Ripples of Compassion

This week my heart has been in Samoa, with friends and strangers who have experienced firsthand the devastating effects of a Pacific tsunami. We prayed for Samoa on Sunday, twice in fact, because two of the folk contributing to the service led intercessory prayers along that line. These days, intercession is not always a component of the "liturgy" at our local church. This is not just a Kiwi thing; I noticed the same trend at the three different services I visited while in the USA. Worship is focussed on us, and God, often in that order, and the notion of turning our thoughts to needy folk in our community, and in farflung places in God's world, seems to have gone out of fashion. Perhaps the old-style intercessory prayer, where someone prayed for five long and boring minutes for every needy situation in myriad places around the world, wasn't the best way to focus our spiritual energy. But I have to admit I miss that ingredient in Sunday worship. Intercession for people other than my own family doesn't come naturally to me, and I appreciate being guided into that concentrated compassion and concern that is evoked by publicly praying for others. Our prayer leader on Sunday is a gifted intercessor, and leads one of the prayer ministries at church, so I wasn't surprised that she would prompt us to pray for the families tragically hurt by the huge wave of destruction that hit Samoa's south coast, and parts of other islands, on Wednesday.

I have visited Samoa, and was taken by my hosts on a van tour of the island of Upalo. We drove through the picturesque coastal villages with their beach fales (summerhouses), and I later said to family members what a great place it would be to take a holiday (one family member is Samoan herself). The devastation we have seen on television is more than a physical disaster; it is social, emotional and economic as well. Our compassion prompts us to prayer, and we long to bring these hurting folk to God in some meaningful way. But what is that way? How do you pray for folk you have never met, whose names are unknown to you, and at whose situations and needs you can only guess?

"Intercession is a way of loving others," says Richard Foster. It moves our centre of gravity away from our own issues to the needs and concerns of others, and brings us into the Priestly ministry of the People of God. In that sense, Foster says "nothing is more important" than engaging in outwardly-focussed prayer, by which we are privileged to make a difference in the ongoing work of God's kingdom. Sounds good, but in my reading this week, I found some who would disagree. For example, the Reverend Raymond Lawrence, Episcopal priest and chaplain at a New York hospital,  wrote in the New York Times that Intercession represents "a less-respected magical wing of religion," and rejects any notion that prayer can influence specific events in people's lives. He even claims that twentieth century theologians Paul Tillich and Karl Barth "would have scoffed at the idea." I was somewhat taken aback by this view, which I found held by other Episcopalians, considering the place that intercessions play in the Anglican prayerbook, eg weekly petitions for blessing on the Heads of government. Lawrence does concede that "prayers are expression of empathy that strengthen a caring community and bring comfort to the suffering" but I wondered whether the strong Biblical tradition of praying for others in a specific way could be simplified down to this humanistic explanation.

Throughout the Scriptures we see people modelling the role of intercessor: Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, Peter, Paul and Jesus.  God reveals himself as One who is not only approachable but who delights to listen to the prayers of his people; followers of Jesus are encouraged to present their requests to God. Going deeper into the theology of prayer, however, does remind us that intercession does not work like a magic wand, as if we were the god. "Faith prays," said Luther, "in such a manner that it commits everything to the gracious will of God; it lets [God] determine whether it is conducive to his honour or our benefit." Prayer is a mystery that is answered in God's way and God's time, and it may not be the result we had in mind at all. Sometimes, the Spirit's work is to change me, to make me care more, and to remind me of how I can be part of the answer myself.

Philip Yancey in his perceptive look at some of the conundrums faced by praying Christians admits to having lots of questions about intercession, but says he has come to see them as "God's interrogation" of him, asking what he is doing to help bring about God's rule (p 266). Rather than beseeching God to do something he wouldn't otherwise do, intercession starts with the conviction that God wants the best for everyone, and uses our prayers to partner with him in distributing that compassionate love. The person and work of Jesus is central to that partnership; our prayers are only powerful because the Spirit intercedes for us. We are saved "not because of works " but because of Christ, and we are heard, not because of works but because of Christ (see Foster p205 ) God is the primary pray-er, and when we turn to pray, it is to join in the prayer that is already going on in God's heart for the world. Such selfless compassion doesn't come naturally to us, says Yancey, so we must ask God to fill us with his deep love, to give us a new awareness of human need, and a willingness to change our own attitudes and behaviour. Lest you think that just sounds like a more spiritual version of Raymond Lawrence, let me affirm that Yancey believes intercessory prayer can change circumstances as well as people, and he cites the dramatic overturning of the Berlin Wall and South African apartheid as examples of situations where sustained Christian prayer literally changed the world.

