My kid brother Mark was a huge Billy Joel fan and there was one afternoon in our parents’ home when he defended his hero in words I’ll never forget.
I had nothing against Billy Joel; he was spellbinding then as now. But I do tune in to the messages conveyed in lyrics. On the day in question I had complained about how blatantly Joel promoted the corruption of innocence in his smash hit “Only the Good Die Young.”
“Well, yeah,” Mark conceded. Then he countered, “but I do like that line, she never cared for me, but did she ever say a prayer for me.”
Mark pointed out that if the guy in the song was coming over to the girl’s house, then bad intentions or not, the family had a chance to help him understand their faith by the way they treated him. And they failed.
That observation from a tenderhearted preteen stayed with me for decades, reminding me over and over again of Christ’s most difficult instruction:
Love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully use you.
The country has just watched a new president take the oath of office, and I’ve been having conversations with friends about government and the state of the nation.
Friends on both the left and the right, though troubled by division and paying lip service to the call for unity in the inaugural address, continued to mock and misrepresent people who don’t share their ideas about what’s good for America.
As I reflected on this over the week, cringing at the sight of Facebook rants and mocking memes, Billy Joel’s line and the memory I attach to it rose to memory.
She never cared for me, but did she ever say a prayer for me?
Obviously, the woman in the song had a right to suspect the young man’s motives regarding her daughter. But her failure to love him closed a door in his soul and made it easier for him to disrespect her, her church and her daughter.
We behave similarly in the public square when loveless attacks on political enemies becomes our defining trait.
We must tread lightly with human hearts.
And seek forgiveness when we fail.
I’ve been listening to a remarkable series of spiritual talks on “prayer, beauty and mission” by the winsome Irish Dominican friar, poet, theologian and scholar, Fr. Paul Murray. His message moved me to contemplate a scriptural phrase from the book of Ezekiel in light of the national moment.
In Ezekiel’s 13th chapter, the Lord addresses religious leaders in a time of destruction through the voice of his prophet. “You have not gone up into the gaps,” he charges.
They’d failed to care for the souls of the people. Destruction followed this woeful dereliction of duty.
God had found no one to stand in the gap and intercede, the prophet adds in a later chapter.
You have not gone up into the gaps.
Applying the phrase to our own age, Murray asks:
Is there a battle, a front line, as it were, which we have not had the courage to face, a challenge which for years perhaps we have been avoiding?
The phrase “go up into the gaps” refers primarily to the need for us to enter into the gaps of “the fashionable ideologies of our times with the Gospel vision,” Murray states.
Certainly these gaps have widened as our nation becomes more and more polarized. While some of us go into these gaps with undisguised hostility, others, wishing for social approval, fail to go into these gaps at all, keeping silence instead. Our silence can to destruction as it did to ancient Israel in the Babylonian exile.
But Murray says there is another less obvious gap we must also enter. This is the gap within ourselves, “the hidden space where the kingdom of God first has its roots.” It is the gap that can only be filled with prayer in drawing nearer to the presence of God.
Billy Joel put his finger on one of these gaps when he asked, “She never cared for me, but did she ever say a prayer for me?”
Our failure to listen in love when “going up into the gaps” of fashionable ideology is making it increasingly difficult to remain consistent in healing other cultural gaps, to defend innocent human life, treat desperate migrants with dignity and battle racist divides.
We will never earn a hearing with people who know we neither care for them nor ever say a prayer for them.
But grace will flow once more when we go into the gap of lovelessness with prayer.
Anger at our opponents is often utterly justified. Concern about the nation’s future is always valid. It’s also irresponsible to hide from reality and avoid confrontation.
But the political climate in the country has exposed our hearts for what they really are. We do not love our enemies. We do not pray for them.
When we dehumanize our opponents with loveless labels we tarnish the faith we claim is the truth.
This is a gap within our very souls: the gap between the faith we profess and our inability to live it well.
Christ’s love is the gospel that fills the gaps with grace.
She never cared for me…but did she ever say a prayer for me?
No. she did not.
But we do not have to be guilty of her omission.
Let us go up into the gaps with humility and with love, praying that God will fill them with his grace.
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Four years ago, I wrote after inauguration day about our need for humility.
You might also enjoy Create Peace by Dying to Red/Blue Hostility in a Martyrdom of the Heart.
Fr. Paul Murray’s course on “Prayer, Beauty and Mission” is so rich. It’s available, along with courses on theology, faith and science, literature and much more to members of the Word on Fire Institute, whose luxurious quarterly journal, Evangelization and Culture is a treasury of wisdom and beauty.