The Countercultural Act of Praying for the Government

Recently Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, spoke to a group of Christian conservatives (or was it conservative Christians? that’s for another time). In a video posted to Twitter by Bishop E.W. Jackson, Trump says, “Some of the people are saying, ‘Let’s pray for our leaders.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone.’ But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. And we can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes. And it’s a very, very bad thing that’s happening.”

There is a rich biblical tradition of praying for governmental leaders. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments. In my book The Politics of Praise, readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king at what seems to be his coronation. It gives us a picture of what kind of leadership God blesses.

Along with devotional readings on the two psalms, I also wrote a few essays designed to help people enter the world of these amazing prayer poems. I offer you the essay on Psalm 72. I invite you to read the essay, and more importantly, prayerfully read Psalm 72. I hope you will see why and how we are called to pray for all our governmental leaders, which is not something we do, as Trump claims, for the sake of political correctness. Praying for our leaders is in fact a radical act to bring our leaders in line with God’s political agenda of justice and mercy.


The Countercultural  Act of Praying for the Government

In the debate a week before the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan posed the now-famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”[i] Ever since that debate nearly every challenger to an incumbent leader or an incumbent party has asked this question in one form or another. Republican and Democratic candidates alike ask it every election cycle. Many people use this question as their main lens through which they assess how well an elected official does her job. This question perfectly fits our self-centered culture. In the United States we are consumed with self-realization, self-help, self-actualization, rational self-interest, self-assertion, and being self-made.[ii] We think all institutions—like our government, economy, schools, and even churches—exist to help us discover and make the best versions of ourselves.

Reagan’s question is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. It cuts to the core of many of our values and concerns. It is not, however, a Christian question. If we follow the prayer of Psalm 72, we see that we are to assess the quality of a leader’s job by how she uses her power to help marginalized people. Therefore the question we are to ask is not, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” but, “Is my neighbor, especially my poor and needy neighbor, better off than he was four years ago?” Jesus Christ calls us as his followers to focus not our own interests, but on the interests of others, particularly the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.[iii] This is a countercultural move and the ability to focus on the needs of others before our own does not magically appear in us. We have to pray God would shape us into generous and compassionate people. Psalm 72 is a prayer that does exactly that.

The author of Psalm 72 calls us to engage in another countercultural act: praying for our leaders. We have a national pastime of complaining about our government and its officials. We argue about them around dinner tables, at work, and in all forms of media. Political punditry is a giant industry in the United States and those who sling the most mud receive the majority of our attention. These voices demand we support or oppose our leaders, depending on whether those leaders align with the pundit’s positions. We rarely hear calls for us to pray to God for our leaders. Perhaps at the inauguration of a president or at the beginning of a legislative term we might stop and offer a pro forma prayer, but sustained, considered prayer for our government officials is not a discipline that many of us readily practice.

The psalmist calls the people of God to pray for Yahweh’s blessing on our governmental leaders. This prayer will probably cause discomfort. Depending on the leader in power, we may not want to pray, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (72.8). We can quickly think of political leaders throughout history we are glad God did not bless with long reigns. Thankfully, the psalmist does not say the blessings for the leaders are merited simply because they are in charge. In fact, he implies Yahweh blesses those leaders who pursue God’s agenda of peace and justice.[iv]

To the extent a leader pursues God’s political agenda of helping the marginalized, we pray for Yahweh to bless her. We know a governmental leader who stands for what God values, who uses her authority to end oppression and violence, is refreshing to all people, “like rain that falls on the mown grass” (72.6). If an official does not prioritize the poor and needy, we use Psalm 72 as an indictment against her leadership. We hold up this psalm as an example of what godly political leadership should look like. When a leader prioritizes her own career advancement above the good of the community, vilifies the poor and needy, unfairly privileges the rich and powerful (or even the middle class), feeds our self-centered natures, or worse, engages in oppression and violence, we use Psalm 72 as a guide to pray for her repentance.

