a prayer for the people

A few months ago I was asked to do the Prayers of the People at my church, and I’m publishing them here, with a few tweaks. I am not often explicit about my faith in these essays, although my understanding of God’s movement toward us with sacrifice, redemption and hope informs all aspects of my engagement with the world. If you are not a fan of Christians, I pray these words will remind you that God is poorly reflected in the people who claim God (maybe don’t blame God because we are the worst?). If you are a person determined to follow Christ, I pray you will remember the way of Christ asks us to sacrifice our privilege, not to hoard it. In any case, these prayers remind me that my love for others is greatly enhanced by prayer. If you find yourself frequently rolling your eyes at humanity, consider beginning a practice of prayer (Perhaps this one can get you started).

Lord, you are the Creator of Life, the Sustainer of our communities, the One through whom we move and live and have our being. You are powerful and strong, and you are gentle and good. You are the God who shows us that strength takes us into vulnerability, for you did not grasp your power, but divested yourself of it by becoming a person. You are the God who shows us that independence serves the community, for you did not establish your kingdom alone, but you allowed a handful of friends to walk with you, imitating you and bearing witness to the salvation and restoration you brought them. I praise you for being a God who puts power aside, who invites us to approach you, who asks us to live lives that bear witness to your name. You are such a good God, and we praise you.

 Lord, our world has learned to accept a status quo of war and fear. I pray that your kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. I pray that you would change the hearts of leaders who sow hatred instead of love, and fear instead of peace. We pray for the people of Syria, for those who live in the Korean peninsula and along the Israeli/Palestinian border, for those who fear kidnappings and violence. We pray for people who live in poverty across the world, who are oppressed by the greed of others. We pray that you would draw close to those with nothing, that you would teach those of us with global power to use our power to value the lives of others.

Lord, I pray for our nation as we struggle with gun violence and fear. I pray that you would whisper into our hearts your common refrain, “Do not fear,” that you would teach us to replace fear with trust, so that all communities know they are valuable to their elected officials and their police forces. I pray for the brave men and women who faithfully work to keep all of us safe. I pray that you would give those who serve in the Congress, Senate, White House, and Supreme Court a deep conviction that they have been given authority in order to serve all the people, including those with little. That our leaders would be like you, resisting power in order to become a servant. I pray for those on the Eastern seaboard who are fleeing the wind and rain of Hurricane Florence. Protect them and plant their feet and families on solid ground.

 Lord, I pray for Nashville as we elect leaders and vote on our priorities. I pray that we could rally to care for each other the way we rallied to cheer on the Preds. We are blessed Lord by wealth and belonging, and it is so easy to forget those who live below the poverty line or who are marginalized by their race, nationality or gender. Lord, I pray that our local leaders in city hall, churches, neighborhoods and schools would begin to embody your command that we love others like ourselves. Teach us what it means to advocate for others, so that we would speak out for kids who are hungry, for families who are displaced by gentrification, for people who are treated as drains on society.  Help us be imitators of you as we learn to build bigger tables with more seats around them. Help us learn to be inclusive in our schools and neighborhoods, so that every person is welcomed with your dignifying, eternal claim: that we all belong to you.

 Lord I pray for churches all across Nashville who are teaching their people what it means to love others in the name of Jesus. For Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church, who is bringing resources and jobs to young people in North Nashville. For Tabernacle of Glory, who is teaching people in the 12th South area how to talk about our history and present tensions with race as we honor the image of God in every person.  I pray for Strong Tower Bible Church, who is partnering with Salama Urban Ministries to bring resources to poor families in South Nashville. These partnerships imitate your partnership with our church, as you have called us to be people who honor the name of Christ by remembering and caring about all the communities of Nashville. I pray that you would continue to teach us how to serve our neighbors, that our name would remind people that you are a God who binds up the broken hearted and comforts those who hurt.

 As we enter a time of corporate confession, Lord I confess that I am often selfish. We have built lives and communities of privilege, so that we don’t have to see brokenhearted people who struggle to make ends meet. Forgive us for forgetting about them. Forgive us for not believing a problem exists because it is not our problem. Forgive us for protecting a status quo that treats us well while oppressing people around us. Forgive us for believing the lie that there is an us and a them. Forgive us for getting defensive when we see the pain and marginalization of people different than us, and teach us to find compassion instead. Forgive us for being peacekeepers, who like things as they are, instead of peacemakers, who are willing to sacrifice our resources so that others can experience the dignity of jobs, affordable housing, engaging schools, and dependable healthcare. Forgive us for loving our surplus, for loving ourselves more than our neighbors.

