There’s pretty much consensus that it’s been a terrible year, and as 2016 draws to a close, things don’t seem to be looking much better. Between the horrific scenes coming out of war-torn Aleppo, the encroaching famine in Yemen and another shocking terrorist attack, we might be struggling to find a way to pray this Christmas.
But as we sing those familiar carols by candlelight, perhaps there’s a way we can use those old songs to intercede for the world.
1. Pray prophetically
Christmas is a time to celebrate, but how can we remain mindful of those caught up in the grief and agony of conflict, displacement or hunger? I was struck by the words of my favourite carol O Holy Night this week:
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
If I consider the slaves of this world as brothers, my perspective on their situation changes; it moves me to pray passionately and urgently for their release. This is a prophetic song, and we need to hold onto the hope that God is at work to bring freedom to all. As you sing it this year, declare over the world, that all oppression one day will end.
2. Pray light would shine in the darkness
When we read the news, it can feel like the whole world is shrouded in darkness. The rise of hate crime in the UK this year is disturbing. Refugees fleeing war and persecution have experienced xenophobia and prejudice on our soil. That famous reading from the start of John and the carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem reminds us that in the dark streets shines the Everlasting Light.
It was a young schoolgirl in Brixton who brought light to my own feelings of darkness about our response to the refugee crisis. Lambeth council had been slow to respond to the community’s request to house refugees. As part of a school project, this girl had written that she would share her toys with the refugees. She ended up going to a meeting at the council, who were so moved by what the girl had shared they agreed to welcome refugee families into the community. The actions of a child softened the hearts of her leaders, and changed their policy.
However dark it feels, there are beacons of light like this young girl, which no one can put out.
3. Pray with an open heart
As things get grim and grimmer in the world, hiding under the duvet can feel like a much safer option than attempting to engage. And quite frankly, we all need days like that. However if we are moved, angered or exasperated by the tragic events of the world, maybe we also need to listen to that niggle. I’m not saying we all have to go and stand in front of the snipers in Syria or house five refugee families. But in the new year there might be one or two actions we choose to take about situations which aggravate us; writing to an MP, volunteering at a drop-in centre, chatting to someone who looks out of place at church.
So often the overwhelming nature of global tragedies debilitates rather than motivates us. If we can’t change everything, we choose not to change anything. But I believe not only that collectively we can make a difference but that it is what God calls us to do. As we sing this carol at Christmas, let’s pray that God would show us what he is asking of us and be ready to respond, no matter how small or insignificant it may feel:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
4. Pray for Emmanuel to come
So many of the Christmas songs are a reminder that God has come to be with us. O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a deep cry to be rescued from slavery which ends with a promise that the Saviour will come to set us free. The profound heart of the Christmas story is that we are not left alone on this suffering world, there is One who has endured the same tensions, questions and pains as us. The song is both an acknowledgement that Emmanuel has come, and also that he will come.
It’s hard to see how God is present anywhere in the horrors of the Syrian civil war but I recently became aware of an incredible charity which encouraged me about the future of the country. Ambassadors for Peace are training up teenagers in Syria and Iraq to become peacemakers in their own communities and steer the path to genuine reconciliation. They are working across the divides and believe that the next generation hold the key to lasting peace. It soothed my soul to see this grassroots organisation courageously holding out hope that not all is lost, that God is at work to redeem and restore.
Editor’s Remark: I pray that you would know tidings of comfort and joy this Christmas as you pray for the world; and that you would be reminded May the Lord abide with us all.