Voracious Deafness

At some point I stopped listening.
I fill my head with news and commentary
To grasp what is happening and why.

Mining more information to know more,
To have more well-rounded opinions that can withstand more argument.
So I read more essays, hear more radio and podcasts, watch more videos.

But it is not listening.
I do not pay attention to the voice,
Only the information.
Only to gain.

To listen is to receive freely whatever is given.
Attending even if nothing ends up said.
Waiting for a word that can only come from silence.
Not biding time until my turn to talk.

That my son or daughters might have something to offer
About trains or school or what the cow says.
That my wife reveals a frivolous beauty.
That creation shares a secret of its ancient wisdom.
That the Voice in the sheer silence may speak.

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But Life

Autumn began dumbfounded in the wake of
Five deaths—three untimely, including a suicide—
And two revelations of probable lurking cancers.
I am short-tempered, yelling too easily at my children,
Angry at long lines and red lights.
I blame the upcoming presidential election.
But death’s mycelium spreading underneath, pushing through with grotesque reminders,
Is the true culprit.

I see my wife and children and dread the day this will all end.
That Springsteen guarantees my baby daughters’ dancing elates me.
I turn on the song and the bouncing commences.
My wife and I clap and laugh.
My son runs in and tells me to twirl with him.
Who am I to deny such an invitation?
As he and I spin like novice dervishes, my wife dances with one daughter who smiles with nine teeth, and the other stretches her tiny long fingers to plink the piano keys.
The Paraclete blows through our living room in the form of rock and roll.
An impromptu dance party.
So much grief and the future and the past forgotten.
Only backbeat. Only guitars. Only movement.
But life. But life.
When the singer asks, “Is there anyone alive out there?”
The five of us answer in the affirmative with our dance.

But Death

I did not anticipate having a child
Would make me think so much
About death.
Sure, I ask the responsible queries concerning
What would happen to my son were I to die.
Thus wills have been written, living trusts created.
But my death thoughts mostly do not concern duty.
Rather something more
Foundational, basic, earthy.

They say we feel settled when three generations exist.
When my father’s heart stopped I was childless,
Standing alone with no generation before or following me.
Only death approached.
I thought, expected, hoped
Having a child would assuage the looming fear.
Not so.
My son does open my eyes to life
With his constant firsts
He is Neil Armstrong and Leif Erikson every day.
I want him to make me forget mortality.
But death. But death.

My son reminds me I have a father and he died.
Each day my son grows I am a day closer.
His gracious and wonderful and very existence
Signifies I am next in line.
He will, God willing, bury me and mourn me.
I do not wish that pain on him,
It merely is the best order this side of the Resurrection.
Gratefully he grounds me.

For November 9, 2016, January 20, 2017, and Beyond

Be shocked, but not naive.
Surprised to the point of action, not stupefied.
Never take this as normal.
No accommodation.
Foster astonishment at evil and good.
Be maladjusted.

Be angry, but do not sin.

Be angry and stand
Be angry and walk
Be angry and listen
Be angry and talk
Be angry and work
Be angry and rest
Be angry and boycott
Be angry and invest
Be angry and laugh
Be angry and weep
Be angry and share
Be angry and keep
Be angry and write
Be angry and read
Be angry and follow
Be angry and lead
Be angry and whisper
Be angry and shout
Be angry and believe
Be angry and doubt
Be angry and sit
Be angry and dance
Be angry and hold
Be angry and advance
Be angry and sing
Be angry and pray
Be angry and move
Be angry and pray
Be angry and love
Be angry and pray
Be angry and hope
Be angry and pray.

Do not grow weary of doing right.

(With thanks to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Apostle Paul.)

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.