Intercessory Prayer in an Age of Malice
by John Coleman
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The spiritual posture Jesus describes could not be more difficult to maintain. I am to move beyond the rattle and strike of my reptile brain, to take seventy times seven deep breaths when people vex or repulse me. In fact, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot” live out Jesus’ radical mindfulness and compassion. I need a “little help,” as kids used to holler when a foul ball landed near an onlooker who could throw it back onto the field. Nevertheless, the Christian obligation suggested by Matthew 5:43-44 persists. Grace doesn’t make it go away.
Nor should it. We live in an age of malice. In the United States the centrality of love to Christian discipleship has been compartmentalized for millions of us, set in a musty corner to be retrieved only when an appeal to kindness and decency serves an agenda. Worse yet, sisters and brothers who claim to follow Jesus nimbly justify slandering, maiming and even killing those of different parties, races or creeds. The Bible is a roomy document that careless readers now use to provide cover for endless mayhem.
Never in my adult life has Jesus’ command regarding enemies and persecutors been more urgent. Specifically, where his reference to prayer is concerned, intercessions can be one of a Christian’s best antidotes to this young decade’s national venom.
I’ve come to this conclusion slowly, after 30 years of practicing contemplative prayer—light on verbiage, heavy on silence. It wasn’t until last year that I adopted a discipline of praying for folks. Be assured, however, that when I tell parishioners I willpray for them, I always come through. My old friend Ray, who never met an addiction he didn’t test drive, who was as mentally tortured as anyone I’ve ever met, used to leave phone messages for me ad nauseam. “Pray for me, Pastor.” I did, right away.
But one event last spring changed things. A friend of the Coleman family heard a knock at her door just after dawn, opened it, and was shot several times. Abby, a young wife and mother, mightily slammed the door in her assailant’s face. She endured a long recovery, but survived. I was propelled at once into fervent, daily intercessory prayer. This crime, its senselessness and brutality, was of a piece with our distressing age of malice.
I prayed that Abby’s shattered jaw would heal properly. I prayed for her traumatized husband, infant son and family, too, particularly since the shooter was never caught. My list, which began with Ray, Abby and a handful of parishioners, friends and acquaintances, grew from tidy to unruly. Eventually individuals sorted themselves into clusters, which was convenient since remembering them became an issue.
Names came to mind. I let them in. That was all. The evolution of my practice was so natural that I can’t even tell you when the spirit of Matthew 5:43-44 took over. At some point it simply became clear to me that praying for those who give me fits was as important as praying for my loved ones.
I plead for the afflicted, but never say, “So and So is messed up. Please bring So and So around to my way of thinking.” How puffed up would that be? I may well be creation’s most messed up cluster all by myself.
No, I silently speak scores of names—sometimes in the middle of the night—not so that God will do my bidding, but because in the naming something happens to me. And, my Lord, the names. From the powerful to the lowly, from the glorified to the maligned, from the famous to the invisible, from my beloved Kathy the next pillow over to those who steal my sleep.
I have no idea what my intercessions do for others, but I know that each name has a face that arrives when called. We stand together in sacred air, a blessed and neurotic tribe. Each time we draw close and direct our eyes toward eternity, my ill will and anger look down at their shoes and take another step back.
One So and So lashes out because she suffers and doesn’t know how to make it stop. She practically begs for malice, but she won’t get any here. Another So and So is chronically worried and anxious. He gets paralyzed now and then. (Oh, wait, that’s me.)
Does Jesus teach me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me not so much for them but for me? I say, “Yes.” Hating souls isn’t so easy once you’ve invited them to abide with you in God’s presence. But I wonder, maybe my head and heart have gone entirely to seed. I was just thinking that Matthew 5:43-44 gives birth to a sibling for “hatred.” When I pray over and over for an “enemy,” my frail human agape ushers that word to Golgotha, where it belongs.
“And who is my neighbor?” a lawyer asks Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. We all know the answer. In this age of malice, we could do worse than to pray a similar question: “And who is my enemy?” The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew gives us a challenging verdict: “Somebody I should love.” There it is. I see no escape.
There is a bright side, though. The longer I intercede equally for every name, the messier my clusters get. Souls drop out of one and show up in another. Those who could be considered enemies mingle with loved ones. Even the dead refuse to follow the rules. Aforementioned Ray died suddenly in January. For months he was first on my list, and I can’t bring myself to demote him. My parents of blessed memory now visit. “For Mom and Dad,” I say, remembering her beehive hair and his wavy gray.
Although I forget some names, I resist writing them down. My intercessions are a hot mess, just like me. Still, God may do with them what God will. I only know that the place in my chest where hatred makes its fist is unclenching.
Strange thing, how the long arms of Jesus’ exhortations, which can make us feel defeated by their impossibility, have always been meant to take us up into a life-giving embrace—and maybe heal the world. This is most certainly true.