A reflection on prayer by Rev Bruce Thompson
When one of the richest nations on earth appears unable to fairly distribute its wealth and children go to bed hungry and the elderly shiver in their homes, for what do I pray?
With the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War and the danger that it will spread beyond Ukraine, for what do I pray?
As the severity of the climate emergency grows clearer by each passing season and both politicians and people seem impotent in the face of extreme weather patterns and species extinction, for what do I pray?
Millions of Christians have put this question in myriad ways over two millennia. Even those that walked beside Jesus and observed at first hand the impact of the incarnation would ask him how to pray. Millions of those that do not share the Christian faith have asked the same question for even longer. Billions still do so today around the world. The question may be as common to the human condition as any other may.
Today, like generations before us, we face a seemingly limitless number of issues that confound and disturb us. When solutions seem hard to come by even the spiritually sceptic can look beyond themselves for divine help.
Many examples and stories tell of the non-religious seeking a supernatural response to their predicament. One has always amused me. A much-loved rabbi falls ill and the community grows concerned. His health deteriorates further. The doctor is called to examine him. The diagnosis is that the rabbi's condition is beyond human help. The village elders decide that a day of prayer and fasting be held the next day. The following morning, after the blessings in the home, every member of the community, men and women, made their way to the synagogue just off the market square. No stallholders were setting out their wares that day; they too had crowded into the little shul. Every member of the community had gathered to pray for the rabbi's recovery. Everyone that is except Samuel, the village drunk. He was still recovering from the night before. Throughout the morning hours, silent incantations filled the ancient walls. At noon, Samuel rose from his stupor and stumbled to the inn. On his arrival he finds the door locked and a sign, as if needed, telling any reader that the proprietor was in synagogue praying for the rabbi's health. There was nothing for him to do; Samuel, the village drunk found his way to the shul, a place he hadn't visited for many years, not even on Yom Kippur. As the door opened, the community were aghast to see the drunk enter. After just a few minutes, he left the way he came having prayed that the rabbi recover quickly so that the inn could re-open soon. The community earnestly returned to their prayers for the rabbi. Over the course of the day, the rabbi's condition slowly improved and by nightfall, everyone was pleased to receive news that he was sitting up in bed and conversing with his beloved family. So swift was his recovery that by Erev Shabbat he was back at the shul and about to lead the prayers. Everyone had gathered to see the miracle for which they had prayed, everyone that is except the village drunk. The rabbi expressed appreciation for the faithfulness of the community, and for the sacrifice each one had made in giving up a day's work to pray for him. 'I am thankful for all your prayers,' he said, 'but especially so for Samuel's for his were the most heart-felt of them all.' i
Beneath the humour, the story addresses serious themes. Illness, fear, desire, and prayer. For what should the community pray?
I grew up in a church where Wilf, a Black Country Local Preacher born at the turn of the 20th century, led the prayer fellowship. He would often quote the hymn that began 'Prayer is the soul's sincere desire, unuttered or expressed.' ii
There is little doubt about it, when the chips are really down it is likely that some type of prayer is formed deep within us, or at least a plea for help from outside our normal source of assistance.
A seemingly insolvable crisis, a problem of great magnitude, a yearning for liberation, each and more will bring us to our knees so to speak. As with all Jews in Nazi-occupied Netherlands Etty Hillesum found her life restricted and in danger. She was murdered in Auschwitz in November 1943. Before being sent east, she had kept a journal that charted her growth from depression and anxiety to being at peace with herself, her world, and God. Etty was seemingly non-religious pre-war but the brutality of Nazi persecution and her inner pilgrimage led her to record some of the most memorable spiritual insights of the time.
'A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body has been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Some times. In moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face.'
We can easily think of this as merely an inward change of perspective on the world. However, for Etty there were outward consequences. She took on a new activism in assisting her compatriots to the point of longing to accompany a lone child as they entered the gas chamber together. Her engagement with others left them knowing that they were encountering someone who could not only see the world but also act within it in a wholly different way to the vast majority. She even manipulated the situation so that she could be on the same transport as her parents and brother from Westerbork to Auschwitz. After the train passed his land, a farmer discovered a postcard that Etty had managed to write and push through a crack in the cattle truck panels, it was to be sent on to her friend. It read, 'We left the camp singing.'
We believe that the intention of prayer is to change things. How and in what way it changes things is a matter of ongoing debate. It wasn't enough for Etty Hillesum to experience a transformation of her inner being, it was necessary to seek a transformation of those about her and also the situation in which they now found themselves. Her form of resistance was to deny the power of the oppressor, to reject the hold the oppressor had over the oppressed.
Maybe the outcome for Etty was inevitable despite the choices she made. However, we cannot help but acknowledge that she deliberately chose to work in full sight of the Nazis by being part of the administration even volunteering at the holding camp at Westerbork. The chances of her survival were slim anyway, of course they were, the unfolding catastrophe spoke for itself, but she had no hesitation in entering into the heart of the darkness and by doing so left a legacy that ranks alongside any from that time.
'Be careful for what you pray,' the wise religious sister once said to me, 'you end up paying for what you pray.' How right she was. If the intention of prayer is to change things, as with Etty Hillesum it is most likely to change the one doing the praying first.
We began by asking for what we should pray. I cited three areas of concern as we enter 2023. Firstly, the social injustice and inequality of our nation. Secondly, the war in Ukraine and finally the climate emergency.
