Saying Grace

Saying_grace_before_carving_the_turkey_at_Thanksgiving_dinner_8d10749v

via Wikipedia Commons

According to a recent study by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, half of all Americans pray before meals.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Julie Zauzmer, and Emily Guskin tell us more at The Post:

A new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that saying grace is a widespread practice in the United States. About half of all Americans take a minute to say a prayer over their food at least a few times a week, the poll reveals, making grace an unusual commonality in a politically divided nation.

Rural and urban Americans are equally likely to say grace, the poll shows. Northerners and Southerners, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, all say grace to varying degrees. Even some Americans who reject organized religion still say grace.

“It’s a powerful way of reminding yourself that you are not self-sufficient, that you are living by somebody’s grace, that plenty of other people who work just as hard as you don’t have anything to eat,” said Tim Keller, a prominent New York City pastor who wrote a book on prayer.

Keller said the physical act of bowing heads, closing eyes and folding hands is an important exercise in gratitude for people of many faiths, from childhood on up.

Read the entire piece here.

Barack Obama Easter Prayer Breakfasts, 2010-2016

Obama prayer

2010:

I can’t tell any of you anything about Easter that you don’t already know.  (Laughter.)  I can’t shed light on centuries of scriptural interpretation or bring any new understandings to those of you who reflect on Easter’s meaning each and every year and each and every day.  But what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.

For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye.  The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire.  The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves.  The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.

We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him.  We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity.  And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.

And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect.  Each of us errs — by accident or by design.  Each of us falls short of how we ought to live.  And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.

It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption.  But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ.  And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul.  Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season.  And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion.  He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.

“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today.  Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children. 

So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.  And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer. 

2011:

I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -– because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective. 

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work.  And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways.  And I admit that my plate has been full as well.  (Laughter.)  The inbox keeps on accumulating.  (Laughter.)
 
But then comes Holy Week.  The triumph of Palm Sunday.  The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book Isaiah:  “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities:  the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect.  And it calls me to pray.  It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short.  It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.

2012:

Now, I have to be careful, I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon.  It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals.  (Laughter.)  But in a few short days, all of us will experience the wonder of Easter morning.   And we will know, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus…and Him crucified.”

It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection, and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace.  And for me, and I’m sure for some of you, it’s also a chance to remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day, and all that Christ endured — not just as a Son of God, but as a human being. 

For like us, Jesus knew doubt.  Like us, Jesus knew fear.  In the garden of Gethsemane, with attackers closing in around him, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  He fell to his knees, pleading with His Father, saying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

So it is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection.  It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that He burdened — that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, “He is Risen!” 

So the struggle to fathom that unfathomable sacrifice makes Easter all the more meaningful to all of us.  It helps us to provide an eternal perspective to whatever temporal challenges we face.  It puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems He was dealing with.  And it gives us courage and it gives us hope. 

We all have experiences that shake our faith.  There are times where we have questions for God’s plan relative to us — (laughter) — but that’s precisely when we should remember Christ’s own doubts and eventually his own triumph.  Jesus told us as much in the book of John, when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”  I heard an amen.  (Laughter.)  Let me repeat.  “In this world, you will have trouble.”

AUDIENCE:  Amen!

THE PRESIDENT:  “But take heart!”  (Laughter.)  “I have overcome the world.”  (Applause.)  We are here today to celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen savior who died so that we might live.  And I hope that our time together this morning will strengthen us individually, as believers, and as a nation. 

2013:

In these sacred days, those of us as Christians remember the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made for each of us –- how, in all His humility and His grace, He took on the sins of the world and extended the gift of salvation.  And we recommit ourselves to following His example –- to loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

That’s the eternal spirit of Easter.  And this year, I had — I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land.  And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth. 

It brings Scripture to life.  It brings us closer to Christ.  It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.  

And so for Christians to walk where He walked and see what He saw are blessed moments.  And while I had been to Jerusalem before, where Jesus healed the sick, and cured the blind, and embraced the least of these, I also had a chance to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  And those of you who have been there know that entering the church is a remarkable experience, although it is a useful instruction to see how managing different sections of the church and different clergy — it feels familiar.  (Laughter.)  Let’s just put it that way.  (Laughter.) 

