Category Archives: Browsing the News

Ceremonial Prayer in Light of SCOTUS

Twenty-some years ago, as a new pastor in town, I was asked to give the invocation at the commencement ceremonies at Fairmont State University.  I was honored.  I crafted that prayer carefully, using expansive as opposed to particular language.  I referred to God generically.  I attempted to make sure that I would bring no offense to the audience, not all of whom were Christian.  I delivered the prayer in a heart-felt way, convinced that I would not run foul of the Constitution.  The commencement speaker that day was none other than the late Senator Byrd.  I recall that he invoked the name of Jesus Christ no fewer than a dozen times in his speech.  I recall thinking that it was odd that I, an ordained pastor could not pray from my convictions and yet a member of the U.S. Senate could go beyond what I allowed for myself.

This was my introduction to “ceremonial prayer”, a phrase in the recent SCOTUS decision that rubs me the wrong way.  Is prayer that is ceremonial even prayer?  For that matter, is generic prayer really prayer?  When we say, “Let us pray” in public settings with people of vastly different religions and religious experiences, what is it that we are doing and is it appropriate?  Some of my more conservative Lutheran brothers and sisters refuse to pray with those who have different beliefs or are of a different religion.  More and more, I think I’m with them.

Prayer is an intimate conversation with God, particular not generic.  When I pray, it is to God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is not to some entity, power, life force, or whoever happens to be listening at the time.  If I invite you to pray with me, I’m inviting you to pray to God … God to whom I pray, not the god of your imagination.  If you are not praying to the one to whom I pray, we are not praying together.

Ceremonial prayer is like that too.  In ceremonial prayer, the audience of the prayer are those gathered, not God.

When SCOTUS referred to prayer as ceremonial, then they said to me that my prayer isn’t what I think it is.  They just neutered my prayer.  That offends me.

I don’t do ceremonial prayers.  I’ve been asked to pray for any number of public events since that time long ago.  I’m always torn.  I’m always tempted to participate because I know that I’m more accommodating than many of those who like to hear themselves pray in public.  But I generally decline, several times a year, including the Maryland Legislature, the Chamber of Commerce Meetings, or other local events, unless it is clearly a Christian gathering.

If I do accept a public prayer “gig”, I think I’ll simply invite the participants to listen in as I pray.


Parsing Representative Todd Akin’s Apology

Nothing seems to draw my attention quicker than a public “apology”.  Most aren’t worth the oxygen necessary to form the words, so I crawl out of my lethargy and take notice when one is prominently offered.

Representative Todd Akin got himself noticed during the doldrums of August when he famously said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  In context, he was discussing abortion, and attempting to make the point that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare.  (This blog post isn’t going to address the factual fallacies of Representative Akin’s statements or stance.  I’m only looking at the apology.)

After a firestorm erupted on the internet and calls for his resignation from the US Senate race in Missouri came fast and furious, including from Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Representative Aiken offered the following apology in a campaign video.

“Rape is an evil act.  I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize.  As a father of two daughters, I want tough justice for predators.  I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault, and I pray for them.  The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy.  The truth is, rape has many victims.  The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold.  I ask for your forgiveness.”

How did this fare as an apology?

John Baldoni writing for Forbes believes that Representative Akin “flubbed his apology”.  He writes,

Akin also committed the first sin of insincerity – making the apology about himself and not the people he has offended.

Misogyny aside, Akin made another mistake — one that is all too common in today’s “apologize and it will go away” culture. Akin has made himself the focus on his apology, not the millions of women he had insulted.

Akin also attempted to disavow his insult by claiming that he had used a poor choice of words. As Ben Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” When you watch Akin apologize, you get the feeling that he cares more about his candidacy than he does about anything else.

I wouldn’t rate the apology as harshly as Baldoni.

First, Akin came close to admitting that he was wrong.  In his apology he didn’t defend his use of words as too often happens, but rather he states he used wrong words in wrong ways.  I would have liked to see him state unequivocally that he was wrong and insensitive to a violent act.

Second, he didn’t address his apology to a select group of people, but instead to the broader audience.  This is where I disagree with Baldoni.  To apologize “to those I have offended” too often blames those who are offended.  His at least was an attempt at a blanket apology.  In my view, this is positive.

Yes, he is attempting to keep his campaign alive.  The apology tries to score some points in that arena with his statement about predators.  The voters will have to decide that one.

Finally, I ask how clearly does the apology distance itself from the original statements.  Here is where the apology completely failed.  There is enough wiggle room in the apology that Representative Akin doesn’t have to change his view one bit.  “Rape can lead to pregnancy.” [emphasis mine]  This is a “safe” statement in that it doesn’t necessarily mean his position is changed. In fact, his original statement left open the same possibility when he said “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” [emphasis mine]

To me, this “apology” better than most public apologies, but still is primarily damage control.  It will be interesting to watch this play out.




These days it has been hard to get me here to post some “ponderings”.  Recent events calling on boycotts as a first response to news has me riled up.

