Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Prayer in the Public Square

The issue of prayer in publicly sanctioned venues has been a sticky wicket for decades now. What subject can make veins bulge on evangelical foreheads more than the notion of prayer in school? "They took God out of school," goes the battle cry. Similarly ridiculous sound bites could often be heard from the fundamentalist pulpits I grew up under. The long shadow of the imposing lectern stretched across our pew, with the resounding words impregnating fear into the gasping audience. Secular humanism has had its victories to be sure, but none so great as have been handed to it by whiny moral-majority churchy soft-jihadists who decided to "take up their marbles and go home" if they couldn't play the way they wanted to. Having attended "Baptist Fundamentalist '84" when I was in ninth grade, I know what I speak about. Good times, my friend. Good times.

But I digress...

The fundamentalists' demand for prayer in school, displaying the Ten Commandments on courthouses or nativity scenes on government lawns are all symptoms of the Constantinian fallacy, namely Christendom. Ever since Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christians in the west have assumed that society owes them a hearing in the public arena. A bygone mystery are the heady days of apostolic wondering through marketplaces, perilously delivering the good news to anyone who would listen. Now we just assume that since the country was started by largely church-going gentlemen, it follows that we have a right to a public forum embedded in the societal DNA. However, missiologists will assert that Christendom has been among the more damaging distractions away from the advancement of Christianity ever to impede the Church. Expecting a venue for declaring Christ has limited our instinct to earn one.

A manner in which this can apply to prayer in the public square is in how one approaches public prayer for governmental occasions. This is a delicate situation to approach. If the believer invited to pray for those gathered asserts his orthodoxy too strongly, he may forfeit future opportunities to minister in a greatly needed fashion. On the other hand, if he asserts no personal orthodoxy at all, he will have neutered his credibility to offer spiritual guidance at crucial moments. The dance steps necessary for this scenario would challenge Danny Kay.

Such nuancing may seem a lightening of my former position: namely, that prayer "in Jesus' name" is the mandated norm regardless of venue. However, I have come to discover that many might legitimately find "in Jesus' name" rather bludgeoning considering the bullying works of those pursuing Christendom. In light of this, it is understandable that some would want to see Jesus in your life before they hear him from your lips. Am I "selling out"? Perhaps. My time spent with a fire department has taught me to "feel out" the situation better before charging in with righteous crusade-ism. The opportunity to minister in certain situations (especially government functions) is a privilege that can be revoked without notice. Play it poorly, and the chance to "show" people Jesus will dissipate because I was too busy beating them with his name. Fire chaplains have discovered this. Navy chaplains have as well. It's not about what you want to say so much as its about what will show them the love of Christ, make him attractive and mediate his grace to a people as undeserving of it as you were.

This principle also has woven into my regular privilege of offering the invocation for the city council meetings for the City of Fate. This rare opportunity is not my chance to advance my agenda or make sure my voice is heard. This is not the moment to make certain my theology gets a hearing, or to reinforce that God is victorious over contrary forces by placing me in such a position. It's unlikely Daniel survived several ancient Near East regimes through such practices. While it has been quite satisfying to pray for the city and the community publicly in these moments in a manner that reflects my specific orthodoxy ('in Jesus' name"), it does not follow that this privileged opportunity exists to ensure that my voice is heard in the community. On the contrary, I've had to assume that this opportunity to minister to the city in this fashion will be short lived. Indeed, if objections arise regarding how specific to my faith my public prayers may be I'll then have to wrestle with whether to continue in that vein or not. It is certain though that the invocation does not exist to offer me a platform for public attention.

This is the primary reason I have difficulty with those that see prayer in the public square as a moment to showcase the pray-er. The attention must go to the One prayed to. This is not a universal view though. Some see such occasions as a chance for various faith groups to "share the spotlight." The emphasis is more on the pray-er than on the how the prayer ministers to the community they serve, or on the One prayed to on behalf of the audience. Even my regular invocations at the Fate city council meetings has drawn an objection because (it is posed) more diverse faith groups should be represented. The objection is therefore built on the premise that the pray-er is the more important factor. Unwittingly, the objector is making Constantine proud.

Moreover, I was tasked to find a substitute minister to offer the invocation for the city business meeting whenever I would be absent. This I quickly set about to do through a network of pastors I had formed. The pastors I considered for substituting clearly understood the nature of the invocation, and would not use it to advance their agenda or "make their voices heard." They understood the nature of ministering to the city in this manner, and could be trusted to faithfully execute the invocation free of personal baggage. With this in mind, I would not have approached a minister to perform this service for the city who was seeking it. It's about service, not the spotlight. If more objections arise, I will more willingly discontinue this service to the city rather than assert my "rights" or "position." There is no "right" to pray in the city council meeting, nor is offering the invocation a "position" of any sort. Christendom can go by the board, but I will gladly serve the community in this fashion for as long as God allows this unlikely opportunity.

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