The One In Which I Wade Into Political Waters

At the beginning of the 117th Congress, U.S. Rep. (and reverend) Emmanuel Cleaver (D. MO), offered a “prayer” of invocation. The news cycle gave a lot of attention to this prayer, because he ended it by famously saying, “Amen, and a-woman.” You’ve no doubt seen many remarks on this, which is nothing more than empty pandering to the social concern du jour. The English word “amen” is a carryover from the Hebrew which means “certainly,” or “let it be so.” There is no gender tied to the “men” of amen, so uttering this is nothing short of silly. My guess is that this was a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the business of the day in Congress. Later that day, the House proposed rules changes for general neutral terms; “chairman” will become “chair”; terms for familial relationships such as “mother, father, daughter, son, sister and brother” will be replaced with terms such as “parent, child and sibling.”

While I do not wish to engage in any kind of personal attack on Representative Cleaver, I do think it is fair to examine his prayer for what it is. 

For one thing, if you are praying in a public setting, and your are trying to make a point to the people hearing the prayer, and being cute in the prayer, you’ve stopped praying to God, and you’ve started talking to the people. As a pastor, I regularly pray with and for others, expressing the needs of the people before God. But the purpose of prayer is to entreat before our Sovereign God the needs and cares of our hearts, and to seek from Him the provision of our daily bread – not score political points or say something that will make the headlines. Cleaver had to know that his pun would be all that the people would hear, and he chose to include it in his prayer anyway. Every session of Congress opens with prayer, very seldom does it make the news cycle. This was an attention getter – and the prayer got what it sought – attention. 

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he began by saying, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5-6).

To be perfectly honest, however, I gave up on the “prayer” long before he said, “a-woman.” I couldn’t get past how he addressed the mediator of his prayer. Rep. Cleaver is a ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, so he’s certainly been trained in Biblical studies and theology. How then can he end his prayer, asking all that he did in the “name of the monotheistic god, Brahma, and God known by many names by many different faiths”?

I understand the difficulty of praying in an ecumenical, inter-faith, setting. You cannot assume, when praying in a large setting, that all who are praying share your faith. But if you’ve been asked to pray, you haven’t been asked to lay aside your faith for the sake of others. This mealy-mouthed, pan-theistic address at the conclusion of his prayer should never have been uttered from the mouth of a follower of Christ.

I know as a Methodist Cleaver doesn’t subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but the Confession does instruct us in our prayers. “Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue” (WCF XXI 3). In John 14:13-14 Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” A Christian prays in the name of Christ, for in Him is our only hope of being heard.

  • When he says “monotheistic god” one must assume Cleaver is speaking of the God of the Bible, but also including the religions of the Jews and Muslims. The point has been made numerous times so I’ll say this succinctly, Christians, Jews, and Muslims do not worship the same God. Christians affirm that Jesus is the Son of God, the eternal 2nd person of the Trinity, who took on flesh and died for our trespasses, and was raised on the 3rd day for our justification. If you deny the Son, you deny the Father as well (1 John 2:23).
  • “Brahma” is the Hindu god of creation, their chief among a pantheon of gods.
  • And the “god known by many names by many different faiths…” is a catch-all for any that he couldn’t name.

This bothers me more than some silly “a-woman” phrase at the end of this pious posturing before the people.  Essentially, Cleaver, an ordained minister of the sacraments of Jesus Christ, standing in the great tradition of John and Charles Wesley, offers a prayer for the Congress to any god who will listen, while careful not to mention the only God who hears. Three days after the prayer, thousands stormed Capital Hill and several broke into the chambers and office of Congress, disrupting the democratic process of certifying the presidential election. These thugs, criminals, and hooligans were acting like godless hordes, and they should be held responsible. But when those who are called to pray for the people cannot shine a clear light for the people to see, how can the people help but stumble in the darkness.

Lord have mercy. Let us pray.


A Call to Prayer

It has been my custom over the past few years during the week of Thanksgiving to post one of the Presidential Decrees of Thanksgiving in order to be reminded of our blessings as a nation, and of our constant need to turn to God in praise and thanksgiving.

This year, as we approach Thanksgiving in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I know many of us will have to celebrate differently than we have in the past. Many families cannot come together because of travel restrictions and concerns for spreading the virus. Some live in places where gatherings or more than 2 households are prohibited. Even if you celebrate in a normal fashion, there is a cloud hanging over our heads that is unavoidable.

This year I thought I’d take a slightly different approach at Thanksgiving, and post a Presidential call for Prayer. COVID isn’t the first pandemic to hit our nation. Recently, we’ve seen the H5N1 (Avian Flu) and H1N1 Flu viruses. In 1918 there was the Spanish Flu.

But even before that, in the 1830-40’s, the world was gripped with a Cholera Pandemic. Originating in polluted water sources in India, Cholera moved through Africa, Asia, and Europe, before finally coming to the US. In Russia alone, cholera killed over one million people, including the famous composer, Tchaikovsky. Over 20 years, more than 200,000 Americans died of Cholera.

On July 3, 1849, President Zachary Taylor proclaimed a National Day of Fasting and Prayer, writing:

At a season when the providence of God has manifested itself in the visitation of a fearful pestilence which is spreading itself throughout the land, it is fitting that a people whose reliance has ever been in His protection should humble themselves before His throne, and, while acknowledging past transgressions, ask a continuance of Divine mercy.

It is therefore earnestly recommended that the first Friday in August be observed throughout the United States as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer. All business will be suspended in the various branches of the public service on that day; and it is recommended to persons of all religious denominations to abstain as far as practicable from secular occupation and to assemble in their respective places of public worship, to acknowledge the Infinite Goodness which has watched over our existence as a nation, and so long crowned us with manifold blessings, and to implore the Almighty, in His own good time to stay the destroying hand which is now lifted up against us.

(Source: Benjamin Franklin Morris, Christian Life And Character Of The Civil Institutions Of The United States, from Internet Archive)

As we gather this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, may we recall before God all for which we have to be grateful. We praise God for His providential care, for the blessings that He has bestowed upon His creation, the mercies of God which are new every morning, and the love that He has lavished upon those He has redeemed in Christ Jesus. May we speak of His glory, His grace, His wisdom, and His faithfulness toward us. And may we humbly, reverently, and passionately plea for God’s hand to stay the destruction of this virus which is now upon us.