I often quote what Preacher Mapple told the whaling sailors before they went to sea in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Paraphrasing for brevity, he said that the things God wants us to do are hard to do, which is why God commands us rather than tries to persuade us. But to obey God we must first disobey ourselves, and we mistake the difficulty of disobeying ourselves with the hardness of obeying God.
And we should recall that Jesus said, "My burden is easy and my yoke is light."
All that said, at church this morning a member informed me that Russian President Vladimir Putin has started rattling Russia's nuclear weapons. The BBC reports,
President Putin’s announcement that he is putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert has been condemned in the strongest terms by the US.
Pentagon officials say it is an unnecessary step and a dangerous escalation that raises the stakes of a miscalculation.
Elsewhere, it was reported that Putin blamed the "high alert" on threatening statements against Russia made by NATO leaders. And how many such statements have there actually been. Zero, that's how many. So President Biden's press secretary, Jen Psaki, was exactly right this morning:
President Vladimir Putin's order to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert is part of a pattern of Moscow manufacturing threats to justify aggression, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Sunday.
"We've seen him do this time and time again. At no point has Russia been under threat from NATO, has Russia been under threat from Ukraine," Psaki said on ABC's "This Week" program.
"This is all a pattern from President Putin and we're going to stand up to it. We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we're seeing here from President Putin," Psaki added.
After the church member told me about this news, I grabbed a moment to read about it on my smart phone. Now I have to say that during my military career, I served as a nuclear target analyst and as a commander and then operations officer in two units with nuclear capability, for which I also had special training, especially in receiving, decrypting, and handling Nuclear Control Orders, for which standards are extremely strict. In both those assignments, I - or anyone occupying those positions - would have been a central figure in firing atomic warheads. I point this out to buttress why Putin's order is very scary. There is zero reason for Putin to feel Russia is under threat from NATO or anyone else, and announcing such a reason for placing nukes in high alert - whatever that actually means in the Russian status - makes me wonder whether Putin has turned into a nut case losing grip on reality. (Some Euro observers have also wondered that and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said much the same thing this morning. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this morning and said Putin is "unhinged.")
So when we reached the time for prayer concerns in this morning's worship, I knew that Jesus was not joking when he commanded us in Matthew 5, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... ." I knew we had to pray for Putin.
But I confess I did not want to do it, that I would rather pray about Putin than for him, like this: "O Lord, may you swallow him in the earth and commit him to the fires of hell." But of course, I could not do that and be loyal either to my identity as a disciple or to my vows as an ordained minister. After all, we are instructed,
- "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." (Rom. 12.14)
- God himself "is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." (Luke 6.35)
- "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live." Ezekiel 33:11
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,for you will heap burning coals on his head,and the Lord will reward you.
Rabbi Daniel explained to me that of course, one may interpret the first verse literally - if your enemy is physically hungry, give him a meal, if physically thirsty, give him water. But the second verse is a key that literalism is not the only way to read this. After all, you will not literally heap burning coals upon your enemy's head, nor is that a metaphor for discomfiting your enemy so much by your kindness that he will metaphorically be that uncomfortable in reaction.
Instead, Daniel cited multiple Scripture where the image of burning coals being poured over one's head refers to the certain judgment of God. If there are coals to be poured, Daniel explained, make sure you do the righteous things necessary to avoid them. The hunger, then, refers to a spiritual emptiness that you try to fill with the bread of life - for Jews, it means the Word of God, the witness of the Tanak; for Christians it means that also, plus the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And the same meaning for the water to drink.
So, how then to pray for Vladimir Putin? I could do nothing except pray for the grace of God to fall upon him and for the Holy Spirit to lead him and give him clarity of understanding, to turn his purposes to righteous endeavors, to bring him to lay aside the sword and embrace the cross. More specific than that I dared not. The many blanks are ably filled in by God.
And for the record, I also prayed for President Biden and the leaders of our and NATO governments. For this is also commanded by our Lord. And the people of Ukraine were at the top of our list today.
God bless them, every one.