Prayer As Protest (3 of 4)

I said to my church Sunday, in advance of a public witness Monday, that the church was gathering to pray. I emphasized prayer and said that our focus wasn’t protest but prayer. Even while saying it, I was questioning my cadence, my precision, and my intent.

I was using an approach in the brief appeal, one I’ve heard the preacher use in the church of my upbringing. I was italicizing the word I chose. And I said it because the focus of the time Monday was to be public witness generally and prayer specifically.

But the more accurate reflection of my thought and, I think, the biblical material from which I draw is that prayer is protest. The people of the book protest through the particular form of prayer. Protestations as we understand them now are foreign in the world of scripture. It would be anachronistic and arrogant, unfair and unreasonable to say that the bible includes protest unless that protest takes the form of a kind of prayer, on one hand, or prophetic utterance, on the other.

In other words, the way that we see protest occurring in the scriptures is through prayers and prophecies–prophecies of the forth-telling flavor, not the foretelling kind. I’d call these two gestures really good metrics for gauging our contemporary public witness. If there is no prayer and if there is no prophecy in public places, there is no public witness. If there is no public witness, what role does the (local or gathered) church have in that civic arena?

Monday NightIn thinking since about prayer as an act of protest, I’m holding onto the following truths I see in the scriptures. And I’m correcting my own use from Sunday. I didn’t take as much time to enrich my invitation, because Sunday was very full, but I would edit myself to clarify a bit to involve the following.

Biblical people call God out. The bible is about a people who are a noisy folk. There is quiet in our text but not a lot. When the people of God needed God, they did not shrivel in a corner. Rather, they called upon their God, even during long days and nights when they felt unheard and disinherited. The Hebrew people cried out while enslaved, and you can’t tell a slave to hush. You can’t convince an unpaid laborer that calling out for “one more day” is reasonable, particularly when the audience of his pain is the Divine Audience. But the people called out nonetheless.

Biblical people name harsh, right-now reality. The content of lament is real life. The guts of the people’s prayer is what happens now. People who know the Black faith tradition know that this has always been a part of the common religious stream of beautiful Black folk. We have been unrestrained in our proclaimed expectation for life now to mirror life wherever else God dwells. If life in the white neighborhood is good–replace that with “suburb” or heaven if you please–life in Englewood and Auburn-Greshem and Washington Heights should be good. When reality is harsh, the prayerful protest calls for another reality.

Biblical people state interior experience unequivocally. There is a false sense that we carry and that is that we cannot be honest with God. It’s wrong. God desires truth in the inner parts says the songwriter. The truth is that God wants you and your interior reality, your vulnerability, and your honesty because those things combine to equal who you really are. God isn’t concerned about your front or my social self. God cares less for that because it’s a grand mask. God’s people state what is real: their pain when they’re in pain and their joy when they’re in joy. Wouldn’t your life be better if you told the simple truth? Wouldn’t you feel freer with your God if you were honest? That’s the God-offered requirement anyway.

Biblical people assume that prayer changes everything. Ms. Virginia used to sing in the choir at Sweet Holy Spirit that she knew that prayer changed things. Oh, can she sing it! She was informed by her life and her reading of scripture. Even when the church and Israel before her lived in the exact opposite condition; even when Babylonian exile seemed to be the only gift the Jews could hold; even when the crucifixion was the longest reality during those dark days from Friday to Sunday; people gathered to pray. They knew that faith would collect them and inspire them to acknowledge fear but to acknowledge that fear wasn’t the only feeling in the room. In faith, they prayed because prayer moves and changes and turns and performs. Prayer is a means of grace, and where grace is change is.

Biblical people start from a corporate location. I could flip the order of these points in my post. Surely, it’s fine to start with this point. Biblical people aren’t individualistic. They are individuals, for sure, but their orientation and the orientation of all the words of God are that God is up to wide, massive, increasingly participatory redemption of the entirety of creation. The writings of scripture have personal application but that isn’t the starting place. God’s people and God’s words to that people involve a regular communal nature that is very different from me and mine.

May we pray better. May the Lord teach us to pray.

Prayer As Protest (2 of 4)

On Monday night my friend David Swanson organized a prayer vigil at the Chicago Police Department’s administrative headquarters. There were a few hundred people present, including dozens of clergy.

