The fact that we can be in direct dialogue with the Divine, a kind of call and response between heaven and earth, amazes me. I delight in the sounds and scenes of prayer, the moans and sighs, the bowing of heads and bending of knees, the folding of hands and quieting of minds. I am grateful for the reverence expressed and the reminder that God is listening out for us.
I appreciate the variety of prayers — contemplative and silent, communal and chatty, spontaneous and written. I love prayer groups and prayer chains. I even write a prayer newsletter for our member churches at the District of Columbia Baptist Convention and a column, Pray-Her, for Smyth & Helwys’s blog. Cheryl Sacks wrote a book, The Prayer-Saturated Church, but I think I am well on my way to becoming a prayer-saturated person.
I spent my formative years in weekly prayer meetings, seated next to my grandmother, Sister Thomas. Attending church was my extracurricular activity and I felt naturally gifted to serve. When I was not in church, I would practice with my cousins. We called it “playing church,” as we would pretend that we were the preacher, a deacon, an usher or one of the mothers of the church. You can guess which one I was.
A mid-week service for blue-collar workers on a nameless country dirt road, it was essential to the community’s emotional, personal, physical, social and spiritual well-being. The church services kept us going and kept our heads up. While it did not have the resources of today’s megachurches with barber shops and beauty salons, gyms and exercise classes, banking centers and conference-style meetings rooms, it still met our needs. Besides, our church membership extended beyond the building as we went shopping and out to dinner together often.
There was nothing perfunctory about the prayer meetings. With no printed program, we left the service’s order up to the Holy Spirit as persons were invited to sing and testify, to tell of the goodness of God made evident in their lives or to share of suffering or testing for which they requested our prayers. Anyone could testify but everyone began with these words: “First giving honor to God who is the head of my life, to the pastor, visitors, saints and friends.”
Now an adult and an associate pastor, I lead our time of prayer. While I write down my prayer, the order is left up to the Holy Spirit. And I still first give honor to God who is the head of my life.
“Satan goes to a prayer meeting” is the title of a sermon by the late Reverend C.L. Franklin. It appears on a sermon collection released in 1994. I was reminded of the title on June 17, 2015, when I learned of the murder of nine church members, including the pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The horrific acts put Charleston, S.C., on the map as authorities tried to locate the suspected killer, Dylann Roof.
In light of this sad reality, I was stunned to hear of this “campaign to eliminate hell.” I didn’t know that it was a goal or an expressed need of America’s Christians: better education, better economy, more jobs and no hell. I suspect that it is the privileged view of those seated in academia’s ivory tower with its socially-engineered greener grass. But it’s foolishness to those whose communities are burning and an unstable perspective. Light and darkness, mountain and valley, salvation and sin, these combinations are the human condition — at least for some of us.
Furthermore, our desire to rework God’s plan so that everyone fits into heaven, to relocate those who have done evil because it makes us feel better about God and ourselves is misplaced. It sounds a bit like Oprah: “You go to heaven and you to heaven.” While we are “the hands and feet of Christ,” our hands don’t balance God’s scales.
Besides, if everyone is a “good person,” then the nails in Christ’s hands are meaningless. That’s not tradition but the gospel and our story, summed up in a popular Sunday school memory verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).
God’s love requires justice — because sin matters. If not, then what is the hope of the world’s victims, the vulnerable and those deemed valueless? Are they mere scrap people, piled into an overcrowded prison system, crammed into tight, poverty-stricken areas or sold for pleasure in our lust-driven world? What is the good news for those nine praying members?
Evil is real and the Devil does not come in a red jump suit. Though I am not suggesting that Roof or any other person who commits heinous acts is Satan or even beyond the saving grace of God, I am certain that good and bad do not pray well together, that bowed heads should not have bullets in them and that evil is present with all of us (Romans 7.21).
For those who have rightly judged the Church due to hypocrisy, sexual misconduct, spiritual abuse and financial mismanagement, what do we do when the Church is the victim? When we welcome the stranger in love and he turns out to be a hate-spewing enemy? When a church becomes a crime scene and yellow tape covers the stained glass, it’s probably not the best time to talk about the end of hell. But when Satan comes to a prayer meeting, it certainly changes the order of things.
I couldn’t find meaning in their murders then and I cannot come to terms with it now. I suspect that it will take many more prayer meetings.
*This post was featured as an Op- Ed for Baptist News Global and was published on June 9, 2016.