BY JOEL MARTIN
My first Sunday at Christ Lutheran in Marine on St. Croix was Feb. 1, 2009, just a few weeks after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States.
Within a few weeks we changed how we published the prayer list in the announcement sheet to include a space to pray for our leaders. So the prayer list stated: “As a community and as individuals we include prayers for our leaders: President Barack Obama and Governor Tim Pawlenty.”
Following worship someone came up to me, and it was easy to see this person was upset. With announcement sheet in hand the person pointed at the prayer list and asked if “this” was going to be in the prayer list each week.
I said it was. Then the person then asked me, “You expect me to pray for President Obama each week?”
I think I said something to the effect that it was up to them, but we were going to include praying for our leaders in the prayer list. They went on to tell me how they really felt about President Obama and how they didn’t know if they could come to a church that prayed for him.
I tried to tell them the list also included the then-governor (whom they liked), and if I had been here a few months earlier the list would have said President Bush as well. After talking for a bit, they turned and left, still angry at the idea of praying for a president they didn’t agree with.
This conversation came to mind recently as we changed the name to President Donald Trump on our prayer list. Sure enough, the first Sunday after the inauguration someone came walking out of church with announcement sheet in hand pointing at the prayer list. “I don’t know if I can do it,” is all they said as they walked away.
So why do it? Why do we include our leaders in our prayers each week? The simple answer of course is, “they need it.” As much as we pray for ourselves, those we love, those we know who are struggling, we also pray for those who have been given the charge of leading our towns, our state and even our country. But I guess to answer the why question of prayer, it comes down to how we understand prayer.
Some view prayer simply as a way to get the things we really want — as if God is some sort of divine vending machine and prayer is a way of pushing the right buttons. And if we “do it right” God will deliver and we will be able to reach down and grab what we want or what we believe we have earned. If this is our understanding of prayer, the reason why we pray for our leaders is to make sure God directs them to do the things we want. Which maybe in the end isn’t so much prayer as it is wishful thinking.
Others of us pray to affirm our beliefs, secretly knowing God believes the same things we believe. The writer Anne Lamott wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” I think we often are tempted to pray to God as if of course God believes the same things we believe, and prayer becomes a way to affirm our thinking, our view of the world, our politics and our understanding of what is right. Following the recent election there were plenty of Christians on television who attested to this understanding of prayer by declaring the results were in fact predetermined because of course God wanted President Donald Trump to win. I wonder though what those same people felt eight years ago when President Obama was elected? Maybe they just didn’t pray hard enough, or maybe God was just busy.
There are other ways of understanding prayer too. For some prayer is a way of lifting up concerns, worries, and questions, and seeking guidance, seeking wisdom, seeking strength, expressing gratitude. While we believe God is everywhere and at work in all of creation, prayer in some ways is asking God to be present here, in this moment, with this person.
For others prayer isn’t about asking God for anything. Rather, prayer is a way to simply be still and be present — in mind, body and spirit. Prayer is releasing and freeing oneself. Prayer then becomes a way of listening “for the still small voice” of God speaking.
Which I guess gets us back to why I think some of us pray for our leaders. We don’t do so in order for them to agree with us, or to see the world as we see it. We pray for our leaders because we hope God might guide them and fill them with wisdom, with strength and with safety. We pray for them to act with justice, mercy and care for all people and all of creation. We pray for our leaders because in doing so we sometimes are able to take a breath, and step back and realize God is at work in the world, in our leaders and maybe most importantly in and through us.
Joel Martin is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Marine on St. Croix.