February 15, 2008

A Day at the Senate

Rap. Rap. Rap.

"The Senate will now come to order."

The sudden clap of the lieutenant governor's gavel tore me away from a rather indulgent moment of people-watching—my favorite of clandestine hobbies, and one easy to rehearse in a place as interesting and alive as the Patrick Henry building. I was growing amused by our elected officials, so many of whom arrived in house just in the nick of time. I was even more amused by the amount of snack items one Senator was hurriedly stuffing into her desk, as if preparing for a sleepover. Ah … people. Nevertheless, it was time to invoke.

Everyone stood. I adjusted my three button suit, found my appointed place at the lower lectern, and cleared my throat.

Almighty God, Giver of all life, Shepherd of all souls, and the generous Provider of every moment we have been given …

Indeed, it was a generous moment for your pastor. My delight over an invitation last year from Senator Charles Hawkins to deliver an invocation before the Virginia Senate was matched only by the pleasure of the fleeting moment itself—four months of anticipation over forty seconds of prayer. I guess every dog does has his day!

A number of Virginians I know, upon hearing of my trip to Richmond, indicated to me their surprise that the assembly still even allowed public prayer, much less planned for it. Yet my experience there suggested a differing disposition. If warm hospitality and practiced procedure are any indication of predilection, then Senate seemed to welcome the moment of prayer. Perhaps it had already been a long day!

… with certain humility and with an eye toward the considerable tasks before this body, we ask today that you would send forth your deepest blessings, your richest benevolence of wisdom and discernment, courage and resolve …

Background to my words: If a populace is to rise above its lowest common denominator of virtue, and if its representatives are to provide for that difficult ascension, then surely the necessary ingredients must come from someplace—Someone—other than our own well-worn ideologies and victory-hungry designs. That was my assumption as to why a house would make room for an invocation—an official summons of divine blessing, help from above.

And I further decided that I am not yet a cynic about such a prayer. I reasoned that I could neither cajole or verify a senator's sincerity on the matter of actually looking to and trusting in the God revealed to us in the Scriptures. Whether boilerplate or bona fide, I had no control. All I could do, I decided, was to bring to bear the vision of providence inherent to the Christian gospel I represent.

such that the actions of this assembly might transcend the walls of this institution and go forth with haste to bolster the peace, purity, and unity of our Commonwealth. Without your superintendence, O Lord, efforts here at governance are for naught. But with your blessings, your direction, our citizens will surely prosper.

I must admit that I am a sucker for solemn formality, and the Senate has it in spades. From the "All rise!" to the ancient mace under glass, from the solemnity of the moment to the dignity of the assembly, there is still something about being in a place that is "bigger" than your normal everyday world. It seems a gift every now and then to swept up from our sometimes oppressive informality, for language and practice to exhibit dignity and grace.

All of this was in my mind as I worked in advance to craft prayerful language that was befitting to the formal occasion and—even more important to me—suitable for invoking the blessings of a God as awe-full as the Triune One whom we worship and adore. Will God accept our informalities? Surely. But God also deserves our superlative best.

Lord of Life, we are certain that you shape the grand courses of history, but we are also bold to believe that your gracious Providence extends even down to the details of living, to the subtleties of our particular lives.

And yet … it is also be true that sometimes our humanity is forgotten under the blanket of official rhetoric and public debate. When we do not know a person (in this case, our elected officials), we are prone to dehumanize them and thereby to expect from them more than they (or anyone) can deliver. And when formality is the only guise, never buttressed by genuine relationships, then I imagine that among elected officials themselves—and surely among the public—their personal stories, their particular lives are apt to be forgotten

As such, as I prayed for wisdom and for words, as I anticipated the assembly over which I would ask the Lord's blessings, for weeks a singular thought kept recurring in my mind: the formality of the capital notwithstanding, at the end of the day these people are human beings—blessed and cursed, able and unable as the rest of us. This theme persisted long enough in me that I concluded it was an urging of the Holy Spirit.

