Neighborhood Prayer: Seeking a Real God in the Land of Sin, Violence and Death

It doesn’t matter the week, we’re never far from it – the pain, the hurt and the loss.  That’s the beauty and struggle of the Internet – tragedy is closer to us than it ever has been. Packets of data squeeze the distance between us and injustice, bringing the pain into our living rooms.

This week it is Terence Crutcher, a student and a member of his church choir, the latest black man turned into a hashtag after being shot and killed by the police. If you’ve seen the video, you know it’s awful. So bad, in fact, that one commentator called it one of the worst we’ve seen.

It’s a sign of how desensitized we’ve gotten to death – particularly the ones that involve race, police and guns – that one could be described as worse than the others, as if any time someone created, loved and redeemed by God has their life snuffed out isn’t the worst.

A few weeks ago, where I live, it was Kenny Moats, a police officer doing his job when he was ambushed and killed. It was one of the few things in my part of the world with the power to move SEC football off the front page of our newspapers.

We have, of course, settled into a kind of liturgy around these tragedies. Shock and outrage are followed by posts and tweets about whose life matters, a cacophony of blame and anger that doesn’t seem to get us anywhere except in a rage at each other until the next one comes. Then we all begin again.

It’s all enough to overwhelm you, to make you seek escape in anything else, to lead you to avert your eyes and soul, to lock on anything else so you can avoid paying attention. At least, that’s what I want to do.

When I become overwhelmed, I want to retreat and pray about things that are easy. When I don’t know what to say about another murder, another life lost, another family and community fundamentally changed, I want to pray for myself and situations that won’t challenge me.  When I don’t know where to find the words to say both that this violence is far from God’s design and yet that things aren’t as easy to square as the social media screamers would make it, I’m tempted to concern myself with only what God would ask of me.

But faith, as my friend Dana is always teaching me, is about paying attention. We are formed by what we watch and we are shaped by who we listen to.

Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great theologians of the Church, wrote in the Fourth Century, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed, that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.”

In the Twenty First Century we would say that because in Christ God assumed every part and every dimension of human experience and life, there is no part of our lives, no community among us, no nation on the globe with which God is not concerned and that God is not working to heal.

The world, its people, and the issues we face, all of us and all of them, they all matter to God.

One of the implications of Incarnation – that in Jesus God came into our world – is that our spiritual lives and our every day lives aren’t separate. To borrow from Paul, the flesh is the arena of the spiritual, the spiritual is concerned with the flesh. In short, the distinction we want to make between church life and the lives we live and comment on and interpret is really a distortion of one of our most basic beliefs.

Because of this, we can’t pray as an escape from the world’s chaos and heartbreak. God won’t allow us to find refuge from the cares of the world in a sweet and safe spiritual life.

Instead, for our prayers to be called in any way Christian they have to include the struggles of the world. For our devotion to be consistent with the way of Jesus, it has to be open to the hurts of friends.

For our spiritual life to be big enough to welcome the God who has moved into our neighborhood in Jesus, it has to make room for the struggles of our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t understand.

To engage the world as a Christian I have to ask for God’s help and then do the hard work of watching the video.  It means I have to seek God’s grace and then listen to the lives of the people who are hurting.

It means I have to get prayed up so I can enter into being uncomfortable, because uncomfortableness isn’t an obstacle to faith but instead is most often the path to finding it.

It means coming to grips with the reality that we are a long way from the beloved community and that living into our calling as Jesus’ people means naming the gap between between what painfully is and what really ought to be.

Even when we don’t want to.

So, today I’m daring to pray, both to listen and to speak the words – words that go beyond the easy labels and words that risk more than I’m comfortable with. I’m praying for the grieving – the friends and families whose lives will never be normal, long after the rest of us have moved on to the next thing. I’m praying for God to move us and to help us find a way beyond the arguments and the predetermined talking points, to find a way to live again as if a loss of life was more than an occasion for winning an argument. I’m praying for God to give me words and wisdom to find some way to be an instrument of peace in a world and a nation seemingly constantly at war.

Mostly, I’m praying for courage and for faith – to listen, to speak, to believe and to live as someone who knows that God so loves this world, the one we’re trying to live in, and all the people in it. And because that’s true, everything can be different.