You’ve seen the news.  Dan Cathy, The CEO of Chick Fil-A disclosed his objection to marriage between two people of the same gender.  He made the claim that the company is run on Christian values to justify his perspective.  The backlash was immediate.  Many groups have called for a boycott of the business, protests are planned, and counter protests are planned.  Almost every action is directed against another group with the desire to draw attention to one’s own perspective.

What a mess.  This is nonsense.  This is more polarization of our society.  I’ve never seen it so bad.

When did it become true that if we disagreed with someone that instead of talking we protest, demonize, or boycott?  What ever happened to civil discourse?  What ever happened to the hard task of listening to others not to find fault with their perspective but to hear their perspective and learn from it.  Are my opinions so full of ultimate truth that I must make sure that all people agree with me in word and deed?  The arrogance is astonishing.

While I personally disagree with Mr. Cathy’s reading of scripture related to same-gendered marriage, I also disagree with the actions of those who are calling for boycott or banning Chick Fil-A from certain communities.  These actions have further damaged any chance of seeing any change in Mr. Cathy’s stance.  Thanks for making that work harder.

My experience has been that I have more influence in someone’s life and decision-making if I am in relationship with them.  Boycotts and bans damage the possibility of relationship.  Boycotts and bans have their place, but not as the first response, or maybe even the 10th.

Martin Luther explained the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) this way: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and interpret everything he does in the best possible light.”

Secularizing the 10 Commandments

It was just once too many times.  I caught part of an interview with Glenn Beck last evening where he was advocating that the 10 Commandments were a good set of “rules” for our country and that even atheists could support them.  He joins a very long list of people who somehow believe that the 10 Commandments are easily secularized.  But let’s look at the first 3 Commandments (as Lutherans count them).

  1. You shall have no other Gods.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  3. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

How do you secularize that?  How do atheists accept those?  These first 3 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God!  Now I know that Glenn Beck wants to restore the place of religion in our society but this naturally leads to some questions for me.

  1. Which god?  People in this nation worship any number of deities.  I’ll refuse to worship Glenn Beck’s god.
  2. A “generic god” is not God.  Generic prayer is not prayer.  How does this proposal reconcile the multiple deities worshiped in this country without resorting either to “establishment of religion” or so watering down the witness of God’s self-revelation that we simply become a culture that worships a generic god.

Even the last 7 Commandments are problematic if they are not addressed to a specific people with other “commentary” in sacred scripture.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.
  6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  7. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Much of the advertising in this country uses coveting as a means to encourage us to purchase products, essential for the market economy we live in.  Without coveting, our economy collapses.  Of course, with unbridled covetousness, our economy  has a “bubble” then collapses.

I’d like those who advocate for the secularization of the 10 Commandments to be honest.  They really believe that the 5 Commandments are worthy of attention.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.

Oh, except that much advertising relies on false witness.  Large profits require “theft”.  Many fathers are unknown or absent.  We encourage killing in self-defense and war.  Pre-marital sexual activity is the norm.  Porn fuels an economy that influences technology.

What is our society to do?  If we were to follow the 10 Commandments, our economy would falter even more, especially if these 10 Commandments are divorced from the context in which they were given to God’s own people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe the 10 Commandments are valuable … within the context of a faith community.  God didn’t give these commandments to the Egyptians or any other power of the day.  God gave these commandments to the small band of people God claimed as God’s own.  These commandments set God’s people apart from the other peoples/nations.  They were/are a gift.

God’s people have shared this gift to the cultures in which we live, and where it made sense, those cultures have adopted them.  Let’s not secularize the 10 Commandments however.  Let’s let our culture borrow from many religious traditions to order society for the common good … and let our culture borrow from secular traditions to order society for the common good.  Let’s stop using religious language as if our culture and the religious tradition are one in the same.  That will only turn out poorly.

The Park 51 Controversy

Once again I’m embarrassed to be a Christian in the United States.  We are known by the company we keep.  The public outcry and political maneuvering focused on Park 51 is short-sighted and smacks of manipulation.  Christians have been found to be part of this public outcry.  It is at times like these that I wonder if people even attempt to think through issues.

A group has plans to build an Islamic Center at 51 Park Avenue, in New York City.  It is reported to be just 2 blocks from “Ground Zero” where the World Trade Center once stood.  Some call that insensitive.  Some want the “hallowed ground” of “Ground Zero” to be respected.  Polls of public sentiment indicate some 61% of those polled object to the establishment of the Islamic Center there.  President Obama, who has voiced affirmation of the right of the group to construct the Islamic Center, is increasingly believed to be Muslim.  (Slow head shake goes here.)

Plenty of others have weighed in recently attempting to infuse the public conversation with facts.  Two other mosques already are located within a dozen blocks of the World Trade Center site.  A room in the Pentagon close to the site where the plane crashed on 9/11 has been set aside as an interfaith chapel and is used by Muslims for prayer on a regular basis.  If we call ground “2 blocks away” (and even that designation is questionable) “hallowed”, then why not an outcry against some of the other businesses in the area?  Strip clubs, sex shops, and “Gentleman’s Clubs” are there.  President Obama is Christian.  Islam has been in this country for a very long time, mosques being built beginning 95 years ago.  There are 2 million active Muslims in the United States today, and their numbers are growing.

