Friday, August 15, 2014

Thoughts on Prayer in a "Summer of Strife"


Come to our aid, O Beloved!
Darkness seems to pervade the earth;
Where is the faith, the integrity
that once lived in our hearts?
Where is the truth, the trust
that made its home in us?

– Excerpted from Psalm 12
(as translated by Nan C. Merrill in
Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness)

Perhaps, like me, you are feeling overwhelmed by the chaos, death and destruction that has been taking place in many parts of our world. From Ukraine to Gaza, Syria to Iraq, Nigeria to Missouri we are inundated with images and stories of unrest, injustice, violence and heart-breaking suffering.

Before I share some thoughts on prayer in the face of such harsh realities, I invite you to view the following images which, for me, serve as icons. I consider them icons, in the religious sense, as they are windows through which we are invited to see God present in the trials and sufferings of humanity . . . and in the devastated natural environment of the planet.

Above: A Palestinian girl who had lost a family member in an Israeli airstrike at a U.N school cries at Beit Hanoun hospital in the northern Gaza Strip.(Photo: AP/Adel Hana)

Above: Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community carry their children as they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 11, 2014. (Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

Above: Rescue workers carry a stretcher with a body past the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, presumed to have been shot down by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine on July 19, 2014, killing all 298 passengers. (Photo: Anastasia Vlasova)

Above: A Palestinian boy wounded by Israeli shelling, receives treatment at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, 20 July, 2014. (Photo:Ali Jadallah/APA)

Above: A Palestinian youth surveys the destruction in Gaza wrought by Israeli airstrikes.

Above: It's been called "the most environmentally destructive industrial project on the planet": the Keystone XL Pipeline. (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

Above: Police in riot gear walk toward a man in Ferguson, Missouri – August 11, 2014. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has been under a dramatic siege since Saturday, when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. In the wake of the killing, protests have engulfed the community — drawing a heavy-handed police crackdown with St. Louis County police officers armed with assault weapons and outfitted with military equipment.(Photo: AP/Jeff Roberson)

Above: Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community gather for humanitarian aid at the Syria-Iraq border at Feeshkhabour border point, northern Iraq, Sunday, August 10, 2014. Kurdish authorities at the border believe some 45,000 Yazidis passed the river crossing in the past week and thousands more are still stranded in the mountains. (Photo: AP/ Khalid Mohammed)

Now, I have to say that when I look at images like the ones above and read about the suffering and destruction taking place across the globe, the activist in me wants to do something, wants to take action to solve or at least address in meaningful ways, the many problems and complex issues that plague our world.

But as I said at the beginning of this post, it often feels just so overwhelming. Indeed, it often feels as if the only action I can take is to beseech God to take action, much as the psalmist does in the opening words of this post: Come to our aid, O Beloved!

But then I remind myself that I no longer believe in an interventionalist God, a God who needs to be told what to do and then, if so moved by our pleadings, may or may not chose to act – like a puppet-master, pulling strings; or a cosmic chess master, moving people and events around like pieces on a global chess board.

No, instead of belief in such a God I trust that the all-loving energy that infuses every aspect of creation is constantly trying to get our attention and yearning to transform us and our world, yearning to bring about compassion, justice and peace. Yet such transformation is dependent on the conduit that is human presence and action. We must be open to embodying this sacred energy; to being, like Jesus, living vessels of transforming love.

And so I continue to seek to be informed about issues and events (see, for example, the off-site news and views links listed at the end of this post). I also participate in rallies and vigils for justice and peace, and make financial contributions when I can to organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch that I trust are making a difference. Most of all, though, I strive to be a loving, respectful, and attentive presence to all I encounter and in every situation of my day-to-day life.

A wondrous capacity

As for prayer, well, on a very fundamental level, it can be the most powerful action of all. I'm not talking about prayers of petition, although I often find such prayers helpful in focusing my thoughts. Rather, instead of pleading to a puppet-master God, I'm drawn to prayer that is all about becoming attuned to the presence of the sacred within and around me. At night in bed, for example, I often visualize this presence as a glowing sphere of mother-of-pearl colored light, deep within me. It's a sphere of light that, as trustingly and lovingly as I can, I expand outwards, bringing healing and love to people and places both near and far. Often I think of specific people, situations and places that I know are in need of healing and transformation. I picture this light I'm sending forth kindling its same lightself within others. Deep calls to deep, the psalmist reminds us! In time I visualize the whole planet aglow in this healing and transforming love, an all-encompassing love that each and every one of us can consciously and compassionately choose to recognize and kindle within ourselves and share with others. I sense that a visual exercise like the one I've just described can and actually does do something beautiful and good in the "energy field" that is the universe, a universe infused with sacred mystery.

