Sunday, February 05, 2017


Sunday Reflection: The Problem with Public Prayer

President Trump followed the tradition of other presidents and spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this week, saying this (and no, I'm not going to quote the weird part about "The Apprentice"):

I will tell you that and I tell you that from somebody that has had material success and knows tremendous numbers of people with great material success, the most material success. Many of those people are very, very miserable, unhappy people.
And I know a lot of people without that, but they have great families. They have great faith; they don't have money, at least, not nearly to the extent. And they're happy. Those, to me, are the successful people, I have to tell you.
TRUMP: I was blessed to be raised in a churched home. My mother and father taught me that to whom much is given, much is expected. I was sworn in on the very Bible from which my mother would teach us as young children, and that faith lives on in my heart every single day.

There is some truth in there. For whatever else you might think, Trump isn't over-scripted, at least.

A lot of people had a problem with what Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast. My problem is with the National Prayer Breakfast itself. I have never liked the idea of a prayer breakfast as a Christian who cares about what Christ actually taught (as I have said before):

First, the centerpiece of a prayer breakfast is usually the very public prayer by an honored figure such as a governor or former quarterback (or in this case, the President). But how does this jibe with Jesus’ teaching? The truth, if you believe the gospels to contain truth, is that prayer is to be a private matter; Jesus’s instructions were that “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” I am always surprised how easily some people dismiss this clear instruction (and they are often the same ones who decide who is and isn't a "real" Christian based on their interpretation of much more ambiguous passages).

Second, a truly Christian prayer breakfast would feature an utterly vacant head table. This is what Jesus taught about banquets: “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Yet, somehow, the head table always seems full from the start.

Finally, the prayer breakfast is structured so that the primary speaker is presented as a heroic figure. He (and it is usually a “he”) is given a glowing introduction, a seat of honor, and more often than not a standing ovation when the prayer is concluded. How seductive this must be! Those of us with theological ambitions, meanwhile, cannot help imagining ourselves as one of these Super Christians as we watch from the back. Of course, like all who are honored, these Prayer Heroes are held to impossible standards and when subjected to scrutiny too often see their status dissolve in scandal or confusion. Is it the seduction of power and privilege? Could this be what Christ himself warned against in teaching “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men?”

In the end, the prayer breakfast is structured to ignore the key nutrient of the Christian faith, which is humility. It is not in gazing up at the Super Christian (or the President as the President) that I glimpse God in others. More often, it is in a humbler scene, fraught with quiet and light: The silent circle of Quakers, the Catholics kneeling with reverence and cupped hands, the Mormons on bicycles, and the Baptists with hammers, building a home where once there was none.

Great points. Public prayer is always a tough gig. But I am not sure I am ready to get rid of it.
I stopped at an Aldi grocery store on 8 mi rd in Detroit. I had brought a bag to carry my stuff which wasn't very heavy. There was a long wait at the check out counter and I was struck by everyone's patience as the checkout attendant disappeared to help a customer. The young woman behind me had an armful of groceries in her arms. I cleared a place on the conveyor for her to put her things down. We never spoke. When I was checking out the cashier told me that my purchase was being paid for by the next in line. This old white geezer was being given a gift of kindness. It was going to be put on her Bridge card. She tried to tell me that it was a gift from the state but I felt, at that moment, looking into her eyes that I was being given a gift from someone higher.

This story to me is also about the clerk who acted as if this was a common occurrence at her counter. This gave me an insight into a culture of unspoken kindnesses. I think that this is what makes America great. At least for a while this cleared my head from cable news coverage of the prayer breakfast.

My dad had been involved with the prayer breakfast for about 30 years. I attended my senior year in college back in February 1992. More often than not, my dad actually skips the breakfast itself, as he did this year. I know, however, that the group that puts it on has been able to use the event to spend the week with foreign dignitaries from countries geographically close to us like Haiti, and those far away, like in Africa, many of different faiths, who actually come to the U.S. for the event. They are able to use these other activities to build bridges between government officials and even dictators and citizens of their country, or between those officials and other countries. While the breakfast itself might deserve the critical analysis you have given here, I'm happy to report that there is a lot of which I think Jesus would approve going on behind the scenes.
HCB-- Well... you could probably do all of that without the politician-centered prayer event!
But I think it makes for a nice totem poll around which to attract people who wouldn't otherwise come. Just a thought.
But, doesn't the express instruction of Christ mean something? Or do you just dismiss it in favor of our "Christian" culture? To a degree, of course, we all do... but we should struggle with that, at least.
As I said originally, I think there's room for your criticism of the event itself. It's not a great event, which is probably one of the reasons that my dad skips It even though he's ostensibly in town for it. But I was just trying to encourage you that there is some Godly stuff going on behind the scenes, so all is not lost with the event itself.

I attended a prayer breakfast last May for the National Day of Prayer that turned out to be largely similar in format. People purchased tickets/tables (someone invited me to sit at one of their two tables) and dignitaries sat on stage and took turns speaking/praying. Off of the top of my head, I can't remember if it was expressly Christian or multi-religion, but probably Christian. Personally, I didn't really enjoy it, and your criticisms above are probably why. There's something wrong with a prayer gathering that points to any human, but it's not all bad if a byproduct is stronger relationships the rest of the year among believers and a situation where our leaders are compelled to openly give us a look into their personal theology.
Mark, when you get a chance, listen to the sermon from 7th and James this morning. I will try to download it and put it on Facebook. It was fantastic.

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