Prayers in the Wilderness: Prayers for Fairness 3-11-12

March 11, 2012

Prayers in the Wilderness: Prayers for Fairness

Two kinds of prayer have engaged us so far in this Lenten season and we can’t let go of them as we stick with our journey through the wilderness and our prayers about poverty. We begin always with praise, even if it is only in the address of our prayer. Praise is the recognition of who God is – Creator of the Universe, Renewing Christ, Sustaining Presence. What are words of praise you use to name or address God?

Then we often include (and often forget) a prayer of confession. Confession, as I said last week, is especially important when we are involved in praying about poverty, because our prayers and actions around poverty are so easily tainted by racism and other forms of condescension and insensitivity. Humility and self-reflection are essential, so that our efforts might grow to be effective, rather than just a way to ease our own guilty consciences.

So today, while we keep those counterpoints of our prayer playing, we move on to the part of the prayer that most of us jump to right away – the prayer of petition – the prayer that asks and directs our concern and God’s concern. We pray for people and for communities, for countries and issues. We lift all kinds of concerns that we understand God already knows about and cares about, but we trust that somehow by naming the concern in our hearts or in a gathered community, somehow our energy and God’s energy is somehow focused in a clearer way on that concern and some kind of healing or new resolution might ensue.

One of the people I pray for in my prayers about poverty is Rev. Alexander Sabo. (The picture is Rev. Abainitus Hamman) I pray for Rev. Sabo because I met him when I was in Nigeria. I served as his associate pastor at his church in Jos for a very brief period while I was in his country. He prayed for us and cried with us when we had to leave the country months before we were ready. I will never forget his prayer for me. Rev. Sabo is one of the 2 billion people in our world who survive on less that $2 a day. Rev. Sabo has 5 children and he also raised 2 children of his deceased brothers. Two dollars a day is inconceivable to us. It means the family has basically a hut and nothing else. They live on a diet of rice and beans and other local foods like mangos when they are in season and they can get them off a tree.

When we pray about poverty, it helps to have specific people we can think about and pray for. It can be awkward when the distance between you is large, as it is between here and Nigeria. But the economic distance is even more difficult to span. It is hard to imagine how wealthy we are in relation to the rest of the world.  No guilt, now. Notice, if your family has a household income of $80,000, you are in the top 1% of household incomes in the world. If your household income is $24,000 or more you are in the top 10%. If your household income is $3,470 or more you are in the top 25%.

As we pray about poverty, it seems to me that we have to take some time to hold these numbers in our consciousness, to reflect on how extreme social stratification is in the world and in our country. It does not help to get paralyzed by guilt about it, but on the other hand, it does not help to get defensive and act as though we somehow deserve to be at the top of the heap, and Rev. Sabo deserves to live on just $2 a day. Jesus angrily turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple when he saw them exploiting the poor. Some might interpret Jesus’ anger as being similar to the recent outpouring of animus to the 1%. I think of Jesus’ anger as being directed against anything that takes advantage of people, particularly poor people.

In our two years of prayer about poverty, we will pray for all kinds of folks very specifically – for people living on 1 or 2 dollars a day, for people living on a fixed income stretching to make ends meet, for people caring for those who are struggling, for hard living folks who feel like the church doesn’t have anything to offer them, and for the faithful tither who gives to God before thinking about anything else. We’ll pray for people in the top 1% of income and pray that we who are wealthy might find connection and common purpose in the world with Edna Williams, Rev. Sabo, and folks from the Interfaith Hospitality Center.

Researchers say that thinking about one individual is very effective for inspiring people’s compassion. For some reason human beings respond immediately and viscerally to the need of another human being. Ironically, research shows that compassion fatigue of some sort begins when you resent just one more person to be concerned about.

As we follow Jesus, we may find it difficult to emulate both his care and intimate compassion for each individual and also his intolerance of systems of oppression, his willingness to directly challenge those who were taking advantage of the poor. But that’s what we will aim for – praying for all God’s people in our struggles from bottom to top, from top to bottom.  We will pray for individuals, and we will act as a group to make a difference in our action and in our giving.


Responsive Hymn: 2129  I Have Decided to Follow Jesus