We should pause for a moment before wading into these psalms. Readers will note the psalmists do not address many of the specific political debates we face today. We receive no instruction on whether we should adopt the liberal vision of a larger government or the conservative vision of a smaller government. The psalmists do not say how much a government should manipulate financial markets. They do not mention whether more power should rest at the local or the federal levels. The silence on these matters means they are open for Christians to debate in good faith and in doing so we have an opportunity to set an example for our society on how to discuss and disagree civilly. But as we debate the shape and size of government, as we consider what laws we should have, as candidates propose their agendas, Psalm 72 gives us a lens through which we evaluate all these matters.

The values the psalmist describes should frame the discussion. God calls all of us to make the case that our political positions will best give deliverance to the needy. If a member of Congress believes businesses should run without much government interference, we who pray Psalm 72 will demand he show how free enterprise can better help the marginalized. If a city council member believes corporations need to be more closely regulated, we readers of the Psalms will demand he show how such regulation can better help the dispossessed. If we are shaped by this psalm, we will ask, “Who primarily benefits from this proposed law? Will this law help people suffering under oppression? What size and shape of government best helps poor people?” As we listen to politicians, we will require they show how their agendas will help our most vulnerable neighbors.

The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146 is available in paperback and the Kindle format at Amazon.com.


[i] Reagan’s expanded on the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” “October 28, 1980 Debate Transcript,” accessed December 21, 2014, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript.

[ii] See Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, for a wonderful treatment showing how praying the psalms takes our focus away from the self and places it back on God.

[iii] See: Philippians 2.4.

[iv] As we pray these psalms we also become aware of the differences between our context and the political contexts when these prayers were written. Psalm 72 in particular raises questions of how we pray for political leaders when the Church is not tied to any particular nation.

The Most Basic Political Practice for Primary Season

“The most basic political practice for us is not voting, it is not petitioning elected representatives. For followers of Yahweh, our most basic political practice is prayer.” —from The Politics of Praise

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With the Iowa caucuses, voters have rendered irrelevant earlier prognostications of which candidates will succeed. We have already seen a number suspend or end their campaigns. Citizens in other states will soon cast their own votes for candidates to become their party’s presidential nominee. Each voter will evaluate which candidate’s values best lines up with theirs.

Do we stop to ask what shapes our values and political commitments? I am challenged by this question when I consider how much time I spend to reading news articles and opinions about the candidates. I believe being an informed voter is essential, but I probably give more energy to political reportage and debate than I do to prayer.

For followers of Christ, ensuring our values stem from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vastly important. It is easy to acquiesce to the loudest voices and uncritically adopt the agendas of candidates or political parties as our own.

Prayer, reflecting on Scripture, and engagement in Christian community are essential practices to make sure our political values reflect the God we worship.

Last year I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

I encourage you to pray through these psalms as you consider which candidate will receive your vote. May we use these psalms as guides to petition the candidates to, “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72.4)

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.

The Most Powerful Verb

Pick up a writing manual or style guide and you will find exhortations for writers to use powerful, active verbs. These guides usually list “to be” and all its forms as one of the weakest verbs writers should avoid. Writing littered with “to be” verbs makes the author appear lazy and unimaginative. Instead of writing, “This pizza is delicious,” one could write the stronger sentence, “This pizza tastes delicious.” In the first example, the sentence only implies the pizza encountering something other than itself. It merely states the pizza is. In the second example, the pizza affects the eater’s sense of taste. The pizza evokes a response from the person eating it.

We would say, “There is a rock,” is a far less interesting sentence than, “The rock plummeted down the canyon wall.” What a shame. In the reality outside the written world, “to be” is the most powerful verb we have. The fact the rock exists at all is far more powerful than its plummeting down a canyon. The rock’s ability to plummet or crush or sit depends on there being a rock in the first place.