I've found a number of writings that have inspired me to embrace and embody this way of prayer, a way that encourages me to remember and celebrate the reality that, as humans, we have the wondrous capacity to develop an inner life that can transform the often troubling realities of our outer life. These writings reflect an evolutionary spirituality, something I've discussed and explored previously at The Wild Reed (see, for instance, here and here).

First, here is how James Conlon defines prayer in his book The Sacred Impulse.

Prayer is being present to the beauty and pain of life, finding language and symbols to express the inexpressible. Prayer is entering into those important moments in our own lives and the lives of others. Prayer may be contemplating a sunset. It may be reflecting on the issues of life: birth, love, work, wonder, and death. Prayer is interacting with and affirming the divine presence in all of life. Prayer is gratitude and acknowledgment. Prayer is the deepest desire of our life, through which the divine is revealed in our midst. Prayer is a conversation, sharing the burden, celebrating the excitement. Prayer is being with God in our journey through life.

Prayer means living in the soft embrace of divine energy that enfolds our presence and heals our pain. It is an opportunity to renew our deep-seated desire for a life of justice, peace, and renewed possibilities. Prayer is paying attention to the breath of life, to the reality of doubts, to what our world could be.

Next is an excerpt from Vimala Thakar's book Spirituality and Social Action: A Holistic Approach. (You'll notice that what Thakar calls "the vast intelligence that orders the cosmos," I've been calling the transforming love of God, or simply "the sacred." Other names include Divine Presence, Holy One, and Sacred Mystery.)

What is necessary in these critical times is that all sensitive and caring people make a personal discovery of the fact of oneness and allow compassion to flow in their lives. When compassion and realization of oneness becomes the dynamic of human relationship, then humankind will evolve.

We are suffering throughout the world in the darkness of the misery we have created. By believing in the fragmentary and the superficial, we have failed to live together in peace and harmony. . . . [We] feel the urgency to go deeper, to abandon superficial approaches that are inadequate and to activate the creative forces available to each of us as expressions of wholeness. The vast intelligence that orders the cosmos is available to all. The beauty of life, the wonder of living, is that we share creativity, intelligence, and unlimited potential with the rest of the cosmos. If the universe is vast and mysterious, we are vast and mysterious. If it contains innumerable creative energies, we contain innumerable creative energies. If it has healing energies, we also have healing energies. To realize that we are not simply physical beings on a material planet, but that we are whole beings, each a miniature cosmos, each related to all of life in intimate, profound ways, should radically transform how we perceive ourselves, our environments, our social problems. Nothing can ever be isolated from wholeness.

One final thought/prayer: I find it very helpful to spend time in nature, as here I experience God's presence in ways that are uniquely grounding and energizing.

My sense is that there are many people feeling overwhelmed by what here in the northern hemisphere has been called the "summer of strife." Perhaps you include yourself in this number. If so, then I hope that the thoughts and prayers I've shared will help you in understanding and responding to all that's going on in ways that facilitate ever-deepening connection to the sacred. I know that the writing of this post has helped clarify my thinking about a number of important things and inspired me to live a more compassionate and conscious life, a life increasingly attuned to the sacred – a prayer life, I guess you could say.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
Karl Rahner on the Need for Prayer
Prayer: Both a Consolation and a Demand
Letting Them Sit By Me
"We Will Come Together in Our Pain"
Clarity, Hope, and Courage
Seeking Balance
Threshold Musings
Thoughts on the Feast of the Ascension
Jesus: The Revelation of Oneness
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Related Off-site Links and Updates:
The Plight of the Yazidi
40,000 Iraqis Stranded on Mountain as ISIS Jihadists Threaten Death – Martin Chulov (The Guardian, August 6, 2014).
U.S. Plans Rescue Mission for Besieged Yazidi Refugees – Martin Chulov (The Guardian, August 10, 2014).
Yazidi Survivors Say Militants Buried Victims Alive – Humeyra Pamuk (Reuters via The World Post, August 18, 2014).

The Rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS)
Islamic State Carves Jihadist Hub in Heart of the Middle East – Samia Nakhoul (Reuters via Yahoo! News, August 12, 2014).
The Rise of ISIS: US Invasion of Iraq and Foreign Backing of Syrian Rebels Helped Fuel Jihadis’ AdvanceDemocracy Now! (August 13, 2014).
Islamic Militants Crush Tribal Uprising in Syria – Bassem Mroue (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 12, 2014).
Religious Leaders Say ISIS Persecution of Iraqi Christians Has Become Genocide – Sam Jones and Owen Bowcott (The Guardian, August 8, 2014).
Iraqi Christians' Nightmare – Kirsten Powers (USA Today, July 29, 2014).
The Importance of Caring About Iraqi Christians, But Rejecting Sectarianism – Robert Christian (Millennial, August 12, 2014).
A Friend Flees the Horror of ISIS – George Packer (The New Yorker, August 6, 2014).
Australia, US Appalled at Decapitated Head Photo – Martin Parry (AFP via Yahoo! News, August 11, 2014).
Iraqi and Kurdish Forces Recapture Mosul Dam from ISIS – Agence France-Presse via The Guardian (August 18, 2014).
Islamic State's Message to America: "We Will Drown All of You in Blood" – Reuters via Yahoo! News (August 18, 2014).
Journalist James Foley Reportedly Killed by Islamic State GroupPBS NewsHour (August 19, 2014).
US officials: Video Shows American's Beheading – Lara Jakes and Bradley Klapper (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 19, 2014).
"Spare the Lives of the Remaining Hostages. Like Jim They Are Innocents": Mother of Beheaded American Journalist Calls on ISIS to Cease Killing as She Pays Tribute to Her "Extraordinary Son" – James Nye and Ashley Collman (Daily Mail, August 19, 2014).
A Look Into the Heart of the Jihadist "Caliphate" in Syria and Iraq – Brigitte Dusseau (AFP via Yahoo! News, August 23, 2014).
Top Islamic Authority: Extremists Are No "Islamic State" – Sarah El Deeb (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 24, 2014).

Iraq and Endless War – Robert C. Koehler (Common Dreams, August 14, 2014).
The Women in a Morgue in Baghdad – Rania Abouzeid (The New Yorker, August 11, 2014).

In Syria, a Barrage of Barrel Bombs: Attacks on Civilians Defy UN Resolution – Human Rights Watch (July 30, 2014).
Syria Has Become a Humanitarian Catastrophe of Epic Proportions – Nigel Pont (The Huffington Post, August 14, 2014).
U.N. Says Syria Death Toll Tops 190,000, Human Rights Envoy Raps World Powers – Stephanie Nebehay (Reuters, August 22, 2014).
One Cartoon That Captures the Horrible Truth About Assad and ISIS – Zack Beauchamp (Vox, August 22, 2014).

Egypt's Tiananmen – Kenneth Roth (Foreign Policy, August 12, 2014).

Gaza and Israel
Killing Machines and the Madness of Militarism: From Gaza to Afghanistan – Henry A. Giroux (Truth Out, July 24, 2014).
Depth of Gaza Devastation Becomes Clear After Cease-fire – William Booth (The Washington Post, July 26, 2014).
Who Is Behind Gaza's Mass Execution? – Jesse Rosenfeld (The Daily Beast via Yahoo! News, August 1, 2014).
Political Will is the Obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian Peace – Mel Gurtov (Peace Voice, August 6, 2014).
Israeli Peace Activists Facing Backlash as Gaza Truce HoldsRIA Novosti (August 11, 2014).
In Midst of War, Israel Clamps Down on Internal Dissent – Sarah Lazare (Common Dreams, August 11, 2014).
Signs of Fascism in Israel Reached New Peak During Gaza Op, Says Renowned Scholar – Gidi Weitz (Haaretz, August 12, 2014).
Searching for a Palestinian Dr. King – Dean Obeidallah (The Daily Beast, August 15, 2014).
Gaza Conflict: Peace Talks Resume in CairoBBC News (August 17, 2014).
Air Strikes and Rocket Fire Resume as Gaza Negotiations Collapse – Allison Deger (Mondoweiss, August 19, 2014).
Hamas Claims Responsibility for Kidnapping, Murder of Israeli Teenagers in June – Ben Mathis-Lilley (Slate, August 21, 2014).
Israel, Hamas Accept Gaza War Cease-fire – Associated Press (August 26, 2014).
Israel Announces Massive West Bank Land Grab – Jeffrey Heller (Reuters via The Huffington Post, August 31, 2014).

The Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe
Anti-Semitism on Rise Across Europe in "Worst Times Since the Nazis" – Jon Henley (The Guardian, August 7, 2014).

Downing of Flight 17 Should Trigger Talks, Not More Violence – Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Washington Post, July 22, 2014).
With 100,000+ Displaced, Why is U.S. Ignoring Ukraine’s Civil War?Democracy Now! (July 24, 2014).
NATO: "High Probability" Russia will Invade Ukraine – Adrian Croft and Sergei Karpukhin (Reuters via Yahoo! News, August 11, 2014).
Silent March for MH17 Victims, One Month After Air Disaster – Reuters via The Guardian (August 17, 2014).
Russia and Ukraine Ministers to Meet in Berlin for Ceasefire Talks – Julian Borger (The Guardian, August 17, 2014).
No Sign of Quick End to Ukraine Conflict – Nataliya Vasilyeva and Peter Leonard (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 26, 2014).

