Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
There have been so many disturbing instances of violence during the time that I have been praying with and reflecting on these readings. I watched video of a black man named Alton Sterling being killed by police in Baton Rouge, LA. I saw the moments after Philando Castile was shot by police in Falcon Heights, MN. I awoke one morning to learn that five police officers had been killed in Dallas. I watched the coverage unfold as we learned that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel had killed over 75 men, women, and children by driving a truck into crowds of people who had gathered on the Promenade des Anglais to celebrate Bastille Day in Nice. What are we to do in the face of so much violence and injustice? This week’s readings offer two answers: we must pray, and we must be persistent.
In this Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. The prayer he teaches them is very much about their needs and the needs of this world. We are to ask God for the bread we need to live. We are to seek God’s forgiveness and forgive others. We are to pray that God’s Kingdom may come.
Recent events have helped me to see again how that prayer is at once a prayer of lament and petition. It is a prayer of lament because praying “your kingdom come” conveys our awareness of the great chasm between the world in which we live and the shape of God’s Kingdom. That awareness causes us to mourn. As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote in Lament for a Son, “the mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence.”
It is a prayer of petition because we stand before God knowing that real justice and peace can only come by grace and God’s own action. “Your kingdom come” is a plea for help. It is a calling out to God to comfort the afflicted and to right the wrongs of this world that we seem incapable of fixing ourselves.
I have a deep ambivalence about prayers of petition. I tend to agree with William May who wrote in The Physician’s Covenant that “Prayer is not a means, not even a ‘means to make God present.’ It attends to God; and as it does, it discovers in memory and hope that God is present. To treat prayer as a means to some other good than the good that belongs to prayer makes prayer a superstition and trivializes God…” And yet, in this week’s gospel there is the unmistakable message that we are to ask, and ask again, and ask yet again for what we need. “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” But those who are desperate for God to answer their prayers – especially those who cry out in the midst of injustice – might ask why God has not yet opened that door despite so many years of persistent knocking.
There is no good answer to that question. Perhaps the best lesson we can glean from the scriptures this week is that we must keep trying. In the end, the Lord’s prayer is not only one of lament, and petition, but also a call to action. Not only our words but the way we live in the world should be seen as a prayer for God’s Kingdom to come. With the Psalmist, let us pray: “Though I walk amid distress, you preserve me; against the anger of my enemies you raise your hand. Your right hand saves me. The LORD will complete what he has done for me; your kindness, O Lord, endures forever; forsake not the work of your hands.”