All our actions for good or ill, all our successes and failures, depend on our existence. Your abilities to create music, swim in a lake, or hug your family are not greater than the fact that you are. Perhaps we do not consider the wonder of our being because it is not something we accomplished. You did not bring about your existence, you received it. But you are. And that is truly an amazing thing.

We take existence for granted by subordinating it to utility. The tree in my front yard shades our house and it looks nice, but it is not wondrous primarily because of what it accomplishes for my family. Its very existence is something to behold. The tree is at once both gratuitous and necessary. That one tree does not necessarily have to be, yet it does exist all the same. And the very fact that it is, leaves an indelible mark on all reality. The tree is a part of this world and this world would not be the world we know without it.

We unfortunately see the wonder of being rarely and usually when the major turns of life overwhelm us. The birth of a child awakens us to the gratuitousness of existence. This new child comes into the world seemingly out of nowhere and we see her existence as a gift beyond our powers of accomplishment. The death of a loved one reminds us just how necessary that person’s existence was. Their absence forever changes the world and no amount of healing will ever fully replace the gap they left. Birthdays can be annual reminders of the miracle of existence, if we take the opportunity to reflect.

Some languages don’t use the verb “to be” much—it is implied by the syntax of the sentence. But your existence is not a verb implied by the syntax of our world. Your being is both a gift and necessity. Further, your neighbor’s, friend’s, mother’s, co-worker’s, classmate’s, child’s, brother’s, and enemy’s existence is both a gift and necessity. “To be” is truly the strongest verb imaginable.

The Damn Shoes

A prose poem about parenting.

Nothing has humbled me as much as becoming a father. Not my deficiencies as a husband when I see my selfishness firsthand. Not my inability (unwillingness?) to be a good long-distance friend. Not my failures as a pastor when the congregational leaders said they wouldn’t talk with me—and what else did I have to use as a pastor, but words? No, being a dad has revealed just how short my fuse is. How sensitive I can be—a three year-old’s smile fuels me for days, but his rejection is like having someone cut the power to our home. All my skills I pride myself in—responsibility, analysis, reason—mean nothing. I cannot convince him to put on his damn shoes. He screams and writhes about having to put on his damn shoes. And I’m about to throw my own tantrum about the damn shoes. As I go to bed, I pray the examen, and shudder with embarrassment that my desolation for that day is the argument over the damn shoes. And how I stewed throughout the drive to the park, the spins on the tire swing, the tumbles through slides, the return home, about the fight over the damn shoes. I could not calm down. I began to harbor a festering grudge against my son and his damn shoes. When two days later I ask him to put on his damn shoes (minus the profanity) and he does so gladly. And I rejoice, nearly in tears, as if I were watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon. I pick him up, smother him in hugs, and say a prayer of thanks for those damn shoes.

How to Pray for the Nation and its Leaders

Politics of Praise-page001This week Americans will celebrate Independence Day. The number of politicians who have announced their candidacy for President of the United States continues to grow. The Fourth of July offers us the opportunity to reflect on the history, values, and meaning of the United States. The upcoming national election in 2016 demands each of us reflects and expresses our vision for the nation’s future.

For Christians, it is easy to allow the loud voices of our nation and partisan politics to drown out the quieter voice of the Holy Spirit. If we are not careful we will confuse patriotism for America with Jesus’s call to seek God’s kingdom first. We run the risk of letting the platforms of candidates shape our political priorities rather than submitting our priorities to Jesus. In order to keep the values of God’s kingdom clear, and to ensure we are following Christ before a candidate or party, we must engage in that most basic Christian political act: prayer.

Until recently, Christians learned to pray by reading the Book of Psalms. In this collection of prayer-poems we find numerous prayers for the nation and its leaders. The psalms overflow with political speech. The writers show us God’s agenda and teach us how to prioritize it first. They teach us what kind of nations and leaders God blesses.

I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. As we celebrate this July 4th, let us think of the kind of nation God desires. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.