“Hubris, my dear boy. Hubris.” These were the words with which my university tutor greeted me after I had failed my Prelim Hebrew exam. I had studied Hebrew during my last half year at grammar school and so had not felt the need to attend any of the offered introductory classes running up to the Prelims after arriving in Oxford. Little did I know that Hebrew was one of those languages that did not easily stick. Now prelims were a big deal—fail the classic languages portion of the theology curriculum and you were out—with the learning experience barely started! So, the Spring term of my freshman year was spent squeezing in extra Hebrew tutorials along with the growing load of studies.
This indulgent memory of personal hubris came up as I watched the various claims of credit for the recent coming together of Korean leaders. Whatever the contributions of the various players in this international game of brinkmanship we are a also a people who believe in the power of prayer. The hawkish exchanges prior to the Winter Olympic Games had driven, I am sure, many of us to a serious sense of the need for urgent and earnest prayer.
The people of South Korea are known for their profound spirituality. Seoul is called the “megachurch capital of the world.” It boasts one of the largest congregations in the world, Young Nak, with 60,000 members. I grew up in a tradition where the prayerful endeavors of that particular congregation were offered as inspiration for the power of intercession. We shared facilities at St Barnabas’ in Los Angeles with a Presbyterian Church which would often have all night prayer services, while we maintained our own orderly hour or so of Eucharistic communion. I often have wondered how God weighs those experiences.
Rowan Williams writes that we don’t know why God answers some prayers and not others, but we have sufficient evidence that from time to time prayer is answered and remarkably so in some circumstances that we are encouraged to keep praying for more of such experiences. That sounds like a very British rationale. Great stories of intercessory prayer often arise during major wars – like Smith Wriggleworth during World War I, or the great Revivals of SE Asia just before the arrival of Chinese Communism and its suppression of religion, or the miracle of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. I know that on the whole it is economic self-interest that turns the tide of relations between nations, as with the end of the Cold War. But we cannot forget the hours of faithful prayer offered by ordinary people for change. It is hubris to do so.
If we are tempted to forget the bigger picture, Walter Brueggemann gives us this warning: “There is something tough and starchy and uncompromising about God, who finally will enact heavy-duty sovereignty in the historic-political process when the mocking has gone on long enough. When great power violates the flow of God’s history, it will come to deep trouble and destructiveness” (A Gospel of Hope 38).
The Korean coming together is a precarious moment, and our pride or self-aggrandizement can unravel it quickly. There are many other places in the world where violence persists from one generation to another, and where we humans cannot get out of our own way. Millions of innocents suffer in the process. We need to be thankful for those who through intercessory prayer seek to get out of the way, and who seek to put themselves at our disposal for peace-making. Theirs is the willingness to move to one side, and to become one with all who suffer, to embrace the woundedness of the other, and to endure the pain as they bring it into the Presence of the all-loving God. We will never fully understand cause and effect. What we do have are the words of Jesus for this ongoing Easter season: “You did not choose me, but I have chosen you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my Name” (John 15:16).
"Whatever you ask in my Name?" We turn to Brueggemann again: “Jesus urges his disciples to be interruptive servants of God, filing claims, seeking justice, crying out day and night, so that the space in the heavenly court is occupied and redefined by appeals for transformative, restorative, justice” (A Gospel of Hope 58).
Today we interrupt heaven for Korea, tomorrow with more intensity, I hope, for South Sudan, for Iran, Palestine and Israel, for the USA and Russia, for all terrorists and the people they terrorize, for migrants sitting on our wall, for all children to be our children, for the poor who march and those living in poverty for whom they march, and that this planet of ours may know our most profound gratitude and care.
In the peace and love of Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Alan Scarfe
Bishop of Iowa