I'll be using this space from time to time to share my reflections and thoughts on various topics. Please feel free to add to the conversation by writing some reaction in the COMMENT section!
Submission, not Victory.
During these two weeks of political conventions, and surely in the next three months of the campaign, there will be a lot of prayers offered to heaven. Like soldiers on the battlefield in opposing armies, millions of people will be praying for God to be on their side to make sure the right candidate wins.
The Republican convention which has just concluded had a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox Archbishop, three Protestant ministers, a rabbi, a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Mormon deliver opening and closing prayers each night. Interestingly, no Buddhists or Hindus, though. I’m sure there will be a similar line-up of prayer ministers this week in Philadelphia at the Democratic convention.
I went online to hear the prayers that were delivered in Cleveland. To be honest, I thought that many of them weren’t really praying to God as much as they were giving a speech to the delegates, sometimes even deliberately using the “prayer’ as a rallying moment. Pastor Mark Burns noted in his prayer that “our enemy… is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party”. I think Jesus asked us to pray FOR our enemies, and to love them. As I noted, I'll bet we hear similar 'prayers' from the Democratic convention.
If I were God, I think I’d mess around with the microphones when someone gets up to pray at the conventions. Maybe make one of those annoying microphone squealing sounds that hurts everyone’s ears, or maybe miraculously turn the prayers that come out of their mouths into music from Handel’s Messiah or a Catholic hip hop song. Using a prayer to get God on your side when you rally the convention troops, or even real troops in a war battle, or the basketball or football team… it just feels like we’re making God pretty small, using God for our own purposes, which kind of is the opposite of what the relationship should be. You know what I mean?
When I walked across Spain in June I was carrying over 150 slips of paper with individual prayers written on them by my friends and parishioners. On the long walks each day I’d take them out of my pocket and read them individually. Most times I had no idea who had written them, nor did I usually know the people who were mentioned on them. Some were asking for a family to be reunited. Others were asking for someone to recover from cancer, or a heart condition, or a terrible loss or death in the family. One was asking that her son get a job, another that his wife would be able to have a baby. Someone wanted God to help her believe that she was a worthwhile human being. Another prayed that he wouldn’t lose his house. A few asked for genuine peace in the world, or for justice for poor people. As I read them each day, I tried being with the people who were the objects of the prayers, and also with the people who wrote them. I looked at the handwriting, sometimes very scribbled, sometimes very neat and clear. More than a few times I traced their pen strokes with my finger as I tried to be with the writer. The petitions became a very important part of my day and my walk, and I intended to bring them to my destination point in the city of Santiago, to lay them at the tomb of St James, whose feast day we actually celebrate tomorrow.
On one particularly punishing day of walking—a day with intermittent rain---I stopped to take a rest under a tree. I was exhausted, and my back and my feet really hurt. As I took off my heavy backpack and my shoes, the prayer petition sheets fell out of a pocket, and a sudden gust of wind blew a bunch of them away. I panicked, leapt up immediately, and found myself running desperately in my socks after about a dozen of the papers. One after another, I was able to snatch them back until there was just one left. It kept blowing away as I neared it, and it finally landed in a very muddy field. I didn’t care about turning my socks into mud rags, and ran through the field to retrieve the petition. When I picked it up, it was dirty, but I was still able to read what was written on it. All it said was, “Lord, help me.” I walked back to my rest stop and sat down, holding the petition in my hand. Lord, help me. And suddenly I felt a rush of hot tears welling in my eyes. For a moment I felt like a helpless little kid, all alone on this endless path with the prayers of all these people, unable to do much to relieve them of their pain or their suffering. Unable to help myself, for that matter. All I could do was to carry them and their prayers to the tomb of the saint whose name I share. Lord, help me. Help all of us.
At one time or another in all our lives, our prayer is nothing more than that: a plea to be relieved of our pain, our fear, our disbelief. We pray out of our real poverty, hungry and thirsty, the cupboards of our hearts empty. A plea born of hope that maybe we are really not alone, that there is more to life than this, that we are truly loved.
It is in that humble poverty that we discover--like He did, arms outstretched on a piece of wood--who we really are. In that poverty we discover our dependence on Someone Else to give meaning to our lives and to our love. The ultimate surrender: letting go of our ego, our false pride, the illusion of our independence, even comforting self-pity or self-loathing. Lord, help me.
We can't do this on our own. It is not really possible to survive the burdens of our lives--the struggles of our families, our jobs, our responsibilities to our parents, our children, our siblings, our neighbors--without the saving power of the Love that created us, sustains us and carries us home at the end of our lives.
The prayers of poverty we utter together are more genuine than anything proclaimed at a political convention. They matter because they come from a place where we are utterly and humbly ourselves, all window dressing removed, all bluster and masks tossed aside, naked in our dependence and pure in our child-like belief that God is really with us, caring about us every single moment of our lives. When we gather to pray like that, it does something to us all. That kind of prayer brings us together, gives us hope, makes brothers and sisters out of strangers, one family out of enemy tribes. THY kingdom come, THY will be done. Lead us not into the temptation of division. Lord, help ALL of us.
It is only in that humility that we receive the response that we actually need. That's why we kneel, prostrate ourselves, bow down when we pray--whether we are a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist. Prayer is submission. It is not about triumph or victory on the battlefield or at the ballot box.
One of his disciples asked Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray’, and Jesus said, OK, listen to me: pray this, and only this. You don’t need anything else:
“Father, great creator of everything and everyone, we honor, we sing and dance and praise your holy name. This is your universe, your kingdom, you’re the boss, and what happens here happens as you want it to, not necessarily as we would want, and so we accept it even if we don’t understand it or like it. Please, we are so hungry: feed our bodies and feed our hearts. Please, forgive us when we forget you and how much you love us. Forgive us when we forget to love you back and then mistreat our brothers and sisters and call them enemies. We will try to be like you when people reject our love: we will love them some more. And, Dear God, creator of our every cell and donor of our every breath—please help us to be pure and holy and righteous in your name, even when we are surrounded and invaded by selfish desires which can take us away from your love. Amen.”