By Pastor Marty Troyer
The American flag behind the podium was larger than the side of our church building. The patriotic rituals of the color guard, national anthem, and pledge of allegiance religiously entered into with zeal and dedication. The glitz and glitter of the ballroom communicated power, wealth, and acceptance. The parade of heavy-hitting dignitaries – both local and international – was mindboggling in its scope and clout. The patriotic, Christian, and civic language and symbolism mingled so seamlessly one wondered if the separation of church and state was an ancient dream or a reality. This was the scene last Wednesday morning as 1500 people elegantly sat around tables at the 35th annual Houston Prayer Breakfast.
My antennae were on overload as I soaked up the scene of this gathering of Houston’s finest (or wealthiest) faith and political leaders, the stated goal of which is prayers of blessing for Houston. The program offered quotes from the founding fathers in the same font and style as quotes from scripture, quotes, which were used to emphasis America’s Christian heritage and the rightful place of citizens as being “quiet” in respect to government.
Though I was invited by a trusted friend who has recently taken me under his wing, I couldn’t help but feel an enormous disconnect between my own faith and the civil religion I experienced Wednesday. There were two messages I felt they communicated at this event, both of which left me feeling on the fringe, outside the warm embrace of mainline Christianity’s safe wings. The primary verbalized message was complete and unquestioned support for the city and her leaders, our country and its public servants. It was a resounding “Yes!” to the way things are, the systems and structure of our world. There were no hints of a broken system, the economic downturn, militarism that is eating our youth, or the demands of justice, equality and dignity that cry out from every city street. It was complete and utter belief that the system works, and deserves our blessing & words of affirmation. This is not a belief that I share.
The second message, communicated mainly nonverbally through ritual and symbol, was a resounding “Yes!” to the Church’s lofty position within the system. Pride for the lofty position of the Christian community in Houston was garishly expressed in the location (downtown Hilton Americas ballroom), the décor, the tableware, the meal itself, the pomp, the dress. But pride of position was overwhelmingly symbolized in the patriotic rituals mentioned above. Throughout almost all the spoken prayers and scriptures one strained to hear the words over the din of clinking silverware and slurped coffee, people milled about. But when the mayor led us in the pledge of allegiance, or the anthem was played, attention was singularly focused without reserve. It was pointed out I was not appreciated when I did not join in saying the pledge, though my same tablemate chatted annoyingly throughout the prayers. I felt like we were patting ourselves on the back, declaring for all the world (and media!) to see, “Look at us, we’re sitting at the right hand of power!” I witnessed the church pushing to make itself palatable, clinging to its reputation, and, ultimately, sacrificing too much in the process. Together these verbal (“Yes!”) and nonverbal (“Yes!”) messages combined to baptize the civil religion that is so profoundly popular in Houston. This is not the faith that I hold dearly.
The death of Jesus at the hands of the politicians and religious leaders of his day shows the world to itself as it truly is, diagnosing the world as sin-sick and broken. We must be able to say not only “yes” to our culture, but also “no” to the injustice, violence, greed, racial discrimination, community divisions and xenophobia around us. Prayers of blessing are woefully inadequate to capture the necessary yes and no of our Easter faith. Our prayers must be energized with the “No!” of lament, sorrow, and protest for the world as it is.
But we, as people of faith, know equally well that Jesus resurrection revealed God’s kingdom to be as it truly is! God raising Jesus was God’s way of vindicating the life Jesus lived and taught: God’s resounding “YES!” for the new world Jesus was creating right here in our midst. We, like Jesus, believe that peace, justice and celebration go hand in hand with being the people of God. As people of faith, we are invited to say yes, but not to the ways of the world, but to the new heavens and earth that God is creating in and through Jesus Christ. We pledge our allegiance to Christ and God’s kingdom, and commit to following after Christ in life. Again, prayers of blessing for the world as it is fall woefully short of embracing and working toward God’s world as it is coming to be. Our prayers must be charged with the ‘Yes!’ of expectation and longing for change!
So what would my verbal prayers look like for Houston, if I was asked to lead prayers at the 36th annual prayer breakfast? And perhaps more importantly, what would be the non-verbal rituals and symbols that would form the faith community to be the kind of people who can say not just yes to culture, but both yes and no? Perhaps one day I’ll have the opportunity to pray at just such an event. Or, more intriguingly, perhaps we should throw our own Houston Prayer Breakfast and answer those questions together. What do your prayers for Houston look like?