The City of North Cowichan invited me again to pray for our mayor and council at their swearing-in ceremony. I have done this now four times over the last 9 years. The first time I did it was December 2002. The most recent time was this past Wednesday.
I consider it a high honour. I am humbled to be asked to serve our community and its leaders in this way. And it is a fulfilment of what all of us are commanded to do anyway:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
I like the forceful simplicity with which Eugene Peterson renders the first part of that: “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well….”
On the four occasions I have prayed at these public ceremonies, not once has anyone set limits on the manner or content of my prayer. I assume and honour the need to be brief, but never has anyone restricted or vetted me, or insisted on some generic, one-size-fits-all prayer that would be palatable to people of all faiths or none. They just let me loose. I have always prayed in the name of Jesus. I have always woven biblical verses into my praying. I have always tried to pray both priestly blessing and prophetic warning. And I have always prayed thanks: for the beauty, freedom, safety and prosperity of our community, and for these men and women who are willing, for little pay and often little thanks, to serve us.
But come back to what Paul writes to Timothy about praying for rulers. Paul wrote this during the reign of Nero – in fact, about midway through his reign, and most likely after the Great Fire of Rome for which Nero blamed and then executed Christians. Nero, though popular with many in his realm because of his grandiose generosity, was one of the most vicious, capricious, foolish, self-absorbed leaders who ever lived. He makes the late Moammar Gadhafi look like Nelson Mandela. Here is the account by the Roman historian Tacitus, himself no friend of Christians, of Nero’s cruelty toward Christians:
…an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [to the charge of being Christ-followers]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted… Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.
Yet Paul, with not a trace of rancor, asks Christians to pray for this man and his regime.
But that’s not the most amazing thing. This is: Paul connects our prayers, not only with peace for us, but with our evangelistic effectiveness. Our prayers for rulers, Paul suggests, further God’s desire for “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” This is breathtaking. It means when we pray for leaders, we release God’s saving action in the world.
And that, in the early church, is exactly what happened. Here is how the historian Will Durant describes it:
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fiery tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at long last defeating the strongest state that history has ever known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won.
We do not have in the Cowichan Valley, thank God, corrupt, treacherous leaders bent on destroying us. We do have in our community, by God’s grace, good, wise, just people ready to serve us. But how much more then should we pray for them – for rulers and their governments to rule well? We should pray, not only so that we have peaceful, quiet lives, but to release God’s saving action in the world.
Our faithfulness in this will determine what later historians say about us.
My community has, by God’s grace, good, wise, just people ready to serve all who live here. But how much more then should I pray for them – for rulers and their governments to rule well? I should pray, not only so that I have a peaceful, quiet life, but to release God’s saving action in the world.
Your and my faithfulness in this will determine what later historians say about us.