Those facts don’t matter to many.

There is concern expressed by Newt Gingrich that it is “…radical Islamists who want to triumphally prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists…”.  It is that kind of rhetoric that stirs up this debate, making it an emotional issue, far from the facts of the situation.

I have a few observations.

  1. If this Islamic Center is blocked, it has negative implications for the zoning and construction of any religious structure, including Christian churches.  Maybe community leaders don’t want the “negative influence” of Christianity on commerce, schools, or neighborhoods?  Preposterous?  No.  Christian congregations have been blocked from construction in neighborhoods because of traffic concerns, concerns about noise, concerns about feeding and housing the hungry and homeless, and any number of other concerns.  Most of the objection to the Islamic Center in NYC is to the “assumed message and intent”.  Facts don’t matter.
  2. Even if the intent of the construction of the Islamic Center is to “rub our noses in Islam’s growing influence”, don’t we decide what it means to us?  The congregation I serve views itself as a dynamic, growing, and faithful congregation.  Some outside the congregation see it as a heretical club leading people away from faith.  We decide what something means for us.
  3. Do we seriously believe that the construction of an Islamic Center, even if it were to be built by radical fundamentalist Muslims would change the nature of “Ground Zero”?  Does denunciation of the reality of the Holocaust really change many minds about its historicity?
  4. Republicans running for office or in the national spotlight are most frequently seen as making this Islamic center an issue.  This is the political party that presents itself as for “smaller government” and fewer government restrictions on businesses.  Are they really advocating denying the permits for this Islamic Center?

There is so much more.

Take a breath.

Listen to what is being said.


Anxiety and Fear (Reflections on Advent 1C)

The Gospel lessons for the first Sunday in Advent have apocalyptic themes and in preparation for preaching I wandered around the internet to experience some of what people are writing about the chaos that is and is to come.  I couldn’t disconnect fast enough … and was strangely drawn to more.

The movie 2012 was as good a place to start as any, which soon led me to  Talk about dusting off all sorts of familiar themes.  In the mid-late 1980’s, I had an employer who started to talk about polar shifts and coming disasters.  He and another staff member quit their jobs, bought a farm in Iowa, equipped it for the coming catastrophe, and taught seminars about surviving the coming apocalypse.  He died never seeing the events he anticipated.  This website collects disparate “predictions” and pulls them all together. I’m a reasonable person, and I found myself starting to think about steps to survive the coming disaster.  (Prudent preparation makes sense and I have some emergency response items already stockpiled … more for our frequent power outages than anything else.)

I read about graffiti on the bathroom wall in a High School.  “It sucks to be in the class of 2013 … what’s the point?” (Referring to the “end of the world” in 2012.)

I encountered the Psalm 109:8 “prayer for President Obama” movement.  In case you haven’t heard about this one,  people are encouraged to pray “for” President Obama using Psalm 109:8 “May his days be few; may another seize his position.”  Plenty has been written in outrage about this prayer, especially in light of the verses which follow: “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.  May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.  May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.  May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.  May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation.”  I don’t believe that’s what Jesus meant when he instructed us to “pray for your enemies”.

From there my wandering spun completely out of control, and I felt like I was in a dark alley, late at night, ready to be mugged.  I got out of there as fast as I could.

Don’t people get that apocalyptic literature is a word of hope?  Oh, that’s right, if we are Biblical literalists then these are predictions of actual events rather than poetic imagry to describe a world that seems stacked against us!  The way I read Luke 21:25-36 gives me encouragement.  By listening to and following Christ, I don’t have to wring my hands at the sexually-charged singing/dancing of Adam Lambert, or drag myself into a survivalist camp armed to the teeth against the world.  God’s purposes will be fulfilled even in the face of those things which seem opposed to God.  In Christ’s power, we will live an alternative reality that flows alongside chaos.  The good news is that even though it seems as though evil wins … it cannot.  That theme is persistent in Luke/Acts.  Why, I think that it makes a lot of sense to invite people I care about into that same alternative reality.

Take a breath folks.  Christ is alive.  Now, let’s get busy living the alternative reality feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and giving drink to the thirsty.

Pondering Pastor

Pope Benedict agrees with me!

VATICAN CITY – An apology from a bishop who denied the Holocaust wasn’t good enough, the Vatican said Friday, adding that he must repudiate his views if he wants to be a Roman Catholic clergyman.

The statement by Bishop Richard Williamson “doesn’t appear to respect the conditions” the Vatican set out for him, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the pope.

While the pope did not focus on the apology itself, he could have.  Not only did Bishop Williamson issue a “pseudo-apology” but he did not recant his views about the Holocaust.  Good to see he is being held accountable.

Pondering Pastor