I have to tell you, right now, I am happy to be part of a tradition that has already been praying for the president consistently during his term and will continue to do so, especially in light of the news of his illness. There really isn’t much for me to have to decide or fret over in times like these. We just keep doing what we do. We hand it over to God. It has largely kept me out of the fray about just how much empathy or well-wishing I owe to whom in order to satisfy which version of what it means to be a good person in times like this. I honestly just don’t think on this day, in October, in the infamous year of Two Thousand and Twenty, that the right questions about who I need to be and what I need to be doing are found by arguing about my wishes or feelings. The empathy debate can be as helpful as typing “thoughts and prayers” on Twitter after a tragedy. More importantly, I think it does damage, less by the arguments but what, and whom, it keeps us thinking about.
Whatever I may think or feel about any civic leader, I have no hesitation in praying for them. Praying-for is not the same thing as taking-sides-with. Prayer is merely commending a leader to God. In one sense, it is a relief. I don’t have to entertain any concerns about how much empathy or compassion I owe him or her. Actually, I don’t even have to have any particular outcome I desire. Making a habit of praying regularly for a leader frees me up from having to cross my fingers, wish for certain outcomes, and invest emotionally in aspects of the unfolding of history over which I have very little control. I know there are plenty of examples of people praying for specific outcomes in ways that seem like poorly executed magic and seem to drive people more deeply into their own ideology. There will always be examples of people recruiting God for their cause. I think it is good to be suspicious of those for whom prayer means acquiring power, not relinquishing it. For this conversation, we can say prayer is simply commending people to God. It is not subjecting God to the plans someone has already put in place. It is not the act of assigning God’s endorsement.
I have to amend this post just to note it is an understandable but incorrect assumption that praying for someone is necessarily a way of being “nice,” to them. Yes, prayer is always an act of love, but love can mean confrontation, correction, and consequence as well. God is not ignorant of the atrocities or power-mongering any president may have committed. I do not assume that coming into alignment with God’s will would be a pleasant thing for a president. It hasn’t always been pleasant when I have had to repent. I would think presidents would have reason to fear or dread our prayers. All of this is shaped significantly by whether you think God is a kind of elevated Santa Claus or wether you see God as Mary did in the Magnificat when she sings,
God has put down the mighty from their thrones: and hath exalted the humble and meek.Luke 1:52,53
God filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Don’t get me wrong, I think God takes sides. Scripture is pretty clear. God sides with the people suffering at the hands of power instead of the hands wielding it. Prayer is one of the things we do to stay grounded in the story of who God is and the work God is doing. Practicing prayer draws our attention back to God and our energy back to loving each other. That is kinda the point. There has never been a time in my life when it has been more clear that we need to be really invested in how we well care for and advocate for each other (even if we disagree). At the same time there has never been so much chaos at the highest levels, tempting us to miss the fact that the people around us still exist.
Look, I am a sucker for drama, for plot twists, shocking reveals, and October surprises. I get the appeal. Those are the things intended to nab our attention. However, it s my full attention, my allegiance, that I really can not afford to give this leader, this contest for power, and this ultimate reality show. I only have so much attention to offer. Right now we all know that things are rough. Hardly anyone has not been touched deeply by some kind of loneliness, fear or grief in 2020. This chaos, these debates between us only sap more of the precious energy better spent on taking care of each other.
Like any election year, like any year at all, I need to do my civic duties, do them well, and then to commend the rest of those in power to God. I can’t be fooled into thinking this parade of nonsense is the real work, the stuff of life. That kind of faith and investment belongs first to God and then to you, my friends and neighbors. To follow God is to love others. Period. There is no way around that, and why would I want there to be? That is the good stuff. That is the stuff of life. That is the most powerful leverage I will ever have over history for the better.
I sincerely believe that when I can shift my attention to our community, to my neighbors, and away from the power circus, I will see more clearly how to live my other civic duties well. When I am free to look away from the madness, I can pay attention to your story, to the protests, to other’s anger, to your fears and resentment. I can fight to have the right opinion about people in power or I can listen to those around me. I can’t do both well. Its when we lose sight of each other we start hoping and wanting the wrong things from our leaders… like salvation from false fears that are too easily conjured by people in power when we give them our full attention. My vote will best be cast in light of the lives of the people in my world and the candidate that serves them best. My vote is based on you first, your life, our lives together, not them, not those already in power and what they are selling. A good vote trails good living
So to answer the question, yes, of course I am praying for the president. I commend him to God. That is just a thing we Episcopalians (and many others) just do, and as it happens, I can sincerely trust what God has for him. And as soon as I blow that candle out and say amen, I don’t need to turn my attention back to my news feed to nuance my opinion about what should happen next or, even more importantly, how I think you should feel about it. I need to pick up the phone and call you and see how you are doing with all of this. I need to figure out a time to sit with you at those outdoor tables at Central Market and be intentional about how to spend these days. I need to send a few bucks to my friend Breezy who has been painstakingly making beautiful masks for people. I need to tune in to the community meetings that seek to hold leaders accountable. I need to imagine what justice looks like, first in my own town and in my relationships.
To the person truly doing the hard work of love with her neighbors, things like the president will always be an afterthought. Perhaps it is better for me to say, it is for us to live good lives, and then we will let them have our prayers.
You and I know that despite the heat, my opinions really don’t matter much right now. My attention, however, does. Surely you deserve more of my attention than any school board member, mayor, governor, or president. These are critical times and we have to focus on what is important… people in power will get my prayers and so will you. But you will also get my time and attention. I could not be more convinced that this is how you make history, even if no one notices in return.