Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Praying For Charleston: Do We Know What Saying That Means?

When you pray, do not pour out a flood of empty words.

Matthew 6:7

I cannot tell you how many people I've seen--verbally, on Facebook, on Twitter, all over--say that they are praying or will be praying for Charleston and Mother Emanuel AME Church in the wake of the racist terrorist attack that claimed nine souls last week (nope, still not done writing about it. #sorrynotsorry).

I'm glad so many people have said that, I really am.

But do we really know what it means to pray?  I mean, not just to talk to Jesus, or to hand off our latest Christmas wish list to our Santa in the sky (at a church my mom took me and my sister to when we were very little, the ladies in the women's small group she was a part of would talk about how God had led them to that really terrific sale on their new sofa or somesuch.  Mom started taking us to a different church after several weeks of that).

I'm talking about prayer that is genuinely life-changing, mind-altering (the good kind), heart-turning, soul-rebuilding spiritual exercise that forces oneself to change on behalf of a God who calls us to nothing less.

Even though I am a pastor, a Christian who has gone pro, and who prays freely and extemporaneously every Sunday in leading worship, I have to tell you that by the genuine standard that we should be holding our prayers to, I am terrible at it.  I am terrible at praying.  It is not a spiritual exercise I am even remotely gifted at.


Because my own prayers are often unable to conjure in me that which prayer is meant to achieve--as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, "The function of prayer is not to change God, but to change the one who prays."

We don't pray to change God.  We pray to change ourselves.

A lot of our prayers, though--mine included--are of the "God, I ask you to do/for..." variety.  They turn us into passive recipients of an active deity, pawns or marionettes in the hands of a divine puppeteer.

When what we need to be, must be, have to be asking for is for God to act upon us and within us.  It's one thing to ask God for healing and for presence, but that prayer cannot simultaneously be our abdication from providing healing and presence ourselves.  Put a different way, James, the brother of Jesus, in the second chapter of his letter in the New Testament, writes:

Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. (2:18)

If our only faithful action after Charleston is prayer, we have in fact been unfaithful, because our prayers will not have had their desired effect: they will not have changed us into a people ready to finally perform the faithful action of pursuing genuine reconciliation and social justice over a history and tradition of institutionalized racism that has long been denied such treatment--and towards a people who have long been denied such treatment.

The recent chorus of politicians calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse is a positive step, but it cannot be the only step.  What we're talking about here, what we're facing down, is much more than a piece of fabric fluttering high atop a flagpole.

What we are talking about concerns the very nature of one of Jesus's two great commandments: to love your neighbor as yourself.

What we do not consider, at least nowhere near often enough, is the identity of that neighbor.  It is why Jesus made the protagonist in one of His parables a Samaritan, a person belonging to a demographic loathed and despised by the Jewish population in Judea.

One of my congregants has a lovely young elementary school-aged daughter who recently saw a man passed out on the side of the road with a group of people surrounding him.  This daughter couldn't see much of the man himself, but prayed for God to bring an ambulance quickly to rescue him.  Someone in the crowd had called for an ambulance, and it arrived almost immediately.

It didn't matter to her who this man was, only that he needed help.  And so she prayed for it.  And seeing her mama recount that story to me, I know it changed her.  Someone had lived out what her daughter had prayed for, and now a person in danger was being saved.

It didn't matter to the Samaritan that the man whose life he was saving was a Jew.  When life and death is at stake, you don't defend your own culture, you try and save the other.

In Charleston, life and death was (is) at stake.  Will we defend our culture, fellow white Christians, or will we live out our prayers of healing and try to save our brothers and sisters of color?

Hopefully, when we pray now, it will be to in fact love our neighbors--and their identities--as much as we love our own identities.

At the price of the lives of nine souls, though (to say nothing of the countless more who have come and died before them due to racist ideologies), what a steep ransom for this new spiritual exercise it truly is.

Let us, then, try to do honor to that ransom, so far as we are able to.  Let us pray as we have been taught, not as we care to.  And let us, at long last, be thoroughly transformed by our spirituality--not just by our decision to follow Christ, not just by our decision to be a Christian, for, after all, a great many Christians throughout history were racist and used Christianity to defend their racism (hell, one of the reasons the Southern Baptist Convention even exists is because of its split with the American Baptist abolitionists over the issue of slavery in the 19th century).

Let us pray, not with a flood of empty words, but with a waterfall of loving and passionate actions that show our faith and, most importantly, how our faith and our prayers have indeed changed us.

For, in the end, we claim to have encountered God through prayer.  How could anyone walk away from such an awe-inspiring experience entirely the same?

Yours in Christ,

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