So how do we pray for a tragedy like Samoa? I looked up the petitions of people like the Pope and the Dalai Lama, who have publicly called for prayer for the people who are suffering there, and in Sumatra. They were so nebulous I didn't find them helpful. For me to be able say "Amen" to an intercessory prayer, there needs to be some degree of specificity. A general "God bless" seems a bit pointless. Last night at home group, a friend described her prayerful response to the gruelling photos and interviews we have been seeing, and certainly being able to visualise that devastated coastline has helped illuminate my requests. I did find a helpful resource online, dating back to Hurricane Katrina. This 31 day diary prepared by the United Methodist Church offered me some useful petitions, such as "God, equip ministers and counsellors as they tend to spiritual and emotional needs of victims" and "protect the innocent from those who commit evil in the wake of  disaster". Like Jonathan Edwards, I cannot count it as prayer unless I can authentically hope that God will answer it (Resolution 29). I don't believe I am called to shoulder the burden of praying for everyone and everything. But when the Spirit nudges, (or bellows!) I employ Margaret Silf's simple description of intercessory prayer as "drawing people and situations into the circle of God's love." At times I will also pray in tongues, especially  in face of unimaginable terror, such as that being felt in Auckland tonight, as police search for a two year old girl, seemingly abducted some days ago.

Yancey notes we shouldn't "rush to a happy ending." The Bible doesn't. More than half of the psalms are laments, crying out to God in the midst of seemingly unheard petitions and unanswered prayers. Jesus' most passionate prayer was the one to which God said "No." The other person who prayed for Samoa in our service on Sunday remembered that. He offered to God a lament on behalf of the people of Samoa, but he also brought into the light of God all those in our own community who have suffered recent loss - loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of children - and helped us embrace that experience as part of the authentic human journey. We are in the "already but not yet" of the kingdom, and at times the waiting for the denouement can be excruciating. Alan E. Lewis calls this the experience of Holy Saturday. Praying to God for our daily bread, and for deliverance of ourselves and others from evil, he says, is "an act of defiance against the social and spirtual status quo" ( p 307). The human race, supposedly so selfsufficient, is in reality unable to liberate itself, heal its disease, comfort its fear, solve its problems or control its destiny. In our uttered prayers, and especially in the speechlessness we experience in face  of global tragedy, he says, we enter that abyss called Holy Saturday, when time stopped and the Word himself was silenced. Then we can only wait for the "who knows what" of tomorrow, trusting in the power of love, and the fresh possiblities of hope.

Jesus said we are to pray always and not lose heart (Luke 18: 1). Prayer is a conversation with a trusted friend, an all-powerful, all loving, compassionate one, who does not have to be persuaded to care. He already has those desperate people in his heart, with every tear collected and recorded (Psalm 56:8). Prayer is about relationship and dependence and trust and love. Mostly it is about aligning our hearts with the wideness of God's mercy, and perhaps being used by him to send out another ripple in the deep ocean of his love.

To Chew Over: How have you responded to the tragedies of recent weeks? Has prayer been a resource or a channel for sharing God's compassionate concern?

Tell my people I love them,
Tell my people that I care
When they feel far way from me,
Tell my people I am there
Tell my people wheree'r they go
They can my comfort know
My peace and joy and love
I freely will bestow
Tell my people I love them,
Tell my people that I care
When they feel far way from me,
Tell my people I am there
Tell my people who grieve and mourn
That I allowed the night
of darkness to descend,
But I am still the light.
Last verse written by Guy Jansen after the Erebus disaster.