A reflection by Christina Brennan Lee for September 10, 2023.
What do you pray for? Who?
In a Canadian murder mystery series I’ve been reading, when I should be doing other things, one of the regular characters is an elderly, eccentric ~ and/or crazy ~ but brilliant poet named Ruth. She is famous for being rude, foul-mouthed, and yet on rare occasions (but don’t tell her) tender-hearted. She is at once comic relief and insightful.
In the most recent storyline, she has told the other regulars that she doesn’t sleep much because of the long conversations she has at night with the Archangel Michael. The reader can imagine the scene with everyone at the dinner table raising eyebrows and surreptitiously glancing around with the thought that she’s really over the edge now of reality now! But here’s the gist, a short version of the conversation, where the topic was essentially about drug dealers and murderers who have no conscience.
Ruth tells the group that Michael can really talk and talk so she went to the local chapel to get away. Shocked, someone asks “what did you do there?” And Ruth replied that she prayed. “What for?” was the next question. Her response was that she starts praying for horrible things to happen to anyone who angers her, then “world peace.”
“And then I pray for Lucifer.”
Lucifer? The group is really stunned now and Ruth responds with “Why so surprised? Who needs it more?”
She goes on to explain further, that Michael asked her to pray for Lucifer who had been his best friend, now the greatest sinner of all, the one fallen from heaven. Another in the group mentions Lucifer was unrepentant and has no conscience. And Ruth says about Lucifer’s conscience, “Or a warped one” as she goes on to ask, “how many gays are beaten, blacks lynched, abortion clinics bombed, Jews murdered, by people just following their conscience?”
Shortly after reading that, I turned my head around to prepare to write the Prayers of the People for this week by reading this week’s appointed lessons … but first a moment of background:
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the first step we are taught as preparation in asking for forgiveness is the examination of conscience to determine where we each have gone astray and for what we need to ask forgiveness. Growing up Roman Catholic in parochial schools, I was required to go to Confession, as it was called then, every week. There are many jokes about how kids would make up stuff to say because otherwise we had a rote list of disrespecting parents or teachers, having bad thoughts about others, etc. We were then given a Penance, usually a number of specific prayers we were to say before we left the Church as our punishment and promise to go and sin no more. Yet here we are as adults attending Liturgy regularly or watching online, and we do the rote recitation of our Confession, irritated when the “right” version isn’t being used.
In the Old Testament reading of Ezekiel 33:7-11 for this Sunday, in speaking of the weight of our sins upon us, God tells Ezekiel, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back….
And, as we all know, whether or not we can find it in the Bible, we are not the Judge of others, that’s God’s job. And yes it is incredibly difficult NOT to judge others and so we do judge those who do horrible things that are unforgivable in our eyes and in our consciences. Yet as Jesus tells us in this week’s Gospel ~ again ~ whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. These are individual and communal, that is we carry responsibility personally and communally for wrongs and we have a responsibility to at least speak to those things we know are wrong.
But a key piece always for me, that jumped off a page at me quite a while ago, is a phrase we walk over when we repeat familiar syllables. Whether it’s the trespass or sin version of The Lord’s Prayer that you prefer, think about the words and the intent of the words as we say them:
“Forgive us/me our/my trespasses/sins AS ~ in the same way that ~ we/I forgive others.”
We can’t change another. We can’t always stop what they do, yet we can’t and don’t need to stop being angry, appalled, and horrified, but we CAN and are called to pray for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of others no matter how seemingly unforgiveable we are and they are.
Forgiving doesn’t mean not being held to account or forgetting about what has been done, but as Jesus says, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church let such a one be left to themselves subject to God’s judgement. Yet let us never stop praying, especially for those we judge as the most unforgiveable to turn back. As Paul says this week, love does no wrong to a neighbor; love is the fulfilling of the law. Forgiveness is a form of love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Every week, Christina Brennan Lee writes the Prayers of the People we use in our worship services on Sundays. She also leads weekday prayer services and serves on the SsAM Vestry. Click here to see her People’s Prayers website.