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Beyond Rage: Learning to Pray When The World Makes You Furious 

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. 

It’s a cliché of course, one of those tired phrases that appear again and again when the times merit it.  But clichés keep showing up becuase they feel true. And as we approach the end of a summer that has been hot in too many ways, it feels especially true right now. 

It doesn’t require much searching to discover we’ve had plenty to be angry about. It’s been a summer of loss – some of it fueled by prejudice, some of it enabled by our unwillingness to risk our comfort by living our convictions, but all of it heartbreaking. 

It’s been a summer of anger – seen in the way we yell past each other, in the way we demand that everyone has it easier than we do, but most clearly epitomized in the depressing political moment we are living through that falls so short of our ideals.  

It’s been a summer of rage – in cities and in the country, from the young and the old, revealing the disaster that visits you when we continue to treat one another as though none of us have been created, loved and redeemed by a generous God. 

And for many of us, regardless of what side of the debate of the moment we find ourselves stuck in, it’s been a summer of throwing up our hands and wanting to give up. The fear is too much, the hate too entrenched, the anxiety-fueled sin surpassing our capacity to slow it down. 

All of it makes us feel powerless, and even worse, hopeless – like anything we might do would be as effective as harmlessly chucking a pebble into a full-throated hurricane only growing more powerful. 

Returning to Prayer School

The first place I normally turn in my devotional life is to the letters of Paul – he’s practical, he’s blunt and he is always willing to pick a fight.  In some ways he is perfect for this moment. But when I know I need help – and especially when I need help figuring out how or what to pray – I turn to the Psalms.  

In the midst of a hot and hateful summer, that’s where I’ve settled in – allowing the writers and teachers in the Psalms to have their way again. All this anger, violence, yelling and destruction has made it hard to pray. Racial and class divides that are terrorizing people I care about have made it hard to know what to ask God to do. The spirit and divisions in my own denomination have left me feeling frustrated and depressed. Overwhelmed by our inability to listen to one another, frustrated by my own complicity in it all, angry at the way things are and unsure about how to live into my own call to be an ambassador of light in a country gripped by the darkness, I’ve needed the wisdom found in these old prayers. 

And so the Psalms have been teaching me that faithful prayer doesn’t hide these emotions but instead trusts God with all of them. The prayers of the faithful are shockingly transparent – their pain from feeling abandoned, their frustrations with their leaders (both political and religious) and the anger that is festering within them as they keep waiting for God to show up. Nothing is hidden from the Almighty. 

They can pray these honest prayers because they believe no emotion has the power to separate them from God’s love and compassion. Their prayers flow from their trust in God to handle it all – God can deal with their rage, can take on their anger, and is strong enough to handle any accusation that comes from their need for things to be made right. 

Their honesty with God isn’t an obstacle to faithfulness but instead a pathway to it.  Indeed, the Psalmists know that when kept to ourselves the emotions have the power to destroy us, but liberation comes when we release them to God. 

The Psalmists don’t share their lives simply to complain to God,  but because they believe God can and will act. The Psalms live in a world in which God is acting as the decisive force in the world that God created and for the people God loves. 

The Psalms are prayed with the conviction that God cares about the world, participates in it and is not neutral about what happens. They put their hope in the truth that God is working and will continue to work for the faithful, that God is on the side of the poor and those who are struggling, and that when God gets involves everything can change.

As Walter Brueggemann writes in Praying the Psalms, “The God of the Bible is never neutral, objective, indifferent or simply balancing things. The world is not on its own.”

In some instances these prayers are simply demands for God to start acting like it.

These prayers are teaching me to refuse the temptation to pray safe, resigned prayers that ignore the trouble we’ve seen.  No, instead I am learning again to pray honest prayers that flow from the knowledge that we pray to a God who hasn’t abandoned us. 

Prayers shape by the wisdom of these teachers are prayers of bold trust in a God who is with us, a God who takes sides, and a God who is working to close the gap between the way things are and the way they should be. 

So, how should we pray in a world that doesn’t appear to be cooling off any time soon? How do we speak to a God whose world sometimes appears to be being pulled apart at the edges? What do we share with God when the grief has rendered us speechless?

