Hallowed be thy name. I know the words.
I've been struggling to pray this week.
It isn't right to pray that someone will get really sick. But if President Trump doesn't get really sick, I'm afraid that nothing will change - that he will continue to minimize the public health crisis that we are in. I don't want anyone to suffer, but I think maybe this someone needs to suffer...
And I think he does suffer, and some of his behavior is because he doesn't know what to do with his suffering. He doesn't know how to cope with it, so he displaces his suffering onto others. Displacement behavior is when you have a bad day at work so you come home and yell at your spouse, who yells at the kids, who kick the dog. What did the dog do to deserve that?
Not that I am comparing people who are suffering under our current administration to dogs. Absolutely not. I am trying to demonstrate compassion for this man who denies real suffering at the same time he is encouraging us to be very afraid of anyone who doesn't look like him.
So how do I pray?
I can pray the Lord's prayer. My favorite line in the prayer that Jesus taught us is, "Thy will be done. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." Thy will be done - God knows what needs to happen with this man. God knows him better than he knows himself, and while the man may not love himself, God surely does. This means that I don't have to pray for him to get sicker or to get better - I only need to pray that God's will is done.
My friend Ann just shared a prayer with me. Her prayer is one she heard somewhere (she told me and I can't remember - sorry, Ann!). As You will, as You know, Lord have mercy. I'm not in charge. God is.
I follow the Reverend Jacqui Lewis, PhD on Twitter: "I pray that this moment changes the President's heart, that he might grasp this disease's danger and abandon policies that have killed more than 200,000 people. And I pray this news might remind all of us of COVID's continued danger - and our responsibility to love our neighbor by wearing masks and distancing." That is lovely. I can get behind that prayer.
I have thought a lot about prayer over the years. Saying it is a holy mystery doesn't satisfy me. I remember one night when I was in the Air Force. I was the charge nurse that night, so I was down in the Emergency Room when a teenage girl was brought in for difficulty breathing. The door to the treatment room hadn't even fully closed when her mom was on the telephone to someone in her church. "I just brought Meghan into the emergency room. Alert the prayer chain, it doesn't look good." And I thought - there is your problem. And sure enough, the problem was hyperventilation - the young woman was breathing so fast that she exhaled too much carbon dioxide and so felt like she couldn't catch her breath. This is often an anxiety response. It wasn't that the mom alerted the prayer chain, it was that she said it didn't look good. Hyperventilation never looks good, but if I had been on the other end of that phone line (no cell phones then), I'd have thought the girl was dying. Anxiety begets anxiety, and manipulation comes in many forms. Praying for relief of her breathing problems wasn't going to get to the real problem.
I wondered about prayer some more years later. At the time in our church service when we lifted the Prayers of the People, there were always people asking for traveling mercies, or that their cousin's wife's mother would recover from surgery, or that their best friend's husband would find a job. One woman always had an "unspoken request" (how was I supposed to pray for that?). Why did the power of prayer bring some people safely through their surgeries or illnesses, and others not? I always pray that my kids make it home safely, but accidents do happen. If an accident happens, does that mean my prayer wasn't strong enough, or fervent enough? Is my faith not enough? Was God busy tending to someone else's travel mercies?
I asked a "prayer warrior" at church about it. She told me to listen carefully - that often prayer requests are announcements. Ok - this is a way of telling my church family that I am in need, or frightened, or feel horrible, or I'm grieving, or I just want attention. Julia asked for prayers for her imaginary friend Stockingcakes once - I was really proud of her faith and courage, but had a bit of a time conveying to the pastor that the spelling of Stockingcakes wasn't something he needed to spend church time on. (Thanks for letting me revisit that memory! I love that!). Stockingcakes didn't need prayer, but those other people really want it. So what if it is an announcement? What does that have to do with prayer?
I considered whether the power of prayer might be an energy force - people thinking about and sending positive thoughts is what heals. But that feels like it takes God out of it. And if alerting the prayer chain and raising my concern during the prayers of the people means I have more people praying, then is that more effective than my heartfelt prayer in the quiet of my own soul? That makes prayer a popularity contest.
And one more thing - does God really need me to tell God about the starving people in Yemen, the suffering of the people enduring hurricanes and wildfires, the grief of those who have lost loved ones to COVID? No, God does not. God knows. So why am I to pray for people I will never know?
I asked a pastor once, and he looked at his wife, who said something about a holy mystery.
As it turns out, prayer is a holy mystery, because one night we were driving home from somewhere. It was dark and I was looking out the window - Jay was driving. I was just looking at the stars, and we were quiet because truth be told I am usually asleep when the car is moving and Jay is driving. I wasn't thinking about these questions, but the answer came to me.
God loves me and wants to be in relationship with me. When I pray, I develop and strengthen the relationship between God and me. God loves all other people, and when they pray they develop and strengthen their relationships with God. When I pray for others I am in relationship with them, even if they are people I will never meet. I consider their wants and needs, and I am changed. It looks like this:
That is why it is important for me to share my needs with God - even though God already knows. If one person (me) prays for me, God hears that prayer and responds as God will. If I can't or don't pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for me with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).
This is why it is important for me to share my prayer requests with others (as I am able) so that they can pray for me and deepen their relationship with God. If others pray for me they deepen their relationship with God. If no one prays for me, the Holy Spirit is still interceding. It is not a popularity contest.
