Praying with a Sense of Urgency
As Jesus confronts the evil of his time most dramatically in the Scripture readings for the season of Lent, we are invited to do the same in the final chapter of Walter Wink’s insightful and engaging book The Powers That Be (pp. 185-196). This activist theologian issues a final challenge to those who would dare to prayerfully confront the powers of racism, materialism, sexism, militarism, and all the other forms of institutional violence – pray with urgency. In his words - “Intercessory prayer is spiritual defiance of what is in the name of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current forces. Prayer infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present… This is the politics of hope. Hope envisages its future and then acts as if that future is now irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs.”
Our prayer provides an opening for God to act in and through us and others. As Wink puts it, “no doubt our intercessions sometimes change us as we open ourselves to new possibilities we had not guessed. No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer. But if we are to take the biblical understanding seriously, intercession is more than that. It changes the world and it changes what is possible to God… A space opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom.”
But this power of intercessory prayer and the action that flows from it, and, in fact, God’s own power, can be blocked by the “powers and principalities,” by societal institutions and systems. Wink’s analysis and examples are instructive. “We may pray for justice and liberation, as indeed we must, and God hears us on the very first day. But God’s ability to intervene against the freedom of these rebellious creatures is sometimes tragically restricted in ways we cannot pretend to understand…
Then Wink uses the example of Somalia in the early 1990s to illustrate his point. “Day and night, the media bombarded the world with heart-rending pictures of malnourished and starving Somalis. A great ‘no!’ swelled up in people. Money was raised. Governments pitched in. Ships filled with food were dispatched. But when they arrived opposite Mogadishu, they were forbidden to unload by the contending warlords, who found it to their advantage for their enemies to starve to death. The prayers of those starving people were heard on the very first day. But the Powers were able, for a time, to block God’s answer.”
So as we pray this book for peace in Somalia and fifty other countries, it is helpful to embrace Wink’s concluding challenge to our faith. “The sobering news that the Powers can thwart God is more than matched by the knowledge that our intercessions will ultimately prevail,” whether it is in our lifetime or not. “We cannot stop praying for what is right because our prayers are seemingly unanswered. We know they are heard the very first day we pray. And we keep praying, for even one more day is too long to wait for justice.”
Millions may die because of the Powers, but “their very brutality and desperation is evidence that their legitimacy is fast eroding.” I think of the centuries of violence in Northern Ireland, reignited over three deadly decades in our lifetime, coming to a halt in 2008. In Wink’s analysis, “whenever sufficient numbers of people withdraw their consent, the Powers inevitably fail.” And then I remember those thousands of mothers on both sides urgently praying and acting over decades for an end to the violence and am inspired by their faith.
Wink’s final challenge to pray with urgency comes in his concluding section entitled “Living in Expectation of Miracles.” “Recognition of the role of the powers in blocking prayer can revolutionize the way we pray. We will be more energized and aggressive. We will honor God by venting the full range of our feelings, from frustration to outrage to joy and everything in between. We will recognize that God, too, is hemmed in by forces that cannot simply [easily] be overruled. We will know that God will prevail, but not necessarily in a way that is comprehensible except through the cross.”
Prayer of Petition. God of history, you truly want us to pray with urgency, that “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Give us the faith to pray this with conviction each day this season of Lent. Help us to understand more deeply the way of the Cross, and give us the courage that your Spirit inspired in Jesus to confront the powers of our time with both prayer and action.