The official description of the National Day of Prayer is that it exists to invite “people of all faiths to pray for the nation.” It’s coming up on May 2, when it is estimated that over 2 million people across the nation will mark its observance.
But, in a country that’s divided along partisan, religious, racial and economic lines, it’s hard to see through the static to know what, or how, to pray. How is a Christian supposed to act faithfully? We might be tempted to distance ourselves from politics or to pray so specifically for certain politicians and policies to change that we lose sight of the greater picture.
At times like this, it’s good to remember other people who modeled what faithful intercession for their country looked like. I’d like to offer the example of one man, in particular, to help guide our thinking as we approach this year’s National Day of Prayer.
His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor who lived and taught during World War II. He was an insightful critic of what was happening in Nazi Germany, and he had an amazing vision of what the Christian Church could be and do in the midst of a country in crisis.
He described this vision in a large assortment of papers, letters and sermons. He also worked in resistance to Hitler’s dictatorship, something he was eventually put in prison and murdered for, but even in prison, he kept writing.
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On this day in 1945, a Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was martyred at the hands of his Nazi captors. He was 39 years old. For pastors and leaders who are driven by faith and God’s word to confront evil, oppression, injustice and violence in the world, we give thanks and pray that we will be encouraged to bold actions by their example and sacrifice. . . . . #DietrichBonhoeffer #Bonhoeffer #Lutheran #LivingLutheran #LutheranPastor #Germany #martyr #theologian #LutheranHistory
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Here’s one thing he wrote in a letter, after his imprisonment. He said, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others … not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.” A sense of community was central to his understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. It was also central to his understanding about what it meant to exist in the world in general.
Probably the most radical thing a Christian can believe is that there will, eventually, be restoration. This is the promise of the Gospel, that all things will be made new. This is what we pray for.
Bonhoeffer wrote elsewhere, “It is of no use to us for us to confess our faith in Christ if we have not gone first and reconciled ourselves to our brothers and sisters, even to the godless, racially different, ostracized and outcast. And a church that calls a nation to faith in Christ must itself be… the place in which all the fires of hatred are extinguished and prideful, hate-filled people are turned into people who love.”
To Bonhoeffer, the church could set an example for righteous and godly living to a nation, but only if it first extended generous love to its members and the world as a whole. It is this that we should be praying for: that the church would be a part of loving renewal within and without its walls.
Bonhoeffer, as someone who well understood what it was like to live in a context that challenged Christian beliefs, never distanced himself or gave up on his message of love. He believed in restoration, and hoped for it until his death at the hands of the Gestapo. He wrote, “The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programs, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God’s perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it.”
Bonhoeffer had a message and a hope for the society in which he lived, and he prayed and worked tirelessly towards its achievement. The National Day of Prayer, at its best, is a time for us to unite and remember this kind of prayerful, faithful lifestyle.
Even if you feel disillusioned or discouraged about the state of our nation, May 2 is an opportunity to ask again for hope. Probably the most radical thing a Christian can believe is that there will, eventually, be restoration. This is the promise of the Gospel, that all things will be made new. This is what we pray for. The trick is knowing how to cling to this assurance when it has not come true yet.
Bonhoeffer would say that prayer is the key to sustained belief in healing for the world, the nation and even your own life. Prayer is how we realign our priorities and maintain a vision, like Bonhoeffer did, for a world where churches and nations are oriented towards helping, healing and loving others.