 You created all that there is, God, and you show your love for us by asking us to create beauty along with you. You are eternal, constantly renewing, and you show us your love by reminding us that we are also eternal beings, called to find sustainable ways to live, to keep talking and sharing, and to keep finding ways to live well with those around us. As your good friend and disciple John said, if we love you we ought to live and walk the way you did. Expose us, invite us, break us, transform us. Amen.

on advent: we need help admitting we need help

In the past month, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with two families as they said goodbye to their beloved, grandmother, sister, wife and friend.  These women lived gorgeous lives, loving and blessing and laughing all the way, each day until they were suddenly taken from us.  Funerals are terrible.  But they are also beautiful. A time to grieve and reflect and honor and remember and thank.  And sometimes, in the most precious of miracles, funerals are a place where deep sadness becomes hope.  Maybe that is why these funerals have helped me become an Advent person. On this, the first day of Hanukkuh, a holiday that remembers when God rescued and restored Israel, miraculously multiplying meager resources, I’d like to argue that Advent is a time to admit we need help, and that this acknowledgment moves us from despair to hope.

As much as I know that binaries destroy our ability to love ourselves and others with the nuance demonstrated by God and required of us, I kinda love them.  I often think of myself as reasonable, and many others as uber-biased, or at least uninformed.  I often think of myself as a person loving people well, while I see selfishness in others.  I often see the vulnerabilities—deficits even—in others, while I see the nobility in my own efforts, and the efficacy in my actions.  These perspectives are utter bullshit, of course.  I am unreasonable, uninformed, selfish, vulnerable and deficit-laden.  In that way, I am human, just as you are human; we should recognize binaries as the toxic delusions that they are. 

Those who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Advent is a season that knows this, although a person could be forgiven for thinking it is a thing designed for comfortable people living in cozy homes, not for people who desperately need to be rescued.  Many of us have sanitized not just the birth of Christ, but His own stated reason for coming.  The truth is that Mary and Joseph were very poor, and very alone, and very far from comfortable people having thoughtful conversations in important places. The truth is that Mary was very pregnant, they were very young, and they were so desperate for rest that they accepted an offer to sleep in a barn.  The truth is that she could have died delivering Him, and it was not at all clear in that moment that this was the protected and predestined moment designed to save the world.  Joseph probably felt the same sense of helplessness and pride that most partners feel when their wives are entering the ring of fire that produces precious life.  It was probably terrible.  And it was probably beautiful too.

I so often act as if Jesus came, angels sang, sheep and cows and horses were super not-terrifying, and the king of the universe became a human.  I add to that misunderstanding of the historical narrative the blasphemy that God sent His Son so that comfortable, American evangelicals could be super clear about who God doesn’t approve of.  That the Messiah came so that awesome self-sufficient people could have awesome quiet times, or so awesome people could attribute to God their remarkable ability to hoard wealth.  When we read the early stories in Luke and Matthew, we know that this understanding of Advent is a deep misunderstanding. 

If we look at the prophecies that predict God’s advent, it becomes clear that the Messiah comes for those who live in darkness, for the burdened and oppressed, for the grieving and captured.  He comes to bring light and ease and comfort and freedom for them.  He comes for those who are ignored, marginalized and abused by the systems that benefit me. 

I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.

When we sanitize the Christmas story and the life Christ lived, it is not just hurtful for those whose vulnerabilities define them to the world.  That outlook also incentivizes the rest of us to act like we are not vulnerable, not in need of rescue; as if we regularly embody our best selves, and our moments of need (stressed, screaming, frantic, cussing, harried, insomniacal gluttons who just want to rest) are few and far between.  But this is not who I am.  

I very much need rescuing, from myself and for myself.  I need to believe in a God who allows me to be a mess, and deeply loved.  I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.  An honest look at Advent begs us to remember the way of Christ—from the beginning—is the way of broken, obscure people who long for recognition and rescue.  The beautiful arc of Christian doctrine tells us that Christ came once into the world to provide an eternal avenue to belonging, and that Christ will return to fully establish the earth as a place where all flourish, where all is made right, where the table is big enough for everyone.  In the meantime, followers of Christ are tasked with joining the child born unto us in His work of justice and righteousness; we live to establish a world where the dignity of every person is assumed, where vulnerabilities are met with compassion, and the grace we all live under is obvious. 

That is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.  God marches right in.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Handel’s Messiah, nestled in the middle of the greatest chorus ever written, lives the line, “The Kingdom of this world, is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and of His Christ.”  This world, this beautiful-ugly place, has been redeemed, is being redeemed and will be fully redeemed by Christ so that all of us will belong.  Margins will not exist, and people will not hide in shadows.  It seems to me that people who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Funerals offer us the unique chance to celebrate a well-lived life.  The chance to make meaning out of our attempt to live with others.  The chance to recognize the best in another.  The chance to collectively acknowledge that we are all barreling toward the end of ourselves.  The chance to acknowledge we need each other to flourish, and that caring about each other actually matters.  Perhaps Advent offers us a similar chance to remember our own deficits, to thank God for coming toward us when we are needy, and to align our actions with God’s approach to humanity.   Advent offers us a chance to hope.  If we are not moving toward hurting people with that hope, we are not following the Messiah.