Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Public Prayer as a Prop

Good morning, America!

Felt so good to fly the flag yesterday that I went out and did it again today. Not out of pride (which goes before a fall) but out of humility and hope. It feels like a boot heel has been lifted from my throat. I can breathe again.

The public spectacle of inaugurations always makes me grimace at one point: prayer. Odd thing for a pastor, huh? Odd thing for somebody who does spontaneous prayers weekly in response to the requests of the people at the Operation Nightwatch worship service.

It really crashed in on me listening to Franklin Graham's invocation eight years ago when George W. Bush took office the first time. I thought, "Who in the world taught this man to pray out loud?" Answer: Billy Graham. That ought to be enough to shut me up. But I couldn't help feeling turned off by the prayer. It didn't seem genuine. It seemed postured. It seemed to be bossing God around, like ordering God to put the divine stamp of approval on all that would follow--or else. To me, the prayer came across like a prop.

That nailed the feeling I had again yesterday as Pastor Rick Warren prayed. Did he really need to say again for the billionth time "first African American president"? This was news to God? It didn't seem very humble. It seemed like going through the motions, that because of who he was as megachurch pastor, or because of what the USA is or thinks it is, God was now obligated to act. Act, God! Not according to divine wisdom and will but according to our plans.

Note to future event organizers: Don't give pastors two minutes to pray. Give them 20 seconds. Or less. Pinch them hard if you want to hear them being humble for once.

BUT IN FAIRNESS, I went back this morning and re-read Rick Warren's prayer. It reads much better than its delivery. Yes, the much maligned liberal rag, The Oregonian, actually reprinted Warren's prayer. In full! Even coached us that one of the uses of Jesus was Spanish.

In reading Warren's prayer I realized its true value. It had put Warren on the spot of having to pray with and for all the people of our country--and for once be overheard doing it. Strip away the walls of sectarian sanctuaries of samethinkingness and finally we might get somewhere!

This is the deep core of Jesus and the God revealed to us through him: you can't love someone you do not know, and it becomes much harder to condemn anyone you truly and deeply know. When known, they become real. I'd venture that Rick Warren came away with a deepened sense of that yesterday, even if not one other soul did. That's huge! Brilliant choice, Mr. President!

(NOTE: Rick Warren is to be studied and emulated in many ways, having given back every cent of his lifetime salary and having devoted himself to ending as much poverty as his lifespan will allow. Church leaders and people everywhere: are you watching?)

For the record, the Rev. Joseph Lowery who led the benediction prayer also went too long. But he was much better. He even got lyrical with a dance of words near the end. But then, this old civil rights leader and veteran still has what our new president and first family have: soul. Our new President got soul! Dig it?

Enough of using public prayer as a prop! And I speak as one who does both prayer and poetry at public gatherings. Get to it. Get real. Get humble. Stop telling God what God already knows. Stop shoving God into the prefab box that looks just like us. Pray humble. Pray honest. And pray big, as big as you can get.

Better yet, I wish all our leaders would stop having people stand up to pray for them and stop giving people speeches others have written for them (Obama wrote his own!). Here's what I would have done yesterday at the end of my inaugural address instead of "God bless America":

Father, I can't do this without your help. I can't do this without theirs. Help us all, Father. Amen.

Ten seconds. That's all it took.


Pastor Roger


jon said...

Could you elaborate more on how you saw the inauguration prayer a prop? Do you think Warren was using it as a prop or that Americans do, or that the president does, or all/none of the above?

Pastor Roger: said...

Jon, Was warren using it as a prop? No. We were using him as a prop. He was obviously chosen for name recognition and status among certain Americans--a symbolic gesture not all bad but also political. In these situations, especially if two whole minutes are allowed, so much PC gets thrown in that the prayer loses focus. By attempting to taste like everything it ends up having little or no flavor at all. Best thing I've ever read on the subject was by George Will when Bush I was pres. It's call, "Opposing Prefab Prayer." Would I end the practice? No, just shorten to 30 seconds max. Get simple. Get specific, get real. Get done. Or else make a speech or just read a poem instead. My take, but yours can be different. Roger