When I pray that greater hospitality be shown toward asylum seekers and refuges, if the prayer is sincere and earnest, how might my life change to further the aims of my prayer? What might I actually do? At the very least, we can challenge Government policy through writing to our locally elected representatives. If they seek to fob us off with weak responses, then pursue them and keep on pressing the values of the Christian. If they start ignoring us, seek other like-minded individuals or groups to campaign for a change in approach to those seeking refuge here. We cannot leave it to those that reinforce the prejudice and hostility toward our neighbours in this increasingly inter-connected world. This is, as I have noted above, the very least that we can do, it costs us very little. There are of course costlier responses. However if we are sincere and earnest in our prayer for others we cannot avoid paying a price.
However, it is not just Government policy toward asylum seekers that is problematic for us. The all too well documented increasing poverty of both the unemployed and the employed is a shocking indictment of a state that claims to be caring towards all sectors of society. Those in public service roles unable to meet their food and energy bills is evidence of a failed system.
It has become a feature of Government to cry foul whenever the Church critics its policy. 'The Church should stick to praying and keep out of politics,' has been a common mantra of pretty well every Government that is feeling the heat of moral criticism. We heard it again in the final weeks of 2022. To enter into the debate as to whether or not we, as representatives of the Church, should engage in what is viewed by those we criticise as politics, is a complete distraction from what should be our course. If our prayers are to accomplish anything then it is to change the world and any obstacles to that change have to be overcome, including the self-centred policies that dismiss the needy neighbour, reward the already rich and do little or nothing to ease the suffering of the poor. When I see corruption in high places, I will call it out. When I recognise a person of privilege using their position to line their pockets, I will call it out. When I hear lies coming from the mouths of politicians, I will call it out. If I want a better world, I must work for it. If I want a fairer society, I must work for it. If I want truth to reign then I must fight for it with every ounce of my energy. Should my beliefs, moral values and resultant action upset politicians, then so be it. Should it cost me dearly, then so be it. Should it take time, then so be it.
Secondly, for what should we pray when missiles reign down, when the children are traumatised, the women raped, and the men tortured? Should we pray simply for peace, for an end to hostilities? What? Leaving the tyrant in power? No, I do not just pray for the solace of his victims, or consolation even for those that seek to rescue them from their hell. I pray for the success of those that fight their adversaries, I pray for Western resolve and I pray for an end to tyranny in Russia; if that means the downfall of the regime currently occupying the Kremlin, terrorising their own people, then so be it. If it means an increase in energy bills and food prices then so be it, so long as the Government helps those that cannot afford such increases.
Three months after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, The Revd Dr Leslie Weatherhead, a leading Methodist cleric and minister at City Temple, a Congregational Church in London, at the time, published 'Thinking Aloud in Time of War.'iii In it, Weatherhead asks some fundamental questions pertinent to today including 'so what is a Christian to do?' and 'can we pray about war?' The Christian faces many ethical dilemmas in the course of living out their faith, none more so than in time of war. Weatherhead recognises that some will choose not to fight or even be part of the war effort, which he considers a perfectly legitimate response. However, he points out that this is acceptable so long as the person taking this stance is aware of the fact that by doing so they may be enabling the enemy. On the other hand, to choose to kill is also wrong. This, according to Weatherhead means that in war, there is not a clear right or wrong, both are right and both are wrong. What is the lesser of the two evils asks Weatherhead? God will not punish the one who has carefully examined their conscience and chosen one over the other, he concludes. A pertinent comment reminds us of the need for integrity: 'Why does the pacifist consent to restrain English (sic) criminals and offer no resistance to those abroad (a tyrannical state) who follow a criminal policy?'iv The prayers we offer in time of war should not be about self-preservation but creating God's sovereign rule over the world. When a demagogue threatens that sovereign rule, it is the duty of the Christian to engage in resistance. The longer term, in other words beyond our lifetime, is the reason for our sacrifice in the here and now. This I fear is an objective that has been lost in recent decades.
The lack of willingness to make sacrifices today for the generations yet unborn, is one of the reasons for indifference when it comes to the climate emergency. Another is the fact that the crisis has been decades, two centuries even, in the making and we have only a glimpse of how much better it was earlier in our lifetime. It takes an effort for some to re-imagine how the environment was pre-industrialisation. Many dismiss the message that the climate is on the verge of a catastrophic point of no return. A third reason is the mistaken belief that having addressed some of the problems of the past we can now simply rest on our laurels. I sometimes wonder how future generations will judge our inaction now. The prayers we offer for the environment should radically challenge us as individuals in how we use the planet's precious resources, again a costly exercise that will change the way we live.
So, for what do I pray, as the New Year gets underway? Not for others to pay the price of my prayers. Not for an easy peace, one that leaves the tyrant in place. Not for short-term comfort.
I will pray and actively work towards a Government that has all the people in their sphere of interest and concern, not just the wealthy and influential. I will pray that I am willing to pay the relatively smaller price of economic challenge in overcoming the vile and nonsensical ideology of Putin and his cronies. I will pray that I find within myself the ability to look beyond my time and myself and make the necessary personal sacrifices to secure a future for those yet unborn.
This will be my prayer:
Our Father, in heaven,
Hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
The Revd Bruce Thompson
Chair Lincolnshire Methodist District
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