Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men 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
Our Bishop Mark was in a congregation that had gathered to hear Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa preach not long after the end of Apartheid. Bishop Tutu began his sermon by saying, “First of all, I want to thank the United States for bringing Apartheid to an end.” There was a quizzical moment of silence. Tutu continued, “In the middle of the struggle there were times that I thought that our cause was hopeless. But then, one day I got a letter from an American nun. She wrote to tell me that every morning she woke up at 4am and prayed that Apartheid would come to an end. I was so happy! When I read that I knew: Apartheid didn’t have a chance.”
This week after the election has included pictures in the news of swastikas spray painted on cars and Jewish cemetery walls. Students in a school in Pennsylvania walked through the halls with Trump signs while chanting “White power!” and a church sign in Maryland was defaced with the words “Build the wall!” A colleague of mine who used to be a priest in this Diocese found a letter on his windshield in Burlington, Iowa addressed to “Fr. Homo” asking him how he felt to have Donald Trump as his president and ending with “America is gonna take care of your faggity ass.” A Muslim woman running for a spot on the School board in S. Brunswick, New Jersey put a sign on her lawn and it was defaced with the words “Isis Sympathizer”. Our President Elect expressed surprise and dismay about the surge in hate crimes that have occurred since his election. During an interview on 60 Minutes he spoke specifically to people enacting hate crimes in his name and told them to “Stop it.” Almost simultaneously, he appointed a man with a seal of approval from the former leader of the Klu Klux Klan to be his Chief Strategist.
Unlike you, I pray professionally. I might not be an expert like a cloistered nun, but even so, I’ve been at it long enough that on a bad day I’m usually competent and on good days my prayers can even be impressive. Not lately. If you were at church last Sunday you probably noticed I was holding onto the pulpit to preach instead of standing in the aisle like I always do. I was kind of relieved when my next door neighbor told me she went to her church because she really needed to hear where God is in our post-election common life. I asked if she got what she needed and she smiled wearily. “Well, I heard one thing I needed to hear on Sunday: my pastor isn’t Jesus.”
Are you having the same problem that my clergy colleagues and I am having? Do current events make you feel like you’ve suddenly woken up in an alternate universe and you’re at a loss about how to respond? Are you angry, grieving and worried about what will happen next? And when you pray, do you find yourself wondering where to begin?
St. Paul has words of comfort for us in Romans. He says not to worry; when you don’t know what to pray the Holy Spirit does. Even if all you can muster is longing, offer your longing as a prayer and know this: it’s not only you who prays to God- it’s also God who prays in you. Ask Bishop Tutu. Apartheid crumbled just like any wall we build will be knocked down because when we pray God prays in us, and when God prays in us, things happen.
Speaking of which, God prayed in a couple hundred people from probably a dozen religious traditions who gathered at the Islamic Center of Jersey City on Sunday afternoon. Ahmed Shedeed, The President of the mosque, who came to visit with us on one Sunday during Epiphany welcomed everyone and in his opening remarks said, “I almost feel like I should thank Mr. Trump for bringing us all together.” What followed were reflections from Sikh and Hindu Scriptures, mini homilies from pastors, gorgeous chanting of the Koran in Arabic, and singing by the choir of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. It was one, long, collective prayer and in it God brought God’s Kingdom a little closer to earth.
Over the coming months, let’s pray that as a nation we will see all strangers as family we haven’t met yet. And may God pray so hard in us that this becomes true.
PS: Here’s a link to song sung by the United Synagogue of Hoboken on Sunday night. Enjoy!