Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is the Prayer Breakfast A Contradiction To Christ's Teaching?

If one is going to preach on preach on humility and in the same breath judge a lot of people one should not perhaps with little less snark.

That is one area , among others, where I fear Law Prof Mark Osler's piece fails that he wrote for the Huffington Post. See Prayer Breakfast Heresies .

Now that does not mean there is not some grain of truths to what Mr Olsen is saying. We need to make sure that we are not honoring ourselves too much and have the focus on Jesus. Also we need to make sure we are not the hypocrites that Jesus talks about.

The Prayer Breakfast is actually quite common and many occur every week and are low key affairs. I assume that Mr Osler is not targeting these. Rather he might be hitting on those that have perhaps a politico or athlete as it's focus. The occasional biggie.

He says in part:
..........What fascinates me about these events is that they drape themselves in the faith, yet create a scene that Christ himself would (and did) directly condemn. They are the epitome of a culture that celebrates itself, rather than embracing what Jesus actually taught. ...

A pretty big charge but can he back it up?

The pattern of a prayer breakfast can be as ritualized as Kabuki theater. There is music to kick things off, one or two introductory speakers, and then a primary speaker (often a politician, successful businessman, or a former athlete) who will offer a lengthy prayer.......

In essence I think this is part of his problem as we see when he takes Christ's teaching on private prayer out of context. In all honesty I would not call a good many of these things prayer meetings though in a Protestant non liturgical world it is as close as one shall get.

In my perfect world a prayer breakfast would include something akin to the Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours with the speaker. However I am not sure if Mr Osler would find that as "ritualized" as Kabuki theater or not.

The Prayer Breakfast is largely protestant in nature I find and what we see here is some attempt to impose some public liturgical order here so all can participate. This is prayer but largely a opportunity for someone to give their "testimony" to which I don't see as un biblical at all.

When I have attended a prayer breakfast put on by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I usually find nothing there Jesus would condemn. It's purpose is give testimony and indeed edification to believers. This seems a somewhat Biblical concept.

He continues:

One regular feature of these events is a "head table," where there are seats for the speakers and other dignitaries.
I have been invited to dozens of prayer breakfasts, but not once have I been invited to a prayer lunch or a prayer dinner. I suspect that there is a good reason for this -- lunch is reserved for business, and dinner is a time for families. In other words, prayer gets America's least popular meal, because we are busy with apparently more important things the rest of the day. This, of course, inverts the very dictum that prayer breakfast speakers usually recite: That God comes first in their lives. At least ... if it is before noon.

Well I think that is a rather silly argument. I am not sure what world Mr Olsen is in but I am evening prayer events all the time. Further morning "Prayer" is one of the "Hours" that the public life of the Church hinges on.

Jesus never directly commented (at least as recorded in the gospels) on gay marriage or abortion or government budgets, but he was pretty straightforward in coming out against how a prayer breakfast is structured.

Actually as to what was recorded in scripture actually not as to structure.

First, the centerpiece is usually the very public prayer by an honored figure such as a governor or former quarterback. But how does this jibe with Jesus' teaching? The truth, if you believe the gospels to contain truth, is that prayer is to be a private matter; Jesus's instructions were that "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."

This is where Osler's piece goes off the rails big time. I followed to it's logical conclusion all sort of Catholic devotion, Catholic practice, and modes of worship would be prohibited. We can tell by Christ's own practice this was not what he was getting out. Mr Osler fails to see the difference between priestly and affective Prayer. In fact in a Catholic context see this good article Priestly and Affective Prayer.

Thought that article is in "Catholic terms" one could apply it to the world of the Prayer Breakfast where testimony is a key ,some liturgy imposed on diverse Faith traditions, or as Mr Osler calls it "ritualized Kabuki theater" is taking place.

..Second, a truly Christian prayer breakfast would feature an utterly vacant head table. This is what Jesus taught about banquets: "When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Yet, somehow, the head table always seems full from the start...

Too be honest when I am invited to something I sit where my host tells me.

Finally, the prayer breakfast is structured so that the primary speaker is presented as a heroic figure. He (and it is usually a "he") is given a glowing introduction, a seat of honor, and more often than not a standing ovation when the prayer is concluded. How seductive this must be! Those of us with theological ambitions, meanwhile, cannot help imagining ourselves as one of these Super Christians as we watch from the back. Of course, like all who are honored, these Prayer Heroes are held to impossible standards and when subjected to scrutiny too often see their status dissolve in scandal or confusion. Is it the seduction of power and privilege? Could this be what Christ himself warned against in teaching "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?"

Like all things it can be abused. People can come with the wrong intentions. However I am not sure if that is cause to eliminate the whole thing. Let me return to the Christian athletes example. In a world where we see athletes making all the wrong choices it is important for the young especially to see another figure. I rarely walked away from these events thinking the speaker was there to have himself glorified. Further again we see Mr Olsen's misapplication of "private prayer".

In the end, the prayer breakfast is structured to ignore the key nutrient of the Christian faith, which is humility. It is not in gazing up at the Super Christian that I glimpse God in others. More often, it is in a humbler scene, fraught with quiet and light: The silent circle of Quakers, the Catholics kneeling with reverence and cupped hands, the Mormons on bicycles, and the Baptists with hammers, building a home where once there was none.

Of course Baptists with hammers, tMethodists that work the food kitchens, Catholics that at immigration marches, evangelicals that work the pro-life activities, and Lutherans that work for causes relating to environment can be ,if they have the wrong attitude, be put in that Prayer Breakfast group Osler paints with a broad brush too can they not. Are there not a certain amount of people at these events that go "LOOK AT ME" I am super Christian doing God's work what are you doing.

Of course to paint with such a broad brush would be wrong and not very Christian would it.

I think Mr Osler has some legitimate areas he brings up we should watch out for. However that is no reason to throw the bay out with the bathwater.

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