Pastors like myself tend to use analogies a lot. Jesus did it, so we do it. Analogies help us to try and make finite sense of the infinite God. Because of that, all of our analogies will inevitably fall apart. You can only push an analogy so far before it collapses under its own weight.
This image of things falling apart under their own weight popped into my head after reading a headline this morning: “Jerusalem: Netanyahu expects EU to follow US recognition.” According to the BBC article that followed the headline, the European Union in fact has no intention of changing its stance… leaving the US out on a limb, as it were.
Once upon a time, the US would lead and the world, for the most part, followed. If we are honest, it was largely because we have the biggest guns and have shown our willingness to use them. But our democracy, at least until the extreme polarization of the parties kicked into high gear, was one that was respected; even if they didn’t always agree, much of the world saw the wisdom in a government of, for, and by the people.
But now that image has changed. It has collapsed under its own weight like a bad analogy. We (and I say “we” even though it was a unilateral action from our Commander and Chief, because for the rest of the world, “we” are one in the same) – we, as the United States, have stepped out onto a limb. The country for whom we stepped out onto that limb has expected that, with our support, the other nations would follow. But as Trump and Netanyahu held hands at the end of that branch expecting applause and other countries to line up to join them all they heard were crickets (and the sound the crickets were making was that of their palms hitting their faces).
Believe it or not, though, this article is not about government overreach. I’m not trying to push a political agenda. The headline on BBC this morning made me think. When things like this foreign policy debacle or any of the violent tragedies happening around the world we begin to feel helpless and hopeless. We feel like there is nothing we can do — at least, I feel that way. I can’t go back in time. I can’t throw a lot of money at the problem and hope it goes away. But that doesn’t mean we are helpless. And it certainly doesn’t mean we are without hope. We can, should, and must do something.
The first is pray. I know we say it all the time. I know it feels cliché to pray in the wake of a tragedy because in our cultural mindset praying is what we do when all else has failed or we cannot think of anything else to do. We say that we will pray for Paris or Orlando or Israel and Palestine. And A lot of the time it seems like it does no good. Tragedy strikes, and we pray, and then tragedy strikes again, and we pray some more… and tragedy rears its ugly head yet again. And we get sick of seeing the “thoughts and prayers” posts on Facebook and Twitter. We get sick of seeing it because it seems impractical and utterly useless.
Friends, I am telling you now that prayer is vital; it is not an idle act. I think the problem comes when we say we will pray and then stop there. We stop with merely saying the words “I’ll pray for you” and consider that as a sufficient prayer. We don’t actually devote time to doing what we can to help that prayer be fulfilled. Or perhaps, when we say “prayer,” what we really mean is “I’ll think about it and feel bad;” invoking God’s power and mercy doesn’t ever enter our minds. Maybe somewhere along the way we began to equate the idea of “my heart goes out to you” with prayer. But that’s not prayer, that’s empathy… and empathy is good, but it’s not prayer. It’s not bringing your heart before God and laying it bare.
So the first step we need to take is to actually pray. Talk to God. Yell at God. Scream at the top of your lungs to the Creator of the universe. Make yourself heard.
After that, the next step is to shut up and listen. Even if we have been taking the time to pray, it is a rarity for us to remember to wait and listen for God’s response. It can come in an idea or in a word from a friend. It can come in a still small voice or in a thunder storm. But if we are not expecting it, if we are not looking for it, we will never hear it. And it is in that hearing of God’s response where we are most likely to figure out what step three is.
Prayer is not just about telling God what we are worried or upset about. It’s also about waiting for God’s direction. When another pastor takes the time to explain a problem to me in their church and wants my advice, when a married couple comes to me for marital council, when my kids bring me their worries – first I listen, and then I speak.
It is the same with God. (Yes, that was an analogy. That particular analogy breaks down immediately because in it I am God, and nobody is blind enough to confuse us!) When we bring our worries and our problems to God, there comes a point where we need to stop and wait and listen.
Then move. Hear what God has for you and do it. Don’t dawdle. Don’t wait and see if someone else is going to do it. If God has directed your steps in a particular direction, God wants you to move in that direction.
So pray. Pray for Jerusalem. Pray for our president. Pray for peace in the world (especially during Advent and Christmas time). Pray for your friends and your enemies. Pray. And then listen for God’s response. Look for it. It doesn’t always come immediately and audibly like in a conversation. But keep your eyes open, expect that response and you will receive it. And then move. Do the will of the God you love and serve. It might mean you send money or go on a mission trip. It might mean you volunteer at a shelter or start a new ministry in your church or community. It might mean that you start by getting to know the person who lives right next door.
Prayer is powerful, but only when we use it. Pray. Listen. Do. Then watch the heavens open and grace and mercy and peace cover the face of the earth.