Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Greece v. Galloway: The Place of Public Prayer

As a pastor, I will happily pray when asked.  Want to start something with prayer?  I'm there  Unless it's a family dinner, when I'd really rather someone else do it. Because Daddy gets enough practice.

In worship, prayer is a core part of what I do.  It's a fundamental and irreducible part of the pastoral skill set, and a basic component of any faithful life.  It's as central to what we Jesus folk do in our lives together as meditation is to a Buddhist.

It's how I start my day, too, at least the days where I feel more centered and grace-filled.

I start pretty much every church meeting with prayer, because when you're deciding about your future, it's a good thing to remind yourself exactly why you're there in the first place.  But in those meetings, I'm aware that the purpose of the meeting, generally speaking, is not to listen to me praying. That doesn't make the prayer less necessary.  It becomes a marking: what we're doing is part of a sacred commitment.  And as Jesus so pointedly put it, we don't need to ramble on endlessly.  Keep it focused.  It's the vocal equivalent of ringing a bell, a bright tone that hangs in the air, marking a transition.

When I'm praying publicly and outside of the bounds of a service or church meeting, though, there are other things to think about.  I am usually aware of who is around me.  I'm aware of what will work, and what will be meaningful.

And that means, when I pray in mixed company, meaning a room that might include infidels, unbelievers, and other family and friends, I'm aware of how my prayer might sound in their ears.  Typically, in such circumstances, I'll pray the sort of prayer that, were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington sitting around the dinner table, they'd be able to say Amen.  On a good day, I might even be able to get a nod or a grunt out of Richard Dawkins.  OK, it would have to be a very good day.  But it's within the realm of possibility.

Meaning, I reach into my Enlightenment Deist toolbox, which is a subset of what I believe, and pray from that.

There are plenty of Christians who have a problem with that, or who struggle to figure out how that gets done authentically.

It's part of what's at play in one of the cases currently before the Supreme Court, as a township in which  prayers regularly begin public meetings has struggled with a legal challenge to that practice. I tend to think that in mixed company…as our nation is…it's better to go with a time for silent contemplation.  Seek the truth you know, and the common good, and meditate on it.

The township seems to have done everything reasonable to accommodate all belief systems, opening itself to Muslims and Buddhists and Wiccans.  If a humanist wanted to lead off with a secular reflection, they'd be welcome to do so.  I find it hard to see that as exclusionary or establishmentarian, by any rational definition of those terms.

But I find myself reflecting less on the legal merits, and more on how this impacts how Christians publicly speak.  if you find yourself in a place of public prayer, as I have on occasion, you can do it right, and you can do it wrong.  Here, I'm not thinking about the law, or about the Constitution.  Love this country as I do, it does not have my primary allegiance.  I'm thinking about the Gospel.  There are ways we can screw up the Great Commandment, and make the Gospel look brittle and unwelcoming, and we can do it publicly.

I know this more deeply than most pastors, because through a peculiar twist of the Lord's providence, my family is Jewish. My wife is. My kids are. I've been in places where prayers that closed them out have been offered, and I know…because they are my flesh and blood…what that feels like.

A few years back at a scouting gathering, an earnest youth pastor from a large nearby Jesus Warehouse offered up a sustained prayer to the gathered scouts in the name of Jesus, invoking the sacrifice of the Cross and the Blood of the Lamb.  I think, for those in the gathering who were already part of his community, the prayer probably sounded fine.  "It's just how we talk," they would say.

But it jarred not just my wife, but others in the gathering, because it did not establish a sacred space that the whole group could enter together.

A prayer that is ferociously and defiantly cast at a group from the collective in-group language of Christianity does not draw more people to the message of Jesus. It might feel good, to be up there, praying in the Blessed Name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ so that all Might Hear His Glorious Name, but what you're really doing when you do that is neither group prayer or evangelism.

Because they already know you're Christian. They do. What they don't know is why that's a good thing.

I know, I know, don't be ashamed about what you believe.  But honestly? It's equally important not to be foolish about it.  If the Paul had marched up Mars Hill in Athens and tried to hammer folks with the Unvarnished and Uncompromising Gospel Truth, he'd have failed.  Put him in Greece, and he knew what he had to do.  Paul knew how to speak to those who were different.  That didn't make him weak.  It made him an Apostle.

Christianity first spread because it was willing to articulate its transcendent truth cross-culturally, to express itself in terms that had nothing to do with groupspeak, and instead to find ways to be self-evidently good.

But we have to pray in the name of Jesus, folks will respond. If we don't, then we're not following Him!  That's just namby-pamby wishy-washy liberal relativism! To which I would ask, simply: When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, in the one great prayer of our faith, did he tell us to do so in his name? Or did he invoke our Maker, and then call us to humility and mutual forbearance?

When we find ourselves in a position to make public statements…particularly public sacred statements...that rise from our faith, there's no good reason for us not to find and use common language. Yes, there are other things you believe. But who will care to learn about them if your language is a closed door?