Points to Ponder: When Prayer is Performance: Does God Clap?
Points to Ponder
When Prayer is Performance: Does God Clap?
When prayer is just a performance, does God regard it? Does the degree with which He listens relate in direct proportion to the substance it contains?
When our nation was preparing to inaugurate Barack Obama as President of the United States, two men he chose to deliver prayers at the event spurred on quite a bit of discussion. Both the left and the right on the political as well as the religious spectrum praised and protested. But what were those "prayers" that Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church in California and Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church, a self-avowed practicing homosexual, going to be?
"What are you going to say?" a journalist asked Bishop Robinson. Interesting question. Are they giving a speech or saying a prayer?
The audience for a speech is different from the audience for a prayer. At a speech, people come to hear a speaker or preacher give a message to them. With a prayer, the audience consists of One. That audience of One already knows the message being sent His way before the person praying has formed the sentences in his/her mind. So a prayer is about connecting with the One who knows our hearts. Prayer, if we are really seeking a connection with our Creator, should be more of a listening experience; seeking the heart and the will of the One who knows what is best. But these political ceremonies with prayer on the agenda have such potential for hypocrisy, I wonder what God does with it.
A few years back a freshman Maryland State Senator invited me to give the opening prayer at the Monday evening Senate session, an honor he wished to grant me. I declined, opting to be home for my daughter's bedtime story and prayers instead. The state Senate has all kinds of rules about what is okay to say; guidelines for politically correct praying, a "P.C. prayer." It impressed me as a performance for the audience in the chamber rather than a sincere entreaty of the One who personally created each one sitting within it. Did they really want God's guidance?
Some sincere evangelical Christians have criticized Rick Warren as if his participation would be a political endorsement of Mr. Obama's beliefs about abortion and others things. Yet the scripture seems to support his being there.
"Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:1-4).
Of course, if Pastor Warren performs instead of prays, then we have Jesus' words to apply.
"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward" (Matthew 6:5).
Of course Jesus' audience consisted mainly of average folks who aren't called on to pray aloud. Pastors are however; but still we're not there to perform or to impress people. Meet God and lead others so to do, that's the role we play in public prayer.
Bishop Robinson's comments on his intended style of praying brings me back to First Timothy. He said he, though a bishop in a Christian denomination (who says the Bible is the Word of God), would not invoke or refer to the name of Jesus. He will be addressing God as each person "understands him to be." In the ancient Roman empire that would be praying to the "Pantheon" ("all gods," as each one understands them to be). So what then of this?
"For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,..." (I Timothy 2:5-6).
Then there is what Jesus said of Himself in the Gospel of John.
"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me'" (John 14:6).
There are inherent dangers in being honored by men to say a prayer before men. Those who will comment, compliment, and curse what you said are not the audience you've been called to address. Yet, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) that if you offend people for His namesake, "blessed are you."
These two men had a challenging task before them; as do we all in the various circles in which we live and dwell.
President Obama is now in the White House, the grandstand is gone, and life has resumed as before. But as you reflect back on how God and faith have been regarded in the public square, what do you think is up ahead?
God isn't looking for a show. Performance is all about us impressing ourselves. Obedience is about God and confessing "without (You) I can do nothing." (John 15). What will it take to bring us, in humility, to that point?
I think we very soon shall see.
Points to Ponder is a series of occasional articles written by Rev. Dennis Whitmore, Pastor of Hilltop Christian Fellowship of Clear Spring, MD. These articles are also found at www.HilltopChristianFellowship.com. Listen to Pastor Dennis on WJEJ-1240 AM, Tues and Thurs, 10:45am and 7:45pm.