100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held – Heather Murdock (Voice of America, July 23, 2014).
Boko Haram Kidnap Dozens of Men and Boys in Attack on Nigeria Village – Jill Reilly (Daily Mail, August 15, 2014).
Thousands Flee to Cameroon After Boko Haram Attack in Nigeria – Aminu Abubakar (AFP via Yahoo! News, August 25, 2014).
Boko Haram Becomes the Latest Terror Group to Declare an Islamic Caliphate – Adam Chandler (The Wire, August 25, 2014).

The U.S./Mexico Border
Here's How the U.S. Sparked a Refugee Crisis on the Border, in 8 Simple Steps – Roque Planas and Ryan Grim (The Huffington Post, July 18, 2014).
Echoing Pope Francis, Bishops Decry Indifference to Suffering of Migrants Under U.S. Immigration System, Call For Action on Immigration Reform – USCCB (April 1, 2014).
Unthinkable Violence Drives Hondurans North to United States – Linda Cooper and James Hodge (National Catholic Reporter, August 18, 2014).
Militias Complicate Situation on Texas Border – Christopher Sherman (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 18, 2014).

Ferguson, Missouri
The Killing of Michael Brown: Missouri Police Shooting of Unarmed Black Teen Sparks Days of ProtestsDemocracy Now! (August 12, 2014).
Journalists Face Tear Gas, Police Threats While Covering Protests Against Killing of Michael Brown – Jack Mirkinson (HuffPost Media, August 12, 2014).
This Is the Terrifying Result of the Militarization of Police – Paul Szoldra (Business Insider, August 12, 2014).
11 Shocking Facts About America's Militarized Police Forces – Alex Kane (AlterNet, June 27, 2014).
The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged Into the Light by the Horrors of Ferguson – Glenn Greenwald (The Intercept, August 14, 2014).
Riot Sparked by Shooting of Unarmed Man Is About So Much More – Leonard Pitts (Portland Press Herald, August 12, 2014).
America is Not for Black People – Greg Howard (The Concourse, August 12, 2014).
When Terror Wears a Badge – Ryan Herring (Sojourners, August 14, 2014).
This Is Why We're Mad About the Shooting of Mike Brown – Kara Brown (Jezebel, August 11, 2014).
Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men? – Jaeah Lee (Mother Jones, August 15, 2014).
Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times – Frances Robles and Julie Bosman (The New York Times, August 17, 2014).
Chaos Erupts in Ferguson as Police Launch Abrupt Offensive – Gabrielle Bluestone (Gawker, August 17, 2014).
More Fergusons Are Coming: Why Para-Military Hysteria is Dooming America – Robert Hennelly (Salon, August 18, 2014).
Ferguson Unrest Shows Poverty Grows Fastest in Suburbs – Toluse Olorunnipa and Elizabeth Campbell (Bloomberg via Yahoo! News, August 18, 2014).
Missouri National Guard to Be Deployed at Ferguson Protests – Jon Swaine and Rory Carroll (The Guardian, August 18, 2014).
Michael Brown Shooting: Amnesty International Sends Team Within U.S. for First Time as National Guard Deployed – Natasha Culzac (The Independent, August 18, 2014).
Officer Who Pointed Gun at Protesters Suspended – Associated Press via Yahoo! News (August 20, 2014).
Ferguson Protests Cool After U.S, Attorney General Meets Michael Brown's Parents – Carey Gillam and Scott Malone (Reuters via Yahoo! News, August 21, 2014).
ACLU: Ferguson Police Report on Michael Brown's Death Violates Law – Jason Sickles (Yahoo! News, August 22, 2014).
Mourners Gather in St. Louis for Funeral of Michael Brown – Sara Burnett and Jim Suhr (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 25, 2014).


Rich Gosser said...

Thank you, Michael, for another very thoughtful and insightful post.

Franco Manni said...

since the first days of this August, I have entered a state of, in my small own way, I am partecipating in this 'summer of strife'...
Your post hints to a Hope of Love within and above our human dramatic experiences, it underlines an existing solidarity with so many sufferings of other people, and it suggests to us to take action in several ways..
I do appreciate it.

Blue Eyed Ennis said...

Thanks for this Michael. Beautifully put ! I've been trying to put a post together today and have been thinking of grace and what you say here resonates with some of my thoughts. I came across this recent NCR post today from Thomas Reese which also grounded me a little because I don't always give credit to the good that is going on by some !

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Rich, Franco, and Phil for your kind words and thoughtful feedback. It is greatly appreciated.

And thanks too, Phil, for the link to Thomas Reese's recent NCR article. Without doubt it serves as a hopeful and grounding reminder of the good that is going on in our church and in the world.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. Blessed are the peacemakers.