How does one pray in an age marred by terrorism? What words do I use, and for what do I ask?
When I recognize my poverty in knowing how to pray, it is reassuring to remember that my prayers are merely one part of the prayers of the church across the world. Each Sunday the sun’s rays sweep across the earth as dawn spreads slowly across the globe, and God’s people rise to pray. My prayers, feeble as they are, are one part of this great cry that comes before the Lord. And each day this reality is repeated. I can believe my prayers are significant but know they are not the final word, and that is a mysterious and gracious comfort. Other believers may know far better than I how to pray in an era of terrorism—after all, some of them live where the attacks have occurred.
It is even more reassuring to remember that the apostolic tradition passed on to us in the scriptures recognized we would at times be wordless when words seem so necessary. It would be at those moments, St Paul wrote, that “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” (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit, Calvin says in his commentary on this text, has “annexed prayers to the anxious desires of the faithful.” As I sigh, he sighs, and his intercession is a reality beyond words in which my soul can rest.
And The Book of Common Prayer has a prayer that I have found helpful in an age of terrorism. I was raised in a tradition that scorned written prayers, but I have come to see that at times spontaneous prayers are insufficient. Often my heart’s cry is best articulated not by my bumbling, inarticulate thoughts but by the words of a psalmist or by prayers written and honed over centuries of use. This prayer is “for our enemies,” and when I found it I knew what my heart desired so desperately to say:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
All my spontaneous prayers on the topic had mentioned the victims, the first responders, the victim’s families and colleagues, the authorities, even the perpetrators—but had ignored me. (Full disclosure: I mentioned myself in requesting safety.) This prayer, however, insists they, namely the terrorists (!), and I are fellow creatures, fellow sinners, and will both stand before God as Judge, in equal need of grace and salvation.
The notion that I would be tempted to similar sins as the terrorists is offensive to me, and rather convicting. If I were only a citizen of America it would be simpler, but I have sworn allegiance to the Lord, Jesus Christ, and to his kingdom. This means I am, in St Peter’s terms, one of the Christian “aliens and exiles” in residence here (1 Peter 2:11). That does not mean I will not care for the proper defense of America, but it certainly means my priorities and values must be tuned to a very different standard than that embraced by my pluralistic, post-Christian society. My society need only consider stopping them, killing them if necessary. I must also consider that they bear the image of God and so are persons whom I am called to love and win, even at the cost of my life.
So, I have been praying this prayer, and praying that I mean it as I read the words.