When David told me about the planning of the event, I was delighted in the way that a pastor is delighted when the church looks forward to a specific way to respond to crisis and social unrest. Having been bruised by the consequences leading up to the needs for our prayers, I was glad we’d be able to pray.

When I mentioned to our church that they should come, I told them that we’d be praying, not protesting. Of course, I’ve thought better of how I put it last Sunday. Still, here are my reasons why I’m grateful for the act of prayerful education in front of the police headquarters.

Photo Thanks to Geoffery Stellfox

Photo Thanks to Geoffery Stellfox

Prayer was an education in what the church’s first role in society is. I remember taking a course in seminary on the church and community. I have a very specific appreciation for that class because it’s where I met Michelle Dodson, one New Community’s pastors. Beyond that, I recall the course introducing me to the language of organizing in faith terms. I remember that what we discussed in the graduate course was a reflection of what I lived at Sweet Holy Spirit when as a boy I built memories boycotting and chanting against something Daley did or didn’t do. What I don’t recall from our class discussions is how much we talked about prayer. I think we assumed it, but I don’t know if eleven plus years ago that prayer was explicit in the academic work we did. Now, I find myself saying in the midst of all the poverty of character, poverty of leadership, poverty of political will, and poverty of explicit justice for Black people in Chicago–and I’m hardly talking about the narrow and deep anguish of this latest moment–I find myself saying that prayer is our first response. There are certainly other things to be done. But at the bottom of those important next acts is the usually unseen gesture of regular prayer. We rehearse the happenings of this world in the ear of a God who expects to hear us. It’s what we do: the church prays.

Prayer was an opening to the wideness of an agenda unformed by our best plans. Pastor Swanson was caring in his planning, a post I’ll leave for the book he and I will write together one day. His manner in this circumstance will be its own chapter. What I will say is that he took care to plan to include a set of prayers from repentance to triumph. We were led in praying about apathy and action. And we were given time to pray as a people, not just being led in prayer by leaders. And there were enough reminders in the vigil that all his orchestration and prayer still had to be humble in the moment, open to the wide possibility of hundreds of people doing other things. There was a secondary protest that kicked off. There was a sister in the crowd with stated opinions and how we ought to pray. It was messy and lovely. Because what the gathered church did was become more open to what the Spirit was doing. And doing in the moment. The Spirit was taking what was done before, enriching it in the moment, and enlivening it for witness. We weren’t closed to those spontaneous expressions of grace. We were open because the church is open. The church invites.

Prayer was the connective tissue between people from varied social locations and ecclesial circles. People came from south suburbs and far north neighborhoods. I saw a sister pastor from Evanston. I met a guy from Humboldt Park. I have a new pastor friend who offered a prayer that moved us, and his church is near North Park. More than who I expected arrived. Their were people who I knew were Baptist and people who were from the Episcopal community. And we were all praying together. The vigil was diverse. Now, a lot of Black people were there. But a lot of non-Black people were there. Together, we held banners about Black life mattering. We chanted and prayed and lamented and declared the name of Jesus for sixteen minutes and beyond as we thought about the sixteen times a teenager was shot, killed over and over if a child can be killed more than once. We prayed for the officers in the CPD, knowing they “are our sisters and brothers and wives and husbands.” In that prayer vigil we weren’t from our different places, split from the whole. We were one. We showed that the church unites.

Prayer was the story, filled with the backgrounds, moments, and shifts of all our plot points. Pastor Harris encouraged the media to take their photos of a united church, a peaceful church, a justice-seeking church. He said that what was happening was the story. That the people doing what we were was the message worth sharing. All our stories converged at the moment. All our pasts and all our backgrounds, good and bad, with the police came to the fore. Present with us was the beautiful and the horrible, the joy and the sorrow. We stood and we prayed out of a collective consciousness that justice keeps at it because that’s the only response God would engender. We were in the moment with all those many moments, and we were there to call forth the basic goodness that springs out of our spiritual history. We were there to tell and to show that our story demands for a just end, a hope in the midst of death, a lovely treatment of Black bodies like they’re filled with the content of God’s splendor like any other body. We prayed in the name of the one who took embodied form to prove such prayers were expected. We prayed and in our praying we were telling that story because the church proclaims.

Ministry in the Shadow of Violence

Me and my friend David Swanson talked together as part of an interview with our denomination’s communications department. I had originally written a piece and submitted it, and that piece turned into an occasion to talk with a friend and brother about people we deeply care for and issues we’re drawn to address.

