I was honored to be the keynote speaker for a National Day of Prayer event sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Kingwood this morning. (The honor was heighten, in fact, as Congressman Ted Poe, our District’s Representative to the U.S. Congress gave one of the opening prayers. Talk about a reversal of roles! It’s usually the Congressmen/women who keynote and the clergy who pray!!!) The defined theme for the event? “One Nation Under God.” For what it’s worth, I’d like to share my reflections on the “paradoxes” embedded in such a day and theme (“paradoxes” for me, at least) by sharing my morning address. You can either read the rough “draft” here below or listen online by clicking here. (Admittedly, there tend to be some pretty significant adjustments on the way from manuscript [when I do manuscript] to final product — as typed draft morphs to hard copy [marked up and chopped up]… and as “bloody” hard copy gives way to final delivery [with its inevitable improvisations and adjustments made in response to a crowd and its body language].)
You’ll forgive me for confining my talk to a manuscript this morning. I take pride in a lot of my speaking being conversational as I talk from a mental outline. There are times, though, when the constraints of time and the need for precision favors my pinning my words down. I know you invited me to speak. Forgive me, then, if I read – with a real attempt at making eye contact!
I want to express my thanks to Diane Perry and all of you for the invitation to be with you this morning… and for the honor it represents. I’m grateful, as well, for family and friends who are here this morning to share this honor with me.
From the outset, I believe it’s important to say that I do not mean to offend anyone this morning. I acknowledge, though, that the risks get higher the more approaches highly personal and sacred realities — such as Nation and God and Prayer. I begin, then, by acknowledging that what I have to share this morning are the ponderings, the opinions of a United Methodist Pastor. Moreover, a Pastor who believes that life is full of paradoxes – a sea of necessary tensions. I am not a centrist. It’s not that I seek some diluted compromise in the middle. What I seek and try to live out of are necessary conversations in and about a whole array of polarities or tensions which life and living and faith present to us.
In the context of a National Day of Prayer and a breakfast organized around a theme of “One Nation Under God,” these paradoxes play out in myriad ways – with my having a variety of knee-jerk impressions:
- I strongly believe in the separation of Church and State even as I believe that it’s impossible to separate Politics and polity from foundational values informed by spirituality.
I strongly believe and perceive that, relative to the majority of the world’s population we Americans are highly blessed. Biblically speaking, we are the “rich young rulers of the world.” But, as much as this is some cause for pride, it is a reality that thrusts tremendous responsibility upon us. (cut this)
- [Hard copy scratchings in the margin:] I a proud and grateful to be an American even as I admit that there are times when I am embarrassed by America.
- Similarly, when it comes to prayer and our prayers on this day as a Nation (and our prayers for this nation): I’ll agree that we have a lot of reasons to be thankful and rejoice… even I’d argue that there’s a tremendous need for us to repent and cry.
“One Nation Under God.” On the one hand, it’s a reality, a promise, a given. No matter what we do, no matter what we are, we are a nation under God. It’s God’s choice, I believe, to be over us and all his children. Nothing we do wins God’s power, presence and love in our lives. And, I might add, nothing we do has God loving us more than any of His other children in the world.
On the other hand, though, we do bear a responsibility. We do have something to say and do about our being “one nation under God.” For me, as a Methodist Christian, I believe this responsibility is borne out, at least in part, as we unpack what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name.”
Sadly, we Westerners confine and limit the nature and meaning of a name. It’s a label, a superficial tag. If someone were to play around with my name, I’d hardly take the same offense that I would if they made fun of my personality or my looks. For many, then, praying “in Jesus name” is simply a valediction or closing to our prayers on par with “Sincerely Yours.” We might easily limit it as or confuse it with a closing reminder to God of what tribe we’re a part of: “in Jesus’ name we pray”… that is, “remember God, we’re on Jesus side as we request these things. Amen. (So let it be.)”
From a Hebrew perspective (a perspective that informs or should inform our understanding of prayer as Christians), name and praying in Jesus name have a much deeper and richer connotation. A name, you see, for the Jews of Jesus’ day (and before) was more than a superficial label. It was connected to deeper identity and character. (Accordingly, the power to name and rename was not to be taken lightly.) Even so, when Abram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel, it signifies a change in deeper identity and character. Something new and different is being called forth. Simon (which means fluttering one) is told that he’ll become Peter (a rock) by Jesus. And, that’s exactly what we see happening over time. For Jesus, a name was deeply connected with identity, character, destiny.
Accordingly, to pray “in Jesus name” is to pray not just with our lips but to pray more deeply and substantially in the character, in the Spirit of Jesus. (It makes me wonder how many of our self-centered requests as Christians [bless me financially, help me/us win this venture, etc] are, in fact, a taking of the Lord’s name – his character – in vain!
Praying in Jesus’ name, then, this demands and means that we have some sense of Jesus’ character. At first blush, that feels pretty controversial. But, is it really that hard to define – isvit that hard for us to come to some kind of consensus about — the character of Jesus?
I’ll admit that before I accepted this invitation to speak, I had no real idea what the Kiwanis stood for. I had them up there with the Optimists and the Rotarians – as just one more denomination for business/community types to join and network within on the way to supporting good causes. I googled around a bit to educate myself to who and what you are. Among the things I found were your values, “The Six Permanent Objects of Kiwanis International” (adopted almost 90 years ago). In my own words, I found
- An emphasis on the human and spiritual over the material
- A regard for the living out Golden Rule at every turn in a day
- The promotion of higher standards of living for all
- The Cultivation of responsible citizenry which sees Life as a sacred trust
- An emphasis on healthy relationships and community
- The formation of high ideals which promote the increase of righteousness, justice, goodwill
I don’t know about you but I see the character of Jesus written all through that! (I suspect many of you do, too… or you wouldn’t be here!)
Friends, prayer and praying are themselves paradoxes. They are a whole lot more than I can boil down in one small visit. However, while they may be a whole lot more, they are certainly not less than the way we carry ourselves beyond those moments we have our heads bowed, our eyes closed, and our hands clasped. More than mere lip service, prayer in Jesus name, in God’s Holy name, is talking and walking in the character of the Divine throughout our days and lives. You want to pray for our nation? You pray for us to be “one nation under God”? You want to “pray without ceasing”? Then, among other things, live into and walk in the character of the Divine and Sacred embedded in your charter. Live into the fullness of your name, your identity, your character, your destiny as a child of God.