees – but true insight and discernment. As you blessed Solomon because he humbly asked for wisdom, the prayer of our hearts is that you will also “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.”** Amen and Amen.

*Old Irish hymn, translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1905 (original poem attributed to St. Dallan Forgaill, 530-598 C.E.)
** From “God of Grace and God of Glory,” by Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1930.

Prayer for 11th Sunday after Pentecost

O Eternal One, the beauty of the summer season at my peaceful home battles in my mind with the harsh realities of life in our broken world. I feel like E.B. White when he said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with news of desperate migrants from Africa overwhelming a Greek and European economy teetering on the brink. The next news story describes nursing homes in Japan exclusively for survivors of atomic bombs dropped on them as children 70 years ago this week. Wildfires destroy homes and force evacuations in draught stricken California while typhoon Soudelor ravages Taiwan and China. I turn the page of my newspaper, hoping for some good news, and read that 2000 Iraqis have reportedly been executed by ISIS.

My God, have you forsaken us? The scope and number of world crises is overwhelming, and that doesn’t even begin to count our individual concerns about illness, grief, employment, relationships, and our failures to be the kinds of caring people we want to be. We know we are supposed to respond to the needs of others, God, but the needs are more than we can cope with; and sometimes it all seems so hopeless we don’t even know how to pray.

Help us not to despair and lose faith. We are not the first to feel overburdened and lost, nor will be the last. Even Jesus on the cross drew on the lament of Psalm 22 when he felt forsaken. St. Paul, who is always so strong and certain in his faith, acknowledges times of doubt in Romans 8 and assures us “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Yes, God’s Holy Spirit intercedes for us. When we are at the end of our ropes, God prays for us!

But we have to be open to that intercession to receive it. Draw us close in our times of fear and uncertainty, God, like a loving mother comforting a child shivering in terror from a nightmare. Do not let doubt and fear drive us from you, Holy One, for it is exactly in such times that we need you more than ever.

We believe, Lord, help our unbelief. Let our weakness and helplessness in the face of everything happening in our lives and world be the motivation that brings us humbly back to you, admitting we can neither save nor savor the world without your divine guidance and eternal strength.

Pray with us and for us, O God, our hope and salvation. Amen.

Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence

hiroshima
With so much political posturing dominating the news this week there seems to be little notice in the U.S. that today is the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan. I’m sure the date is not forgotten in Hiroshima. August 6, 1945 has been a somber day for me ever since I learned about it in school. Even though I wasn’t born until 15 months after it occurred, what happened in that Japanese city at 8:15 that morning changed the world I was born into forever.

Diana and I visited Japan several years ago, and the horror of that event was made even more real. As we stood on the very spot where so much death and devastation took place, we saw pictures and read accounts of the unbelievable power unleashed on that city, of the 70,000 people who were annihilated by the blast and perhaps 200,000 more who died later after horrible suffering from radiation poisoning.

Many arguments about the pros and cons of the decision to drop that bomb and the one 3 days later on Nagasaki have been offered, and I appreciate that ethical and political debate. The truth is that whether dropping the bombs was justified or not, the atomic genie can’t be put back into the bottle. The question as always is what to do now with the reality we have.

I am haunted by Einstein’s assessment of the significance of this day. He said, “The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man’s mode of thinking. Thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” Yes, we have managed to avoid nuclear annihilation for 70 years, and that’s a good thing. Except for the people unfortunate enough to live near Chernobyl or Three Mile Island or Fukushima the human race has been smart enough or lucky enough to avoid nuclear disaster. We will probably never know how close we have come on many occasions, and the tensions with Russia and Iran and North Korea, not to mention the threat of nukes falling into the hands of terrorist groups, mean we still have not changed the mode of our thinking.

