My heart is heavy today.
News of violent attacks in Beirut, Paris, Baghdad, and beyond have left the world in a state of shock and mourning. Some of the responses to these attacks have themselves devolved into a rhetoric of hatred and violence that, I fear, only fuels the machinery of division and dehumanization that creates the conditions for such violence.
This weekend’s news comes after a week of challenge for our students here in Washington, DC. Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian posters put up on campus at American University — clearly aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear — called for an interfaith response. Threats of violence against our neighbors at Howard University, purporting to be in retaliation for recent protests at the University of Missouri, led to expressions of solidarity here at AU. I have been impressed and grateful for the way that our students have responded to these incidents with support, solidarity, and community. At the same time, my heart has been troubled by the continuing need for such responses.
All of this, just in the past week. Not to mention the Syrian refugee crisis, numbing in proportions and seeming to worsen every day. Not to mention increased levels of violence and repression in Palestine and Israel. Not to mention the litany of school shootings that seems to grow month to month. Not to mention all of the many places in this world where hatred and division seem to be winning out over love and peace.
The news of tragedy mounts, and it can feel paralyzing. What can we do in the face of such violence? How can we respond?
Of course, we pray. We join together in prayer for all victims of violence and for all those mourning the dead. We pray for peace and for justice. We pray that God will stir up in us a concern for our common humanity and a love for neighbor, even a love for those who would declare themselves our enemies. We take a moment to intentionally extend our compassion to those in pain, even and especially because many of them are strangers to us.
But is this enough? Is it enough to pray, or is more called for?
In one sense, no — prayer is not enough. Action is needed. But in another sense — yes, prayer is enough. For Christians, the spirituality that we express in prayer is an orientation toward and a communion with Jesus Christ. And this Jesus to whom we pray is called Emmanuel, “God with us.” This Jesus stands in solidarity with all those who are victimized and oppressed, all those who are hurting and mourning, all those who are afflicted and sorely pressed. When we read the story of the Crucifixion, we are reminded that in Christ God stands in solidarity even with those feel forsaken or abandoned by God.
When we pray, we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit of Christ, which is always the Spirit of solidarity, of reconciliation, and of love in action. Prayer is an expression of solidarity that leads us into further action; and, conversely, our actions of solidarity and advocacy are expressions of prayer.
For those of you who are regular attendees of our United Methodist-Protestant worship services in Kay Spiritual Life Center, you have probably heard me conclude prayers like this: “When we don’t know how to pray, God’s Spirit cries out within us in sighs too deep for words.” I didn’t invent this phrase — it’s just an adaptation of the words of the Apostle Paul, from his letter to the church in Rome:
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27, NRSV translation)
Just before these lines, Paul writes of hope in the midst of the suffering of creation:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For by hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:22-25)
All creation is groaning with strife. This past week, we’ve heard those groans in a most loud and painful way. And in the face of division and tragedy, it is often difficult to know how to pray, much less what else can be done. Yet Paul links the groaning of creation in the midst of suffering with the groaning of our own hearts in prayer. When we join together in prayer for those who are hurting, we link ourselves to the cries of creation and find ourselves, there, in the heart of God. Prayer links us to Christ in solidarity with the groaning of creation.
Prayer is solidarity. And solidarity is prayer.
One of the central tasks of the Christian community is to proclaim good news — and it is difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, to do so when faced with such a proliferation of tragic news. Yet I am reminded, today, of the Apostle Paul’s words — that in the midst of the suffering of creation, there is something being born, something being brought to life — the hoped-for redemption, not only of humanity, but of the cosmos.
This evening, we will come together in worship as we do each Sunday. We will pray, as we do each Sunday. In the words of pastor and hymn writer Fred Kaan: “For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord; for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords; to a life in of love and action help us rise and pledge our word.”
May our prayers join together with the prayers of the world, with the groaning of creation, and lead us out into the world as a sign of solidarity and love in action. And as we go into the world, may we be reminded of Jesus’ promise to us, as written in the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel:
“Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Grace and peace be with us all,
Associate United Methodist Chaplain