This is why it is important that we pray for each other. We need that connection. We were designed by God to care for and love one another. What is the greatest commandment? That we love one another as God has loved us (John 13:34). We offer comfort and strength to those we know when we pray for them. We offer God's love when we pray for those we'll never meet. When I pray for those I'll never meet, I am changed. I am more compassionate, and perhaps I am moved to learn more about an issue, make a donation, start a ministry, recycle, ride a bike to work, or write a letter to my elected representatives. There are hundreds of other ways that I might be changed, but these are a few that come to mind.
And those prayers of the people? Maybe they are announcements, but I can help God answer those prayers by listening, sending a card, offering to drive to an appointment. Sometimes just being present is all that is required.
Prayer is not just a holy mystery. It is something that we can understand. Well, part of it we can understand.
And so, back to my dilemma about how to pray this week.
President Trump did not help the other day when he returned to the White House, boasted about how well he is feeling (strong meds will do that for you), and told people not to worry about the virus. There are 210,000+ families that worried about it - a lot because their loved ones (210,000+ people) died, and nearly 750,000,000 people have worried a lot because they got sick (CDC, online 10/7/2020).
It is irresponsible for the President of the United States to say these things. I wanted him to be sicker so that he would understand what he so callously talks about.
Greg Jarrell, in his article "How to Pray When Your Enemy Gets Sick," describes imprecatory prayers, such as Psalm 109. The psalmist is at the end of his rope, betrayed and abused. The psalmist asks that God punish the evil that his enemy has perpetrated and that the enemy will receive just punishment.
I looked up imprecatory prayer. Imprecatory prayer implores God to exact retribution when the supplicant is unable to do so, often because the evildoer is rich and/or powerful. It is not to take the place of working through the justice system, or having a neighborly talk, or expressing outrage and the sense of injustice through other, simpler means. It is not to be used lightly, against one's perceived enemies (for example, if I have an argument with a neighbor I shouldn't pray that he gets a flat tire on his way home from work. Though once when Jeff was almost two, Jay was away and someone shot out the back window of our van. I did say that I hoped the shooter would have to eat green bean gruel and weed juice for the REST OF HIS LIFE! That was the punishment of Foxy Loxy in Chicken Little by Steven Kellogg. I don't regret that).
Imprecatory prayer is reserved for the few times when one is powerless to do anything about the problem. When we have sought redress in appropriate ways, and written to our elected officials, and prayed for right thinking, and prayed that our prayers and behavior are pleasint to God, then, and only then, might imprecatory prayer be appropriate.
I believe that President Trump is doing evil by confusing people about what COVID is, how dangerous it is, and how to protect themselves. He has overruled expert after expert. One could say that God gave him the virus to get his attention and give him a change of heart, as Rev. Lewis prayed. Doesn't seem to have worked.
So is it wrong to pray that he will suffer? Not die, but a few days of misery might help him to understand why people are frightened, might force him to listen to the scientists and medical experts, and might convince him that he is not invincible. Would it be bad to ask that President Trump and his administration suffer the consequences of his/their actions?
Earthly consequences, because I also believe that God loves President Trump and forgives his sins, too.
As I look at the many, many, many Bible verses about justice, though, I remember that I don't need to tell God what's going on. God knows, and God has a plan. Some of us won't like it, and it may very well be painful. After all, didn't God send his chosen people, Israel, into exile in Babylon?
I will not pray that anyone gets sick, or sicker. I will pray that suffering is relieved, and I will trust that God knows what is needed and will intervene as God sees fit. And God's intervention will be more appropriate and perfect than anything I could ever imagine. And if that means that some rich and powerful people need to suffer a little for the evil they have done on earth, then so be it. Whether is is COVID or jail, bankruptcy, or the denial of a second term, I will leave it to God. But I will pray that justice will roll down like a river (Amos 5:24).
I will also continue to pray for health for my family and friends. That those in crisis will, with God's help, weather the storm. I pray for all of the health care workers - for stamina, protection, courage, and good health. I pray for the starving people of Yemen, that the war will end and they will experience the prosperity and peace they deserve. I pray for those who have endured hurricanes and wildfire, that they will find home - and for safety for those in the path of yet another hurricane. I pray for our country, that we can overcome the sins of racism. I pray that the election will occur peacefully and with the right outcome. I trust that the Holy Spirit is, indeed, interceding with sighs too deep for words for things I don't have the words for, and for things that I don't even know to pray about.
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
CDC COVID Data Tracker. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesinlast7days. Online, available 10/7/2020.
Jarrell, Greg. "How to Pray When Your Enemy Gets Sick." Sojourners. Oct. 5, 2020. https://sojo.net/articles/how-pray-when-your-enemy-gets-sick. Online, available, October 7, 2020.
Kellogg, Steven. Chicken Little. Harper Collins. Philadelphia, 1987.
Lewis, Jacqui (RevJacquiLewis). "I pray this moment changes the President’s heart, that he might grasp this disease’s danger and abandon policies that have killed more than 200,000 people." 10:58 AM. October 2, 2020. Tweet.
Lewis, Jacqui (RevJacquiLewis). "And I pray this news might remind all of us of COVID’s continued danger—and our responsibility to love our neighbor by wearing masks and distancing. We have an obligation to protect one another, particularly when our government won’t." 10:58 AM. October 2, 2020. Tweet.