This is the very question that my colleague Steve and I have wrestled with for months. As we spent time in thought and conversation and reading Scripture, we kept coming back to a way forward that seemed too simple, almost trite. We feel called to pray.
Pray? Isn’t that the Christian cop-out? That’s what we say when we don’t know what to say or what to do: “I’ll pray for you” (and then we often don’t). Or it’s our last resort when we feel like we’ve run out of other options. I think that is more a reflection of our weak theology of prayer than it is of prayer’s efficacy. We use prayer as a last resort because, in our heart of hearts, we fear that prayer is no real choice at all.
The Bible paints a different picture, though. Prayer is woven throughout the Bible, from Genesis right through to Revelation. The Book of Psalms is Israel’s prayerbook. Before he walked on water, before he fed 5,000 people, before he drove out demons and healed the sick, Jesus “withdrew to a solitary place to pray.” The apostle Paul encourages the early Church over and over again to pray: for him, for one another, for the speedy return of Jesus. If the Bible is rich with prayer, why aren’t we?
What keeps us from praying effectively.
What lies at the heart of my struggle with prayer is my selfishness. Far too often, my prayers are little more than a list of requests, bordering on demands, that blur the line between a wishlist to Santa and a ransom note. I show up, spew out a bunch of things I want God to attend to, and sign off. No wonder it seems like such a weak response to graver things. Prayer isn’t the problem; I am.
When we look at prayer in the Bible, we notice that so many prayers are other-focused. They are prayers on behalf of other people, asking God to intervene in the circumstances of people experiencing suffering, marginalization or oppression. These are prayers that have power. They are prayers that boldly ask for God to be God; for God to show up. They are prayers for justice.
At the center of God’s heart is justice. God desires to set things aright. The biblical word for that is shalom–the way things ought to be. Throughout the biblical story, God shows up on the side of those who are being oppressed, those who are the victims of things not as they ought to be. The mandate given to the people of God is to be a people of justice.
Interceding for the marginalized
In Israel’s day the oppressed and vulnerable were the poor, the widowed, the alien, the slave. Jesus expanded that group to include the sex worker, the disabled, the chronically ill, those cast out by the powers and principalities that sought to advantage some while disadvantaging others. We have many of those same groups of “others” among us today. We still have the poor among us. We still have widows and aliens and sex workers and the chronically ill and the disabled. We have identified other groups, too. We have those who are excluded from our society because of their race or gender or sexuality or legal status.
To be a people of justice is to act with and on behalf of those in our society who are vulnerable to injustice. There are thousands of verses in the Bible that speak to God’s desire for justice. These must be the basis for our prayers as we move into this new chapter. We must turn to God and ask God to be God, to bring justice for the vulnerable, and we must also act. Prayer isn’t inaction, prayer is the fuel of action.
To that end, my colleague Steve and I put together a lectionary of Scripture verses on justice comprised of verse of Scripture a day for four years. If you’re not sure how to pray for our country as we enter into an unprecedented era of leadership, we hope this book will be an excellent resource. 100% of the net proceeds from the book are being donated to Church World Service to support their work resettling refugees and advocating for immigrants in the United States.
Over 1,400 times in Scripture that we are reminded of who God is, what God desires and who God desires us to be. It begins today. The book revolves around seeking justice for the marginalized and includes quotes from people like Oscar Romero, Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Christena Cleveland, Lisa Sharon Harper, Henri Nouwen, John Perkins, Martin Luther King Jr., Shane Claiborne, Miroslav Volf and many, many more.
This book is an invitation to pray and an invitation to act. To achieve true justice, we can’t look to the systems of our world but rather, dive deep into the heart of the One who is just. Will you commit to joining us in prayer?
Praying for Justice: A Lectionary of Christian Concern (Barclay Press, 2017) is available through the Barclay Press Bookstore or Amazon in print and Kindle versions.