Read the post here at Covenant Companion.

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Boycotting Chicken, Securing Identity

Much of the time when we shop we’re probably not assuming the store owner shares our particular values and beliefs.  This is true of both small businesses and larger corporations: the thought of shared values didn’t cross my mind at the local hot dog joint on Thursday or while buying ice at Walgreens on Sunday morning.  There are, however, certain brands that ask for more than our dollars; they’re interested in our identities.  They hope we will align ourselves with what they’re selling.  This makes great sense for the company but much less so for us.  Discovering something about our favorite brands that obviously clashes with who we hope to be creates – to slightly overstate it – an identity crisis.

So we are left to boycott a company we love not because of gross exploitation – again, we don’t think this way about many of the companies we frequent – but because of how closely we’ve become identified with their products and experiences.

Christians are people who don’t construct our identities but, rather, have them secured for us in Jesus.  We are who we are because of who God is rather than anything so profane as a corporate marketing strategy.  Does this mean Christians of all political leanings shouldn’t boycott?  I don’t think so.  But living differentiated from the shallow identities of savvy corporations may allow us to think differently about what what we abstain from, and why.

Read all of David’s post here.

Acknowledging Culture, Favoring Sookespeople

My friend, David Swanson, reflecting on the saint who was Fred Shuttlesworth and the superstar who was Steve Jobs:

Relevancy is not always bad. We are culturally bound creatures who, whether we try to or not, will speak and act from the cultures that have formed us. But there is a considerable difference between acknowledging our culture and favoring its values and spokespeople as evidence of our ministry effectiveness.

Click here to read David Swanson’s article at our of ur.

On My Conversation With Dr. Gardner Taylor, 1 of 3

I’ve been reading Leadership Journal for several years.  It’s a magazine that’s written primarily for church leaders.  Most of the articles are written by pastors and the Journal provides a massive amount of practical material for people doing ministry, particularly in the Evangelical stream.

A little more than a month ago I recommended to a friend that he should suggest that the Journal publish an interview with Gardner C. Taylor.  My friend, David Swanson, who writes for the Journal’s blog, Out Of Ur, liked the idea and passed it to the editorial team.  He and I have fond appreciation for Dr. Taylor, for his historical significance as a pastor, and for his extreme gifts as a preacher and writer.

We were both pleasantly surprised that the editors took the idea to heart, discussed it with other folks on the magazine’s board, and agreed that it would be a great interview to try to get.  My surprise continued when David and I were asked what kinds of things we’d ask Dr. Taylor.  Of course, we chimed in, glad that our idea was being pursued.

A week or so went by when the next surprise came.  Marshall Shelley, the editor of the Journal, asked me if I’d be interested in participating in the interview, in conducting it with him.  You should know that this was no where in my atmosphere when I suggested the article to Leadership.  I have a sense of how articles are queried, how they are discussed and decided upon, and getting this opportunity was not in my field of expectation.  I was thrilled.  I told Marshall I was thrilled.  I saw mental pictures of him laughing at me because I was so thrilled.

I was at our denomination’s Annual Meeting, a day or two from being ordained when I saw Marshall’s email.  It was a great addition to that week, the thought of participating in an interview with Dr. Taylor.  My wife was happy for the same reason I was.  My denomination was ready to bestow a life-long credential for pastoral leadership while, at the same time, I was about to participate in a conversation with a man who had served churches in various ways for seventy years, who was a friend to folks like Martin King Jr. and Samuel Dewitt Proctor, who had a love for the Gospel and for the church for which Jesus died, and who spent his life as a consummate communicator.  I was looking forward to what was next.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about Gardner Taylor, here are two interviews, one more current and one from several years back with the parent magazine of Leadership Journal, Christianity Today:

  1. Kim Lawton conducted a 2006 interview for PBS with Dr. Taylor in Raleigh.
  2. Lee Strobel conducted a 1995 interview for Christianity Today with Dr. Taylor in Brooklyn.

Links to Interesting Posts

I’m recovering from my reflection on civil unions and from a long weekend that included a beautiful wedding, the Printers Row Literary Festival where I met one of my favorite writers, and an equally long and fun day with my son on Monday.  That said, I need a moment to recharge and get into my next posts.

In the meantime, take a look at these posts and articles from “friends-through-the-blog-world”:

  • David Swanson opens again his sermon preparation process and reflects on something called Roadside Sabbath.