Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prayer is Always Subversive; In New England Especially So

This is a letter from one Roland Smith to the editors of The Rutland Herald:
Last fall a student of Fair Haven Union High School received permission from the principal to hold a "National Day of Prayer at the Flag Pole" event, which was attended by a number of students, staff and adults.

The students were very enthused with the results and asked the principal if they could continue once a week with these meetings. They have been meeting every Wednesday morning all through the winter, rain or shine, and have been faithfully praying for God's presence in the school and in the lives of the students, for the nation and children in Sudan, etc.

Several weeks ago students participating were brought into the principal's office, told there was a complaint, and that they could no longer continue and that adults should not have joined, although this was originally approved. Thinking that the adults were the main concern, they met again for prayer at the pole without them. They were again brought into the office one or two at a time with the principal and superintendent and told they could no longer continue. It seems the superintendent was concerned that some other group might want to use the area around the pole and the school would have to let them. The students asked to speak to the School Board. A meeting was held May 17.

At that meeting, the board and superintendent were asked if this action was precipitated by a complaint. They would not give a straight yes-or-no answer to this simple question and told the students it was irrelevant, saying it was a matter of policy and safety and offered the students a room to pray in out of sight.

Mind you, these students have been praying since last fall with no concerns or safety issues. Two days before the meeting a car wash was held in the same general area with adult participation.

It was quite obvious to everyone in attendance at this meeting (about 30 students and adults) that this action was precipitated by a complaint, which makes it a religious issue and not a safety issue, a reality the superintendent and the School Board want to avoid, but the truth is the truth.

It is a sad day when the students at FHUHS are going through a civil exercise to ask for their rights under the Constitution of America and the top educator in our system and the School Board can't give an honest answer to a simple question.

It is also a sad day when the constitutional rights of people in this country are denied because they are Christians. These students now pray on a lawn next to the school. I pray for the day they can return to school property by the flag pole, a symbol of our freedom and our great nation.


If you click on the article link and peruse the comments, you will get a taste of the flavor of the community conversation on this kind of issue.

A personal note before I comment on this story: Roland Smith is a friend of mine. He's a great guy with a fantastic testimony -- he used to be the biggest drug dealer in Fair Haven, Vermont until Jesus hijacked him, and now he pastors a church there -- and I love him.

Public prayer is always a subversive act. I don't care if you're in the churchgoer-thick of the Bible Belt or the post-Christendom wasteland of New England: praying to the Triune God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and John the Baptist in public announces to everyone that Jesus is King and our "Caesars" are not. It announces that our governmental Caesars are not sovereign and the great Caesar of Self -- or the great "Pope Self," if you prefer Luther's twist -- are not sovereign. This is a subversive act. Increasingly so in every part of the Western world.

But especially so here in the Northeast.

This means that push-back on public prayer should not surprise us. You can claim your rights and freedoms all you want; the second you declare there is a God who is sovereign over all and that his Son is the only Way to eternal life, even if you're doing it with your eyes shut, head bowed, and mouth shut, you are telling anybody who disagrees not only that they're wrong, but that they're deadly wrong. And people don't like that.

But push-back on public prayer should not deter us.

I do think American evangelicals conflate too often Christianity with American patriotism, which leads to wanting to fight battles the New Testament gives us no directive to fight. I don't know exactly where Rev. Smith is going with his final words, but the American flag is no talisman for prayer. Your prayer doesn't need it to reach God and your prayer doesn't need it to offend unbelievers. (In many cases, I would think it would be an unnecessary offense. Why insist on the flag? Just persist in prayer.)

That said, telling kids they can't pray of their own accord outside of class time at school, whenever it goes to court, has always been ruled unconstitutional. If they want to make a rule, they should make a "no loitering" rule around the flag pole for everybody. But telling kids not to loiter in gathering places at the school they're supposed to be at by law is nonsensical.

I think the kids have the right to pray publicly. I just wish Christians wouldn't put so much passion into prayer being recognized by the government. I think we can actually harm our witness by constantly crying about our rights and trying to throw our rapidly diminishing weight around. The Church isn't growing in China b/c the government recognizes it and gives it freedom to do whatever it wants.

But of course that doesn't mean restrictions on religious freedoms are okay or that we shouldn't say anything about them.

Nevertheless the push-back on public prayer should not hurt us.

Prayer is recognized by the sovereign God of the Universe. That is sufficient.


Mark | hereiblog said...



I like the point you make about the flag and talisman. Do people think the flag and pole some how enhance their prayers?

Wouldn't it be a greater testimony to God's sovereignty to show those in opposition that a flag pole is not needed?

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts on this. I'm okay with not praying in public as long as we can still pray at home, in church, and the congress still opens with prayer. I'm glad there is a lot of praying in public in the government! The congressional chaplain is busy. Besides praying at the beginning of the sessions of congress. "Chaplain Black’s days are filled with meeting Senators about spiritual and moral issues, assisting Senators’ staffs with research on theological and biblical questions, teaching Senate Bible study groups, encouraging such groups as the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, and facilitating discussion and reflection small groups among Senators and staff." Maybe we should hire school chaplains so we would could enjoy the same rights.

Jared said...

I would not be in favor of public school chaplains b/c I wouldn't want my tax dollars to support a school Muslim cleric or Hindu priest or anything else. And I don't think it would be right to force nonChristians to pay to support a Christian chaplain.

