We’re a week into the Obama presidency and the shifts in language, style, priorities, etc are already apparent. Last week, I mentioned one – the approach to a constellation of life issues: abortion (funding, access, etc.), stem-cell research and more.
The second issue is more subtle, but no less important. The inauguration celebrations surprisingly raised a national conversation about, of all things, prayer. The persons chosen to pray were part of the issue: Rick Warren, evangelical pastor of Southern California’s Saddleback Church; Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire; and Joseph Lowery, civil rights pioneer & retired head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Warren and Lowery’s prayers framed the inauguration itself—the invocation and benediction. Robinson’s was the initial prayer at the first inaugural event, the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. In the court of public opinion (ie editorials, blogs, interviews and commentary), the primary discussion was this: how representative of the United States’ people is this prayer? The leading values for evaluation seemed to be tolerance and inclusiveness. Many asserted that some things should be out of bounds—including praying in Jesus’ name, which was seen by many to be offensive and exclusionary of Buddhists and atheists. Praying blessing on the GLBT community was not seen in the same light.
Now, I’m not going to explore the individual prayers; they have been parsed word for word in other places. But let me point out two things. First, the level of agitation, suspicion, anger, irritation or spiritual ignorance about these presumably Christian prayers is just the tip of the iceberg. The response to the evangelical Christian message is changing dramatically and we had better get used to it. This is the new normal. Evangelism can no longer be four laws that we read off the back wall of our brain. Gospel influence is going to require more thought, more conversation, more engagement, more communication, more love and more patience than we have ever needed before.
The second (and related) observation is that the prayers revealed a deep confusion within the Christian community itself. Astonishingly, the confusion is over the gospel. Is the gospel about Jesus who reveals the heart and redeeming glory of God, about the protection of diversity that allows people to define God and the gospel on their own terms, or about liberation and social justice? The prayers of three self-identified Christian ministers reveal the conflict.
So, read and listen to the prayers for yourself. Then pray yourself, that we Christians will know our own gospel and be able to engage a secular world as it is—no matter who’s in office.
Gene Robinson’s prayer at the Lincoln Memorial (watch it here)
O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…
Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.
Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.
Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.
Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.
And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.
Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.
Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.
Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.
Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.
Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.
Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.
And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.
Rick Warren’s Invocation at the Inaugural (watch it here)
Almighty God, our Father:
Everything we see, and everything we can’t see, exists because of you alone.
It all comes from you, it all belongs to you, it all exists for your glory.
History is your story.
The Scripture tells us, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.
Now today we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African American president of the United States.
We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where a son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.
Give to our new president, Barack Obama,
the wisdom to lead us with humility,
the courage to lead us with integrity,
the compassion to lead us with generosity.
Bless and protect him, his family, Vice President Biden, the Cabinet, and every one of our freely elected leaders.
Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans–united not by race or religion or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.
When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you–forgive us.
When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone–forgive us.
When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve–forgive us.
And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes—even when we differ.
Help us to share, to serve, and to seek the common good of all.
May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy, and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet.
And may we never forget that one day, all nations–and all people–will stand accountable before you.
We now commit our new president and his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, into your loving care.
I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life—Yeshua, ‘Isa, Jesus [Spanish pronunciation], Jesus—who taught us to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Joseph Lowery’s Benediction at the Inaugural (watch it here)
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.
We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.
For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.
We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.
Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.