By Father Casey Shobe
One the privileges of my role as rector is that people seek me out for advice on books. There is one book that I find myself recommending over and over, which you may have heard me mention in sermons and classes: The Book of Joy. It captures a weeklong conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama about the nature of joy and how to cultivate it regardless of our circumstances. The wisdom of these two sages radiates off the pages, and I have found myself going back to certain passages again and again.
One such passage I have returned to many times is a story told by the Dalai Lama about a fellow Tibetan monk. After the Chinese invasion in 1950, the Dalai Lama went into exile in India, but this monk was not able to escape. Instead, he was imprisoned in a forced-labor camp for nearly 20 years where he endured almost unimaginable deprivation and torture. He was eventually freed, and when he reunited with the Dalai Lama, he told him that he had been at great risk during those years of torment. “I thought, of course, he was talking about dangers to his life,” the Dalai Lama recounted. “He told me he was in danger of losing…his compassion for his Chinese guards.”
I am positively dumbfounded by this story. It challenges and inspires me every time I read it. And it offers me a window into understanding something we’ll hear this weekend in church from Paul’s first letter to Timothy (2:1-2): “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Perhaps you, like me, have wrestled at times with the command to pray for “all who are in high positions.” Prayers are easy to offer when they are for someone you love or admire – someone whose wellbeing and success you desire. We pray for them, because we want good things for them, and so we ask God to care for and bless them, or else strengthen them for whatever challenge they face. But what happens when we feel that a particular leader doesn’t represent us, or their behavior or decisions are harmful to people we love or policies we believe to be fundamental? Well, then our typical frame for praying makes it feel impossible. We don’t desire their success, not if it means the continuation of their problematic leadership. And so, if we’re willing to pray for them at all, we offer it from our own moral high ground. “God, please change this person.” “God, show this person how wrong they are.” “God, help this person finally make good decisions.” Such prayer can easily be tinged with self-righteousness, or be little more than a request that God would choose our side.
There’s another way to understand our prayer lives, particularly when we pray for leaders with whom we may bitterly disagree. Rather than seeing prayer as a transaction – something we do to elicit good things from God for the people for whom we pray – what if we recognized that praying for others is how we can maintain our compassion for them? That is, what if its effects are more on us than the one for whom we pray? As Paul writes, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” which means that we can trust God to do the transformational work that only God can do. We don’t have to convince God to see injustice or cruelty; it’s not our job to point out the wrongs of others to God. God sees all that better than we ever can. Instead, we can recognize that our prayers for others, including leaders we might be tempted to hate, is largely about enhancing our compassion for them.
Friends, praying for someone does not mean you like what they do. But it is one of the supreme callings of all who follow Christ to pray with love even for those who seem like our “enemies” – to pray for God’s compassion for them.
And to pray that we never lose our compassion for them, either.
About Father Casey
Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.