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Parsley Prayers
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If you’ve been watching the news this week you probably came across the kerfuffle about Missouri Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D) and his prayer before the opening session of Congress this week which he ended with “Amen and A-woman.” The fact that Rep. Cleaver is also an ordained United Methodist added fuel to the fire, leading many to shout that his awkward attempt at inclusiveness was biblically and liturgically misguided. Every first-year seminarian learns that “Amen” is a form of the Hebrew word that means, essentially, “So be it” and has nothing whatsoever to do with gender, thus Cleaver’s odd use of it out of its context is certainly worthy of scrutiny, though he did say he was trying to make a pun to honor his female colleagues on the floor of the House.  Other aspects of the prayer also raised eyebrows, including an obvious nod to religious syncretism in an effort to try and make it more inclusive of interfaith members of Congress.


I’m not here to pile on, though I do think this is yet another indicator of one of the major problems in United Methodism, which seems at times so apologetic about being Christian that it wants to distance itself from anything that might suggest historic Christian orthodoxy. That’s a topic for a different blog post and one I’ve actually riffed on many times.


What’s more interesting to me, however, is that Cleaver’s prayer brings into focus one of the more sketchy issues for Christians when it comes to the relationship between church and state–a dilemma Christians have faced since the time of the Roman Empire: How are we to pray for and even in the midst of Caesar’s government?


I faced this question myself several years ago when I had a two-year run of being invited to pray for the opening of the Colorado State Senate. I felt honored and humbled to be asked to represent God’s presence in the halls of government, but I also felt a little bit constrained by the official parameters of the prayer. If you’ve ever done any kind of public prayer, you know that the organizers want to make sure that the prayer isn’t sectarian, that it can be representative of all faiths present, and, in the case of the political arena, that it doesn’t push a particular agenda that may be voted on that day. All in all, public prayer can sometimes feel like a very perfunctory wave at civil religion in the midst of contentious political discourse.


I’m reminded of what Peter Marshall, the famous chaplain to the U.S. Senate in the 1940s, used to say his role his prayers were a lot like the role of a sprig of parsley on a dinner plate — just there for decoration. That may be true, at least from the perspective of politicians who are gearing up for another day of rancorous debate.


Still, as I stood in front of the Senators, I couldn’t help but think that even if what I was there to do was parsley to many of them, it was still a reminder that human institutions and governments are still subject to God. No, I don’t believe that church and state should be joined at the hip (the Holy Roman Empire proved that to be a mistake), nor do I believe in the kind of theocracy that some Christians want to initiate that seems to make God in the image of their political party. I do believe, however, that the church’s role in government is, first and foremost, to pray for its leadership. I figure that even if some of those Senators aren’t praying with me, and least they’re being prayed for by me. It might be parsley, but I think it should at least still be on the plate.


As I prepared my parsely prayer for opening the Senate, I thought about Jesus’ own politics. I had recently completed a series on the Sermon on the Mount, and it seemed to me that the Beatitudes kind of act as a preamble to the kingdom constitution that Jesus lays out in those three chapters of Matthew. The Beatitudes offer a vision of life that calls all people, no matter their political persuasion, to live a life in service to others. Here’s what I prayed:


Lord, at the beginning of the day we come before you to ask your blessing on the work to be done in this chamber. As these Senators and staff begin their busy day, may they not only be blessed by the strength of your wisdom, guidance, and presence, but may they also be a blessing to those whom they serve and to each other. May these servant leaders model the kind of blessedness and character that was taught and modeled on a hillside long ago:


May they be poor in spirit, for their humility serves your kingdom.


May they mourn over the brokenness of the world and seek wholeness and change.


May they be the meek who stand not for power over others, but who stand beside others to lift them up.


May they hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice


May they be merciful to those they serve and to each other.


May they be pure in heart, in motive, and intention.


And may they be peacemakers, standing in the gap for those who have no voice.


Strengthen them for the work ahead and grant them your peace. Amen. (full stop)


I like to think that’s the kind of prayer we ought to be praying for our government officials every day, whether in the Senate chamber or at the kitchen table.


Rep. Cleaver’s prayer might have been misguided at best or heretical at worst, depending on your perspective, but at least he was praying (parsley notwithstanding). We can rightly scrutinize his mushy mainline theology and awkward appropriation of Hebrew, but maybe we can at least agree that prayer for the women and men who represent us in government is important. Before we criticize him, we ought to be asking ourselves, “Did I pray for our government officials today, even for the ones with whom I don’t agree?”


Perhaps if we spent less time being outraged at the latest thing on social media we might free up space to do so. Maybe then our prayers for our elected leaders would be more than parsley, but a main dish on our plates every day.


Can I get an Amen?

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