Why has humankind always used every new technology to develop more deadly ways to maim and kill each other? Every advance in science seems to carry with it a dark side of destruction. Chariots, horses, airplanes, ships and rockets become delivery systems for death. Chemical gases, Nobel’s invention of dynamite, even pressure cookers can and have been turned into weapons—just the opposite of the biblical vision of beating “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

A friend emailed me a piece today about the positive uses of drones to deliver medicine with the comment that drones have been getting bad publicity lately. My response was, “No, some idiots flying drones have been getting bad publicity.” It isn’t the technology that is the problem; it is our failure to use it wisely. And that failure usually stems from fear.

Fear is the enemy of the moral courage to change the way we think and stop the madness of violence as the default solution to our conflicts and problems. Another wise friend sent me these statistics yesterday. “In the US we had about 34,000 gunshot deaths in 2013, two thirds of which are actually suicides. Germany had about 200, and Canada and Britain had even less. Somebody has to have the moral courage to say that this is crazy, to have 300 million firearms in one nation, and that all it does is to lead to thousands of deaths.”

There is an old folk song that asks a question that is as relevant today as it was in 1945 or when Bob Dylan asked it in 1963: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Dylan’s answer was that “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.” I don’t know if Dylan knew that the Hebrew word for wind, “ruach,” is also the word for “spirit” and “breath.” So that song for me says the answer is blowing in the life-breathing spirit of God, and only there.

The answer is not more and bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.

I started a series a few months ago on Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 (see posts from May 26 and June 14). I haven’t finished that series because other issues keep grabbing my attention. I didn’t realize when I started this post that I would come back around to Pentecost.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4)

The forces of fear are powerful and real and require an even stronger power to overcome them. They cannot be conquered by any human technology or ideology. Fear paralyzes our ability to reason and recognize the futility and foolishness of our attempts to save our lives and our stuff through arms. We can learn a valuable lesson from Alcoholics Anonymous about our addiction to bigger and badder weaponry or security systems. AA knows we cannot conquer an addiction without surrendering to a higher power.

That higher power blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost and changed lives and the world forever. And the answer to stopping the violence in our theaters and schools and churches and to defusing the nuclear nightmare is still blowing in the ruach of God.

Blow, holy wind, blow away our fears.

Freeway Theology

IMG_0048 (2) I saw this graffiti spray-painted on a freeway overpass several years ago, and my immediate thought was “I guess forever was longer than John expected!” After wondering how and why people hang over the side of an overpass and paint upside down, my next thought was “that’ll preach.” I’ve used it often in preaching class as an example of the kinds of ordinary observations in daily life that can have theological significance.

Jesus did that, of course, using mustard seeds, lost sheep and coins, yeast, candles, a valuable pearl, and even a hated Samaritan to weave parables that reveal truth about the nature of God that declarative sentences can’t illuminate in the same holistic way. Stories and images reach beyond the intellect and move us at a deeper emotional level.

John obviously fell out of love with whoever’s name was beneath that paint. It happens all the time in human relationships, but we cannot convert that unfortunate reality that sometimes leaves deep scars on the human psyche into what God’s relationship to us looks like. How unfortunate if we let false teachings about a wrathful, judgmental God scare us away from the only source of truly unconditional love there is.

We often hear Paul’s marvelous words about love read at weddings: 4 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.” (I Corinthians 13). I try to warn starry-eyed couples that those words do not describe human love, no matter how strong that love is. Paul is writing about God’s love revealed to us in Christ, and it is the backup we can always turn to when we want to remove the tattoo of our beloved from our arm or spray paint over his or her name on the overpass.

God’s love is forever. It’s not a 5 year or 50000 or mile guarantee. It’s not even “till death do us part,” as great as that deep love is. There is no fine print in God’s covenant with us. We can break the contract or think we have by our own sinfulness or stupidity, but God won’t ever stop loving us, period. Like the prodigal son’s father, God waits patiently for us to come home, no matter how badly we’ve messed up our lives or how long we’ve been gone.

That message is repeated in a multitude of ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Two of my favorites are: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). And “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

That’s pretty straight forward and clear. Don’t let disappointments with human love confuse you about God’s love. With God, forever really means forever.