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Monday, August 29, 2011

Prayer and the Evening News

My wife Candy is a news-junkie. If I go for too long looking only at, I’ll miss some major story and Candy will say, “Don’t you know what’s going on?” I’ll say, “Of course! My beloved Detroit Tigers are still in first place.”

“No,” she says, “The Tsunami.”

“What Tsunami?” I reply.

That’s rare. Usually I glance at any number of online sites –; the New York Times online; Reuters. Maybe you go online or use a mobile app for news. Maybe you watch TV. But what does the news have to do with prayer?

Last week, one of the main points was turning to God in all interactions with people, in relationships and run-ins with strangers. But interpersonal meetings aren’t the only in-take we have. Media writes it message on brains. We need God to help us process the things we read. Also, we pray because our prayers impact the world.

As I write this, I look at the main page of The New York Times website. There is a story about a presidential candidate. In 2012, our country will vote on our top elected office. How should I, as a Christ-follower vote? There is a story about the economic woes in Europe. How does that relate to the United States? We have had our own struggles. Do I know people who have lost jobs? How does God want me to respond to this news about the wealthy “1st world,” struggling as we are? Reading the news should drive me to prayer. I want God to inform and shape my own response to the world.

Also, I need to do my part. Revelation 8:3, John in heaven sees an altar and on it are the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3). My prayer, your prayers – our prayers go up before God who hears and responds. I don’t know how to connect my specific prayer to God’s specific response. It is a mystery. But I am sure God hears our prayers and acts on them, and I am equally sure there is a negative consequence when we fail to pray. Of course, God is the sustainer and he won’t fail for absence of our prayers. But our prayers make a difference. Consider the Gospel of Matthew, 7:7. Jesus says to his followers, “Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find; knock, and the doors will be opened.” When I read the news, what am I to ask? What difference will my prayer make in the world? None if I don’t pray at all.

Whether it is NPR or Fox news, as responsible Christians and responsible citizens we need to be informed. As devoted Christ-followers, we pray over the news. The amazing happens when we do that. God speaks. The Holy Spirit speaks to us when we pray as we watch the news.

Moreover, as we pray prayers of intercession, we participate with God as God is involved in the events that are happening in the lives of people all over the world. In ways only known to God, our prayers make a difference.

In this process, justice is a core issue. When disasters hit, it seems the poor are always hit hardest. In Eastern Africa right, people are starving to death, but not all people. The poor suffer. Not the government; not the leaders of the extremist group Al Shabib. The poor. That’s a justice issue and we read about it daily in the news. In Syria, people crying for democracy are killed by government tanks. That’s a justice issue. Unemployment is on the rise in our country. That’s a justice issue. We can quickly flip over to the sports page. But God is more interested in the news that is dark.

- So in our reading do we go where God is or where it is more comfortable, less invasive on our conscience?

- As we flip through websites, do we spend time following God’s lead, concerned about injustice and how antithetical it is to the kingdom as God is concerned about injustice, or do we spend time getting our fantasy teams ready for the upcoming football season?

How we answer these questions is a commentary on our prayers lives and the condition of the relationship we have with God.

If we know God then we know God does not tolerate such inequity. God allows free will, humans with free will sin large and sin often, sins at the societal level lead to widespread suffering, but that does not mean God is indifferent, passive, or incapable of intervention. We read of the Lord’s servant, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Is. 42:4). I believe Jesus fulfilled the role of the suffering servant described in Isaiah. He himself in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6).

Isaiah 51, also about God’s servant, elaborates God’s response to bad news. This prophecy came against the backdrop of God’s people having turned away from the plan he had for them. The Chosen People consistently turned from God to idolatry as they envied powerful neighboring kingdoms. Eventually the northern Kingdom of Jews, Israel, was assimilated into Assyria. Judah, the Southern Kingdom was taken into exile in Babylon. This is 6th century BC. Isaiah is speaking to a people who fear that God has given them up and that their only future is slavery. God’s response is one of promise.

I read from Isaiah 51 in the New Revised Standard Version. Listen to the same passage in a couple of other translations.

Here is Isaiah 51 in the Amplified Bible

4Listen to Me [the Lord], O My people, and give ear to Me, O My nation; for a [divine] law will go forth from Me, and I will establish My justice for a light to the peoples.

5My rightness and justice are near, My salvation is going forth, and My arms shall rule the peoples; the islands shall wait for and expect Me, and on My arm shall they trust and wait with hope.

6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall be dissolved and vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner [like gnats]. But My salvation shall be forever, and My rightness and justice [and faithfully fulfilled promise] shall not be abolished.(A)

And here is Isaiah 51 in The Message, which I know many of you read regularly.

Pay attention, my people.
Listen to me, nations.
Revelation flows from me.
My decisions light up the world.
My deliverance arrives on the run,
my salvation right on time.
I'll bring justice to the peoples.
Even faraway islands will look to me
and take hope in my saving power.
Look up at the skies,
ponder the earth under your feet.
The skies will fade out like smoke,
the earth will wear out like work pants,
and the people will die off like flies.
But my salvation will last forever,
my setting-things-right will never be obsolete.

In our times of prayer, we can pray Isaiah’s poetry. When we listen to NPR or read Newsweek, we recall Isaiah and Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. Our memory and our faith that and our attentiveness to the Holy Spirit leads to the time spent consuming media as a time spent with God.

I have here The News & Observer from Wednesday. (You’ll have to imagine my cup of coffee and kitchen table.)