There is also a theological murkiness that creeps in whenever American Christians insist on governmental recognition of Christianity in public and institutional ways. I am in favor of freedom of religious expression for all Americans, but many evangelicals speak and behave as if we somehow need this freedom to grow spiritually. The NT pretty much presupposes we won't have that freedom, yet growth occurs in spite of oppression, if not because of it.

I don't want the government mandating religious ordinances and the like, mainly because politicians make lousy ministers.

I am generally in favor of the separation of church and state, not so that the state has freedom from religion but so that the church has freedom from the government. :-)

What America needs is more Christians passionate about the gospel, not more Christians passionate about "a Christian America."

Chris Krycho said...


Thanks for this post. I found it insightful and you expressed clearly some things I've been trying to verbalize to myself for a while. I think my biggest concern with the political element of the church today—on either end of the political spectrum—is a tendency to quietly but surely end up with political causes (whether it's prayer in schools or Darfur) as the ultimate aim.

I am all in favor of some believers spending time fighting for religious freedom (and not just their own)—but I fear that for many, perhaps especially down here in the Bible Belt, patriotism, Christianity, and American history have a relationship that is murky at best. The gospel all too frequently gets left behind, because the goal of all the political moves stops being more opportunity to make Christ known and becomes simply winning the political battle. (Tempting for all of us even in our own lives, so this is more an observation than finger-pointing.)

Jared said...

Chris, yep.

I think we end up fighting battles the Scriptures don't call us to fight and treating our enemies in ways the Bible says not to.

Just today on Facebook I read a friend's status lament about the danger of "tolerating our enemies," by which he means American Muslims. The context was a proposed mosque at 9/11's Ground Zero site.

Now, I'm not comfortable with a mosque at Ground Zero, but the only thing I could think of when I read his update was that he was right that Jesus did not tell us to tolerate our enemies. He said to love them.

I wonder what that would like like in the context of the culture wars.

Chris Krycho said...

I think it's easy, especially in America where we have so much that is good, to forget that our loyalty lies not with this land (however wonderful it may be) but with the city that has foundations. We are sojourners, our allegiance set solidly above this world. That affects how we live in this world, but it must also excel this world.

I think perhaps the culture wars would fade a bit if Christians concerned themselves first (not only, but first) with gospel proclamation rather than rights proclamation.

I would also argue that one of the best Christian witnesses I can imagine is protecting the religious rights of others—not simply defending our own turf.

As for the mosque, well, it seems particularly inappropriate given history, but I don't think I would feel comfortable with a church there either (not least because we have too great a tendency to enshrine places anyway, but that's yet another conversation). In any case, we run amok when we forget that Muslims (or Hindus, or atheists, or anyone else) are not our enemies; some are perhaps our country's enemies, and all are our God's enemies... but then, so were we.

rdsmith3 said...

Two of my kids are in high school in a middle class, NJ suburb. If you don't have kids in high school, you may not realize that it seems to be one of satan's favorite playgrounds these days. The gospel message is badly needed in high school. Too many kids are indulging their sinful nature, rather than turning from it. As a result, in our local HS, we have pregnant freshmen, openly homosexual couples, drug taking in school, parties at which parents dispense alcohol to minors, and so on. These kids need to hear the gospel message, and if public praying is the wedge to get it in the school, it is a good thing.

Jared said...

RDSmith3, respectfully, why aren't the Christian kids in the school sharing the gospel message?

The beauty of the Christian faith is that it does not require a wedge dictated from an institutional authority: it requires Christians being salt and light, being missionaries.

Anonymous said...

Christian teachers have free speech here in the U.S. They are too afraid and too politically correct to use their rights. Paul pointed out that he was a Roman Citizen and John the Baptist had no problem telling Herod the truth. Why can't our teachers risk their jobs and give support to the Christian students? We finally got a Bible club at a high school in Issaquah, WA. They had to go to the Supreme Court to get it.

kinleyw said...

I believe the schools in America are the most neglected mission field on US soil. Churches do little to help and students/teachers feel trapped or are unwilling to share the love of Christ with others. However, I think going to the Supreme Court to have a Bible Club is not the answer. If Christians saturate their lives with Christ, they will show his love and others will see the gospel in them. Teachers can encourage and edify the students who are believers without needing political/legal aid.

Christianity has always thrived as a subversive movement. When we try to push-back, there will be a public outcry. If it can grow in China with no freedom, surely it can grow in the US school system without going to the Supreme Court for approval.

Mark | hereiblog said...

One possible conclusion that seems to be drawn is that public prayer equals sharing the gospel. I'm not convinced of this anymore than an adult telling his co-workers he is a Christian leads to sharing the gospel.

Let's say though that public prayer did lead to sharing the gospel. I'd then ask why it takes an administrative act by a public entity to get Christians to share the gospel?

Most of these kids are going to go to work in a workplace that does not have public prayer endorsed by their company. So why not prepare them today for what awaits them tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

Apparently Lot and his family weren’t good witnesses in Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah was a good witness to Nineveh. John the Baptist, Paul, and the apostles apparently were good witnesses as they made society angry with them. May God send out Jonah’s, John the Baptists, Pauls and people like the apostles before it is too late. We now cannot call homosexual sex a sin as our society calls it normal. We call the murder of unborn babies normal. Next will we call adultery, greed, stealing, drunkenness, slander, etc. normal?

cp_steinmetz said...

It is interesting that Saul/Paul is mentioned, the apostles and others. But no mention of the relevant words of Jesus:
Mat 6:5 "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Mat 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Mat 6:7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Mat 6:8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Roberta said...

Also Matthew 18:19-20 "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered in My name, there I am in their midst."