Say what we mean, mean what we say, and trust that God cares and is going to do something about it. 

“Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread you protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.”  Psalm 5:2, 11

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A Church For A Time Such As This

As the time came for our prayer on Sunday morning, we couldn’t help but pray the news – for the victims of gun violence across the nation, for those trapped in the cycle of racism, and for those whose call to protect and serve left them exposed, threatened and afraid.

One day removed from the horrors of another terror attack in France, a week from the awful events in Dallas, the horrible images of the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in St. Paul and Baton Rouge still on our minds, the carnage of Orlando still in our hearts and souls – to be the church, we had to pray.

We prayed not to prevent action but to ask God to propel us to it. We prayed that we might have the courage to live into our ministry of reconciliation. We prayed that somehow and someway our nation might trade its current ways for a new way of justice and peace.  Mostly we prayed for all of this to stop.  We prayed for a way to settle differences and perceived scores that didn’t include unleashing death and destruction upon innocents. 

But within five minutes of getting back to my office after church, the five minutes it took to sit down and turn on the computer, I slumped in my chair.  Because before we had even finished asking God for help, there had been another one – another shooting, another attack on police officers, another declaration that life didn’t matter.

It is awful to watch and even more gut wrenching to live.  America is on fire – full of rage and stocked up on anger, plenty of it righteous. We’re long on shouting and justifying and knowing just who is to blame, but we’re short on relationships and kindness and ways that lead to life and peace.

Our parents told us stories of how frightening it was to live through the 1960’s.  We ignored them them, but we’re paying attention now.

And as a church leader I know that people are paying attention to us now, too.  They are listening to what we say and watching how we live. 

They know that the solutions to the presenting problems – circles that combine race and violence and inequality and neighborhoods and the cops – aren’t going to be found in political ideologies intent on assigning blame. They know that the way forward won’t come from blasting each other on Twitter or limiting ourselves to the echo chambers of those who see it the same way that we do. 

And so, looking for something else, they come back to us again. They listen again because they want to know whether the church they grew up going to or pass on the street every day has a message that’s big enough for this.  They want to know whether we have a way of life that can transform such a time as this.

They listen because even if a lot of them aren’t in our buildings on Sunday mornings, they know there is power in our story.  They know that our message is about light overwhelming darkness and that we put our trust in a life more powerful than death. 

They know that when we quote Scripture we quote words of equality. They know that in our story the logic of creation denies the logic of racism – no dark claim to racial superiority can withstand the light of Genesis 1:26, that everyone, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, is created in the beautiful and beloved image of God.  

They know that we claim that our identity isn’t tied to our appearance but is formed by who loves us and how far He went to prove it. To deny that everyone has the right to live without fear and to seek joy is to deny the fundamental truth of our faith – that no life is worthless and that every life can be redeemed.

They know that our mission is reconciliation, to bring those who are far apart together. They want to believe it when we remind them that this is what God is all about and this is the mission we can all be a part of. 

And yet they aren’t quite sure about us.  We have to admit there’s good reason for that.

They’ve seen us give up the essentials of discipleship for the convenience of an attractive consumer-driven faith.  They’ve seen us shy away from calling sin what it is so we can stay comfortable. They’ve seen us trade our mission of transforming the world for resting in the status quo. They’ve seen us praise God’s way with our lips and turn from it with our lives. They’ve seen us give up our convictions far too quickly when power and influence can be had.

To be a church for a time such as this we have to tell the old story but we also have to live it with truth and courage and conviction. We glorify God as much with how we enter difficult conversations and contested places as we do when we sing our songs and say our creeds. 

We spend a lot of time talking about how the church can bounce back, how we can connect with generations and groups that don’t seem to pay us much attention.  

People are paying attention now.  They are longing for a community of faith to live out what it believes.  They are desperate for a path forward and for leaders who can help them find it. They are seeking those who can remind us of what we have in common, who can help us listen to one another and who can do the work of reconciliation, not  by making an easy peace that denies the problems, but by forging a real one that can make all things new.

The good news is that we do have a way of life for such a time as this.

The question for us then isn’t what shall we say.  It’s more important than that.  

How then shall we live?


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