The center story above the fold is titled “Without bones, no murder trial.” The story is compelling. A man told his friend he needed help disposing of a corpse. The friend told police and he was nabbed. They ID’ed the dead woman, a mentally handicapped woman, and her family was notified. The district attorney determined the suspect, a man from Mebane, had shot the woman who lived in Durham. It seemed straightforward until the deceased woman’s family requested her remains. The district attorney turned the remains over before the case had been decided. The relatives had her cremated. When the defense attorney wanted the remains re-examined but the remains were gone. The judge dismissed the trial. The suspect goes free.

It’s a justice issue.

Now remember, we read the news because it is our responsibility as Christians and as citizens to be informed. We pray as we read because God will speak to us and form our spirits in this way as surely as he will when we attend a small group or worship on Sunday morning or read the Bible. We also pray because God listens to our prayers, and when the church prays, it impacts the course of events in the world.

In this case, how do we feel about the suspect? He must be guilty! It’s outrage! No don’t answer too quickly. It certainly is an outrage if a murderer goes free, and that may have happened. But this is not a time for quick answers. It’s a time for prayer.

Jesus said to love your enemies (Mt. 5:44). This man is not my enemy, but if he is a murderer, then he’s an enemy of the common good; an enemy to us all. He needs Jesus. Furthermore, I need to love him in spite of what he’s done. I can’t do it unless Jesus helps me. If, with a lot of help from the Lord, I can find it in me to love this guy and I give that love, I am becoming more like Christ. Remember, the words we read in Isaiah 51 were first given to a guilty community, a community who God allowed to be exiled because they had turn away from Him. Even with their guilt, God in his grace says, “My salvation will be forever” (Is. 51:6e). So by looking at this man in the orange jump suit and praying until God takes me from he’s a worthless criminal to he’s a man I am called to love just as Jesus love me, a sinner, I grow and God fills me. He fills me because I have opened myself to him in prayer.

Continuing in the story, I think of the woman’s sister who is also pictured, weeping on the stand as she testifies. She thinks her sister’s killer is now going scott-free and her own attempt to honor her sister through a dignified burial may have played a part in this convoluted affair. I must stop and pray for this broken woman. I don’t know how, but it will make a difference in her life, which right now is very broken as the article made clear. My holding her up in prayer will help her.

I must also pray for the system. We want guilty people put in jail. That’s justice. We want the accused to have a fair trial with all the evidence in tact. That’s justice. We want everyone in the system – judge, defense, prosecutors, and law enforcement to work together. Only when they are in concert with one another will justice happen. I am reminded I need to pray for lawyers and judges, for policemen and prison guards. I need to pray for all of these and this story reminds me of my calling to intercede before God on behalf of my community. In all seriousness, just spending with one story in the newspaper can be a thoroughly involved spiritual exercise with impact on daily life.

Another story, this one on page 3A, is about taxes. One of the richest men in America believes our federal government should raise taxes. He says, “My friends [other billionaires] and I have been coddled by a billionaire-friendly congress long enough.” Furthermore, he claims because of tax loopholes that he knows of millionaires who pay less in taxes than their secretaries.

What a powerful opportunity for prayer! How the rich are taxed verses how the poor are taxed – this is a justice issue. In a nation with rising unemployment and a growing gap between the extremes of wealthy and impoverished and a shrinking middle class, this is a justice issue. What our government does with the taxes collected – it’s a justice issue and one we must pay attention to. Of course, officials the story are named involved. Depending on whether you lean democrat or republican, the mere mention of our President’s name may make you smile or make your blood boil.

How do you feel about the president? Stop! What does God say? We’re supposed to love the one in the white house and pray for God to guide and protect him. We can criticize, but in humility and love. As we ponder and digest this story, we do so slowly, asking the Lord to go to work in our hearts.

Isaiah 51:4 says the Lord’s justice, which is packed full with amazing grace, will be a light to the people. This story about taxes leads me to pray for the wellbeing of our nation and to pray for my own contribution to greater good both as a hardworking American and even more as a praying Christian. I am also led to pray for the souls of those who so are rich, their money prevents them from seeing God; and also to pray for the provision for those who are so poor that even with the assistance the receive, they still have many months where they have to a couple days without eating so they keep the lights turned on.

Obviously one story could drive a person to pray for an hour, and that would be alright. Clicking onto the news site or flipping on the radio for news, we have to be discerning. Maybe we offer brief, 15-second prayers in many stories, and then set one aside and come back to later for deep, lengthy, involved prayer. Our prayer is to be never separated from our intake of news and media. In fact, our prayer life is to define how we digest the news we take in. God is a God of justice, and when we read the news, with hearts full of God’s passionate love, we seek His justice.

As we close this morning, I want everyone here to recall one story from this past week. We will have a time of silent meditation. During this time, you are invited to come to the steps and briefly lift up to God some aspect of the news story or the current issue that’s on your heart. It could be the U.S. economy, next year’s elections, the fighting in Afghanistan or Libya or Syria, or something local. School starts soon; joblessness has hit our own state and our some in our church. Once we begin our silent prayer, everyone should be coming, kneeling at the steps, and praying for an issue God has laid on your heart.

After everyone has prayed we will join together in saying the Lord’s prayer.

Then we will sing a song of response in which you are invited to seek out one of our pastors if you have a specific prayer concern or would like someone to pray with you. Heather and Jonathan will be at the back and I’ll be here. Through silence, through coming forward to pray for justice (an issue of justice of particular importance to you), through praying together the prayer Jesus taught, and through singing and responding, this is a time we as the family of God pray.


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