As such, in light of your grace for all who seek you, I also today invoke your blessings upon each and every member of this Assembly. For amidst all the trials and tribulations of our Commonwealth and its people,amidst all the deliberations and decisions facing this body, represented in this Senate are also myriad lives, personal histories, individuals in your image—with homes, families, and stories of their own.

I thought a lot about the tenor of political banter in our state, about the weight of an oppressive bifurcation in public opinion, and I wondered how often invited clergy simply prayed, not for issues and items, but for them—as persons, men and women. Perhaps frequently; perhaps never. I did not know, so I decided to offer an intercession.

Where there is difficulty or burden, send your strength. Where there is frustration or grief, bring your hope. Where there are gifts or callings yet undiscovered, shine your light …

As for me, whenever these gifts—strength, hope, light—descend from the heavens, I assume it to be the fruits of our risen Christ. The only hope I know or can imagine is hope formed in the crucible of the New Testament cross and resurrection. As such, my language in prayer typically follows suit.

Yet I was interested—albeit, not surprised—to receive with my formal invitation from the Clerk of the Senate an additional sheet of paper: Guidelines for Prayer in a Pluralistic Society. Contained in the memo were reminders about the religious diversity of our society, and therefore of the Senate also, and how one should pray there with a corresponding sensitivity. It suggested that one should drop from one's invocation as many specific, creedal, and personal names for "the Deity" as possible—the less explicit, the better. (Well, there went my "I make this prayer in Jesus' name.")

Now to be fair to our lawmakers' clerk, there were merely guidelines, not rules. I do not imagine I would have been driven out to the edge of town for naming the particular name of Christ. But the whole idea did get me thinking: We Americans like to speak of our pluralism, the great breadth of our tolerance for varying creeds, culture, and concepts. Yet what we in fact seem practice is not plurality, but a kind of contrived oneness—a "unity" maintained by boiling the rich stew of our faith down into a thin gruel. If we truly practiced plurality, if we mustered the maturity we like to imagine we posses, we would in fact welcome the specificities of faith, expressed in the particular and peculiar language of prayer.

In an ideal world … (But alas, we do not live there.) So for now, I imagine that I am willing to hear an invocation close with some other name tomorrow if I can end with "Jesus" today. That would more accurately be pluralism—multiple voices. As it is, to pray in generic terms is perhaps to expect generic results. Take away the intercession ministry of the risen Christ, and I have little means or desire or language to pray. It is difficult to know which is the greater concession.

And yet, I thought about Paul in Athens (Acts 17), who carefully flew the gospel of Christ in under the radar of the rather generic religious sensibilities of the day—and in doing so brought those within earshot to the heart of the matter. One has to make careful connections between Scripture and the prevailing culture, and not mock the genuine invitations for speaking a word and asking for a blessing. In the end, I left off his Name from my prayer, but strove to lace his Words throughout mine. I trust this was befitting to his ministry.

… such that each of these women and men who serve us might come to know again of your loving-kindness and sustaining power, and from the overflow of that generous grace, that they might minister to our Commonwealth throughout these momentous days.

All in all, it was a tremendous experience—fleeting but poignant. To speak to God before the oldest democratic body on the continent; to represent you there, Altavista Presbyterians, and our greater Kirk as well; to be greeted by so many hospitable people with so much on their plates; to imagine in prayer that here and there, now and then, the wheels of our government are in some real way greased by the merciful Providence of God in Christ …

This, O Lord, is our invocation today. Amen.

P.S. On my way out of the room after my prayer, while the Senate moved on with its busy agenda, a kindly senator quietly rose and stopped me at the door with a handshake. "Thanks for being here," she whispered. I thanked her for thanking me.

And then, with an endearing mixture of gratitude and pride, she whispered, "You know, I'm a Presbyterian, too!"