IT ACTUALLY MATTERS
BY BISHOP STEVE BREEDLOVE
JULY 28TH, 2016
Events in the past few weeks have unfolded faster than almost anyone can absorb or reflect on them. ISIS-inspired death and mayhem in Nice, Germany, and now, Kabul; police killings of black individuals and killings of police here in the US; a horrible airport attack in Istanbul; an attempted coup in Turkey followed by fierce clampdown on dissent; the Republican National Convention, and with it, internal controversies and recriminations; the outpouring of apocalyptic-level public reaction to the two presidential candidates. Here in North Carolina, the cancellation of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte because of HB-2 (controversial legislation concerning transgendered people and public bathrooms) reminds us of the ongoing, rights-and-scorn-dominated debate over human sexuality in our country. Issues are coming at us faster than baseballs in a batting cage with the pitching machine set at “max.”
In my devotions this past Wednesday, Psalm 140 presented me with the opportunity to reflect on a Christian’s response to violence. Both Christians and politicians are often derided for responding to violence with “We must pray for the victims . . .” “Pray?! What good does that do? Get out and change things – that’s the answer!” But in fact, in the midst of a life where violence was a constant, David did exactly that: he prayed.
vv. 1-4: “Deliver me (your people) from violence.” Intercession for protection – literal, physical protection – starts David’s prayer. It is personal intercession, which was particularly appropriate for a warrior-king in the Iron Age world of tribal violence. It is increasingly relevant to us today. People we know personally may live in particularly fragile communities, but the spate of random violence in our world means no one is as safe as we used to imagine.
Intercession for protection is especially important for those who are actively in harm’s way. Christians in the Middle East and Africa, police officers, and the military jump to mind. But if we are to pray at all, we cannot forget the unborn and the hundreds of everyday Muslims who are attacked, kidnapped, or killed each month by terrorists in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Somalia. If the people of God are to pray for peace so that the Gospel may advance without hindrance (1 Timothy 2:1-5), we have plenty to pray about. Ask God to give you a specific vulnerable people group to pray for each month, and be sure to include people outside our faith in your prayers.
Remember, we are a kingdom of priests in this world: priests represent the world before the throne of God, and God before the world. Prayer and witness.
vv. 6-7: “May I keep my priorities and focus clear.” David’s personal dependence on the Lord is one of the most obvious messages of the Psalter. God gave humanity unmatched privilege and honor as his image-bearer, but even in that state, before the Fall, we had to depend actively on God by partaking of the Tree of Life. Active dependence on our Creator/Redeemer/Friend is essential to our identity as creatures and Christians. David got that.
David prays it this way: “I say to the Lord, You are my God: give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord! O Lord, my Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle.” I’m not sure that David could have said “I need Thee every hour” more forcefully. Violence called out the immediate need for this level of dependence, but “this level of dependence” was a constant in his life.
We decry the violence becoming endemic to our world, and we pray against it. In addition, leverage it to remind yourself to walk in daily dependence as a way of life.
vv. 8-11: “Stop the violence, O Lord!” David did not fail to pray for the cessation of violence and for justice to be done to its perpetrators. “Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked.”
This psalm makes me wonder if we’re too wimpy in our prayers about violence. We pray generalized prayers, wringing our hands. Instead, should we pray concretely that those who are plotting violence (say in Baghdad, if Iraq is on our hearts) might be miraculously thwarted? Should we pray specifically that terrorists in Belgium fall into their own traps before they can spring them on bystanders at the airport in Brussels?
God invites his people to pray even as he promises to hear our prayers. The effect of praying v/v the sovereignty of God is an interesting discussion, but God cuts through our curiosity with “Ask, seek, knock, and I will hear and respond from heaven.” We can wonder if it is God’s will that violence be reduced or if it is part of his end-time plan, a judgment of turning us over to the results of our own choices. I could only guess at an answer. What I can know (and obey) is 1 Timothy 2:1-5. Our job is to pray for peace, and out of the context of genuine love for people, witness to the only source of true Peace. We leave the cosmic plan of history in God’s hands.
vv. 12-13: “Lord, in particular I remember the afflicted, the unprotected, and the righteous.” While we are bound to pray for all people, the heart of God is particularly attuned to the needy and to his children. Without lessening our call to pray for the sake of the world, we must strengthen our compassionate intercession for two groups, the needy and the righteous, in the confidence that God will hear. In the mystery of prayer, the assurance of protection and deliverance at the end of Psalm 140 is tied to the praying David just prayed. Prayer actually matters.
I was talking to a young man yesterday about politics, and he observed: “The state of things is what we have asked for in our nation.” Probing further, he commented, “As a culture, we have lost any sense, even the most fundamental sense, of a moral center. We have removed the veneer of basic civility that was a gift of our Judeo-Christian legacy. Now we’re stripped down to selfishness.” As I listened, I took it a step further: “The veneer of restraint is gone, and the violence within the heart of humanity is being unleashed.”
Is there nothing left but to let the violence happen? To protect ourselves with even greater walls, bigger guns? The thought crosses my mind out of a verse in 2 Thessalonians 2:7: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.”
However you interpret that fascinating passage, the Church is meant to serve as a restraint to evil, by presence, example, involvement, and above all, by prayer. Contrary to the derision of the world, prayer actually matters.