Not Losing Heart: Praying for the Kingdom of God

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” -Luke 18.1

To look around the world today, it’s very easy to lose heart. People are drowning as they cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats to Europe. A once-fine Syrian city is being bombed into rubble. An oppressive and irrational dictator in North Korea has increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. Oh, and the foundations of American democracy appear under threat by an unhinged demagogue who caters to our worst instincts.

In that frame of mind, I went to church this morning and heard a parable from Jesus—a parable that is told so that Jesus’ followers do not “lose heart.” Just what I needed!

But at first glance the answer seems depressing. Apparently, what I need to do not to lose heart is to pray. The parable is about a widow who badgers an unjust judge who finally grants her justice. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18.7) That’s it? In the face of all the truly frightening things in the world, the answer is to keep asking God for justice? God’s justice depends on my asking for it? It can seem an inadequate response.unjust-judgeOne of the primary concerns of the author of the Gospel of Luke is prayer. Jesus is frequently depicted as being at prayer. This parable about prayer appears in no other gospel. And prayer is linked with one other central concept: the kingdom of God. That’s most obvious in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus tells his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom, but there are other places where the connection is made. Shortly before this parable about prayer, Jesus tells his followers not to look for the kingdom of God “with things that can be observed… For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17.20, 21) And how does the kingdom of God come to be among them? By the kind of fervent prayer that is described in the parable of the widow and the judge.

Our common views of prayer seem to involve a person (or people) sitting around (often in silence) and asking God for various things. I don’t think Luke would recognize this. For Luke, prayer is active and engage, an activity in which followers of Jesus come into contact with the world. Prayer is the activity by which the community of Jesus’ followers comes to see the kingdom of God in their midst.

Next week in church we’ll hear another parable about prayer, about a righteous Pharisee and a sinful tax collector. The former prays standing up in the temple, the latter throws himself on the floor. This parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18.9) It’s a reminder about prayer: the prayer that brings about the kingdom is the fervent prayer (like that of the widow) of those who know their need for God’s mercy (like the tax collector). The values and virtues of the kingdom of God are brought about by humble and fervent prayers to live according to precepts Jesus taught.

In the midst of a deeply uncertain and terrifying world, I want not to lose heart. The answer Jesus gives me is to pray. How do we pray? We work for the kingdom in our midst. How do we work for the kingdom in our midst? We pray.

How do the prayer practices of a Christian community you’re associated with reflect the unease and tension which so many of us experience in the world today?

Praying for Paris—and everywhere else?

More than other comparable events, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have led to a critical appraisal of our response. In the midst of expressions of prayer and support, there’s been a consistent thread that has said, essentially, Why don’t we care when this happens in the rest of the world? People point to a bomb attack in Beirut a day before Paris that didn’t generate nearly the same level of attention as Paris. Oddly, a BBC story about the attack on Garissa University in Kenya gained considerable social media momentum. It was as if people were saying by sharing it, “See, I do care”—though the point was somewhat undermined by the fact the attack happened in April.

Hard to project a cedar tree on this canvas.

The disjuncture between the attention paid to Paris and the lack of attention paid to other attacks is used then to make arguments about race, the role of media, our rhetoric of mourning, and much else. Somehow, the focus shifts away from the immediate pain and onto ourselves.

But there is a serious question here: in a world of violent outrages, only some of which receive the full-court press from our media, how are we supposed to respond in a way that seems even-handed and, well, fair?

I’ve dwelt on this question many times in the past as I’ve traveled to various parts of the world that experience great suffering but generally do not merit more than passing attention in media outlets. I’m thinking here primarily of northern Nigeria and South Sudan. But there are other places that, for one reason or another, are close to my heart, if not often in our headlines.

Over time, I’ve adopted this strategy: I’ve jettisoned fairness. I cannot pray for the pain of the entire world in all its variety. Instead, I have consciously committed my attention and prayer life to a handful of locales in the world. I actively seek out news about those places, I keep them in prayer, and I try to be in relationship with people from these places. In some cases, like South Sudan, that means I actually e-mail with (and occasionally call) and know people who live there. In other cases, social media proves to be a helpful tool. With a little searching on Twitter and elsewhere, you can easily find firsthand sources from all over the world to follow and learn from. As the conditions in Burundi have deteriorated in recent weeks, for instance, my Twitter feed has been full of material that has been really helpful in educating me about what is going on there. It’s not the whole story, but it is helpful in some way.

A short list of the locales I pay close attention to includes South Sudan, the Great Lakes region of east/central Africa, northeastern Nigeria, the life of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and the migratory situation in southeast Asia, particularly the Rohingya people of Myanmar. I don’t mean to say these are all equal—there is far less overt violence in the Arctic, for instance, than in parts of South Sudan and each place is a unique and particular context—but for whatever combination of reasons, these places have been put close to my heart.

What this also means is that there are situations in the world I know little about. I wish I knew more about Ukraine or Libya or the opioid addiction crisis in rural America. But my hope is that these places—and any number of others—are close to the heart of other people and that together our prayers can hold the brokenness of the world. I find strength and help in the knowledge that there are Christians in the places I pray for that are praying for where I live.

While I do sometimes wonder if I am narrowing myself unnecessarily, I’ve found that my approach can be empowering. Rather than being overwhelmed by the tide of senseless and seemingly indiscriminate suffering and violence that pops into our news cycles with too little context and too quickly disappears, I am encouraged by the close links I have with particular places that have evolved over time. These close links yield stories not only of pain—which is what the media will cover—but also of hope and new life.

I’ve also found in my own life and that of others that the bonds formed in prayer can often lead to action. Prayer is about a lot more than sitting in silence every so often and sending “good thoughts” someone’s way. In my experience, attentiveness to a particular location can lead to deeper engagement and action.

Christians are called to enter the suffering of the world not simply because it is the “right thing to do.” We are called to enter the suffering of the world because we believe that somewhere, through pain and heartbreak, there is a path to new life. But that path to new life will only begin as it has always begun: in patient, loving attention to the particular circumstances of individual lives around the world.

As the collective body of Christ is attentive to the collective suffering of the world, we may find that we are collectively led into Christ’s new life.