Shrove Tuesday 2015: Praying for IS

Earlier today this tweet caught my eye: how can we pray for IS (or ISIS)? The tweeter is an Anglican bishop whom I admire, and the question he poses plunges us straight into what Lent is all about: conversion of heart, transformation in Christ. Like many others, I am increasingly hesitant about discussing IS (or ISIS) and its latest atrocities because publicity is what it craves. But the death of those twenty-one Coptic Christians whose only crime was to call on the name of Jesus makes the bishop’s question urgent. How do we pray for those whose every act seems to be evil?

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that we pray for IS as something ‘other’. We cannot identify with their mindset, still less their actions. But, if you think about it, very few of us are so in tune with others that we can identify with them completely. The fact that even our nearest and dearest sometimes seem to be worlds apart from us should give us pause. Even Jesus was to discover that his closest disciples were unable to keep watch with him in Gethsemane as he underwent his agony. I think the secret of praying for IS is to pray for them as we pray for ourselves, asking God’s mercy and enlightenment. The gift of conversion of heart sounds splendid — until we actually receive it in some small measure. In asking God to turn the hearts of IS to better things, we are asking for a hard and difficult grace that, if received, will shake them to the very core. God burns evil from our hearts and, say what you like about healing pain, it is always a searing experience.

Shrove Tuesday is a day when Christians take stock of their lives in preparation for Lent. In an earlier post I described it thus:

Shrove Tuesday: a day for being shriven (sacramental confession of our sins), for carnival (eating meat) and pancakes (clearing out the last of the butter, eggs and milk in the larder) before the Lenten fast begins — and for making merry, in the old-fashioned sense of rejoicing and having fun. It may be my warped sense of humour, but there has always seemed to me a marvellous inversion of the usual order of things on Shrove Tuesday. The Church traditionally kept the Vigils of great feasts with a fast; the Vigil of the great fast of Lent is kept with feasting. In both cases the purpose is the same: to impress upon us the solemnity of the occasion, its spiritual importance marked out by what we eat and drink and do.

Today we eat in honour of the Lord; tomorrow, and for forty days, we shall fast in honour of the Lord. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: these are the foundation of our Lent, but probably the most obvious to ourselves and others will be the fasting. It is worth thinking what our fast should be.

Perhaps this year our fasting could include an element of denying ourselves the easy solution of thinking of others as different, ‘other’, so that we pray for them as for ourselves. Lent is often seen in negative terms, giving up this and that, making small sacrifices that, by the end of six weeks, seem enormous. We tend to overlook the fact that the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving unlock great spiritual power. They enable us to stand aside, so to say, and allow Christ to be all in all. Ultimately, it is only God who can solve the problem of evil in the world; but, as we are destined to learn again this Lent, he does so in a way none of us could have foreseen.

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