Here we are at Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. In just a moment, we will hear an Invitation to a Holy Lent, an invitation to self-examination and repentance by prayer and fasting and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. I don’t know about you, but I am much in need of Lent right now. I’m in need of a time to engage in what in Eastern practice is called the Third Eye, the engagement of the Observer Self. I’m in need of a time to stand outside myself and to stand outside the sea I’m swimming in—the sea we are all swimming in—a sea whose waters feel turbulent, unsettled, maybe even dangerous. The events of the past week in Ukraine have lifted the veil from our eyes about the true intentions of Ukraine’s very large, very belligerent, very violent neighbor. The brazen attempt at conquest and subjugation of a peaceful people through violent means is a chilling reminder of the unsteadiness of our world order. And that’s unsettling.
Violence is all around us. And not just 7,000 miles away. The rhetoric of demonization, the crimes of bigotry and hate, the contempt for those who disagree with us, all this and more is a form of violence right here at home that has become all too commonplace.
Here we are in Lent. I want to suggest that Lent is just the right occasion to prepare our hearts and souls to navigate the violent seas we are swimming in. So let’s talk about the discipline of prayer. If you don’t already have a regular prayer practice, Lent is the perfect time to start. Daily. And if you already have a daily prayer practice, will you consider taking on as a Lenten discipline praying for your enemies? Right, you say, but what does that really mean? We hear throughout Scripture, “Love your enemies.” OK, here I am, loving my enemy, but is anything happening? Leave it to Jesus to take it a step farther. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear him saying:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48.
My dear friends, your enemy is as much God’s beloved as you are. I have to remind myself of that every day. God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Astonishing, isn’t it? And Jesus then gives us an action item. Love you enemies and pray for them. That’s active and not passive. Will my prayers for Vladimir Putin change his heart? God alone knows. But I know for certain that my prayers for him will change mine.
I was the Rector of a parish in Austin on 9/11. We had a number of retired military in that community, and as we gathered on the evening of September 11, 2001 to pray and reflect and hold one another, a wonderful man named Rufus Woody rose to speak. Then in his early 80’s, in his earlier life, General Rufus Woody had a commanded a B-52 wing in Viet Nam. That is to say, Rufus had been a warrior. When I knew Rufus, he was a gentle and kind man, a faithful Christian, a man of prayer. So, when he rose to speak, he carried with him a special authority born out of his life experience.
“This is a horrible tragedy,” he said, “My heart breaks for the dead and their families. My first rection in my anger and grief, is to strike back. To hurt the people responsible for this just as they have hurt us. But I’m realizing that returning violence for violence, to strike back out of anger and pride, just continues the spiral of violence. So, I know that the first thing I’m called to do is to heal the violence in my own heart.” A deep silence fell over the room as Rufus sat down. Healing the violence in my own heart. In the face of the anger, grief, and fear in the days and weeks and months following 9/11, that became my prayer. If the violence in the world is ever to cease, I must first heal the violence in my own heart.
Now, let me hasten to say, that as Christians, we must always—always—stand firmly and resolutely against any and all forms of injustice, belligerence and aggression, acts of bigotry and hate, acts that demonize or marginalize or malign any of God’s children. And that means anybody and everybody. And there are times when that means pushing back forcefully against evil, defending the children of God from danger and harm. Make no mistake about that. But when that sort of action comes from a place of aggression and a thirst for revenge, a place of “an eye for an eye,” Jesus calls us to stop, to step back, to engage our Observer Self, to pray for our enemies. Like my friend Rufus would say, to heal the violence in our own hearts.
Along with prayer, we are also called to fast in Lent. So, if we are to sincerely and intentionally pray for our enemies, it will be very helpful to us to fast from self-righteousness, to fast from bitterness and resentment, to fast from our impulse to retaliate when things aren’t going the way we want them to go. Fasting form those impulses is harder—at least for me—than fasting from chocolate and dessert—not that it isn’t hard enough to do that too! But you know, the pull to self-righteousness, the pull to resentment and bitterness, is corrosive to the soul. The more we allow those impulses to take root and flourish in our hearts, the more we become those impulses. And that’s way more destructive than an extra pound or two.
So, these are my two Lenten disciplines. To pray for my enemies and to fast from self-righteous judgmentalism and resentment. Let me invite you to consider joining me. Because here’s something I know about prayer. When we pray with others, there is a mysterious, grace-filled way in which our prayers multiply geometrically. If we, all of us gathered here together, would commit to praying for an end to violence in Ukraine and around the world, pray for an end to violence in our own hearts, pray for peace and justice to prevail, it might not stop Russian tanks. Or who knows, maybe it will. But one thing is for certain. Our prayers together are powerful. When we know that someone or some many are praying with the same intention, our own intentions become strengthened. Our resolve is strengthened. We’re not in it alone.
So now, as a start to healing the violence in the world and healing the violence in our own hearts, please join me in saying together A Prayer Attributed to St Francis found on p. 833 of the Book of Common Prayer.
A Prayer attributed to St. Francis
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.