And as I approached the Altar of the Nativity, as I neared the 14-pointed Silver Star that marks the spot where Christ was born, the Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed me to, in his words, “the place where heaven and Earth met.”

And there, I had a chance to pray and reflect on Christ’s birth, and His life, His sacrifice, His Resurrection.  I thought about all the faithful pilgrims who for two thousand years have done the same thing — giving thanks for the fact that, as the book of Romans tells us, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 

I thought of the poor and the sick who seek comfort, and the marginalized and the forsaken who seek solace, and the grateful who merely seek to offer thanks for the simple blessings of this life and the awesome glory of the next.  I thought of all who would travel to this place for centuries to come and the lives they might know. 

And I was reminded that while our time on Earth is fleeting, He is eternal.  His life, His lessons live on in our hearts and, most importantly, in our actions.  When we tend to the sick, when we console those in pain, when we sacrifice for those in need, wherever and whenever we are there to give comfort and to guide and to love, then Christ is with us. 

So this morning, let us pray that we’re worthy of His many blessings, that this nation is worthy of His many blessings.  Let us promise to keep in our hearts, in our souls, in our minds, on this day and on every day, the life and lessons of Christ, our Lord.

2014:

So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God.  We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.  And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us — the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life. 

And more than 2,000 years later, it inspires us still.  We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us.  And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example.  And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”      

2015:

For me, the celebration of Easter puts our earthly concerns into perspective.  With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  We reflect on the brutal pain that He suffered, the scorn that He absorbed, the sins that He bore, this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us.  And we try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light.

And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday.  The story keeps on going.  On Sunday comes the glorious Resurrection of our Savior. 

“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day,” Dr. King once preached, “but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.”  Drums that beat the rhythm of renewal and redemption, goodness and grace, hope and love.  Easter is our affirmation that there are better days ahead — and also a reminder that it is on us, the living, to make them so. 

Through God’s mercy, Peter the Apostle said, we are given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  It’s an inheritance that calls on us to be better, to love more deeply, to serve “the least of these” as an expression of Christ’s love here on Earth.

2016:

And Pastor preached on this this weekend, and I know all of you did, too, as I suspect, or in your own quiet ways were reminded if Easter means anything, it’s that you don’t have to be afraid.  We drown out darkness with light, and we heal hatred with love, and we hold on to hope.  And we think about all that Jesus suffered and sacrificed on our behalf — scorned, abandoned shunned, nail-scarred hands bearing the injustice of his death and carrying the sins of the world. 

And it’s difficult to fathom the full meaning of that act.  Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Because of God’s love, we can proclaim “Christ is risen!”  Because of God’s love, we have been given this gift of salvation.  Because of Him, our hope is not misplaced, and we don’t have to be afraid.

And as Christians have said through the years, “We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”  We are Easter people, people of hope and not fear. 

Now, this is not a static hope.  This is a living and breathing hope.  It’s not a gift we simply receive, but one we must give to others, a gift to carry forth.  I was struck last week by an image of Pope Francis washing feet of refugees — different faiths, different countries.  And what a powerful reminder of our obligations if, in fact, we’re not afraid, and if, in fact, we hope, and if, in fact, we believe.  That is something that we have to give.

Click on the year to read the entire message.

Liberty Counsel and Conservatives on the Texas School Board Continue to Base Public Policy on False Historical Claims

Christian NAtionFact-checker extraordinaire Warren Throckmorton calls our attention to yet another example of politicians and cultural warriors using fake history to justify public policy proposals that have the potential of affecting millions of people. In this case, the perpetrators are the Liberty Counsel (Mat Staver) and the conservatives on the Texas School Board (defenders of prayer in schools).

This is an easy one.

I am sorry Mat Staver, but you are wrong.  Members of the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 did not hold a prayer meeting that lasted “several hours.”  Benjamin Franklin called for prayer, but his call was rejected.

Here is what actually happened on Thursday, June 28, 1787:

Franklin’s proposal:

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.–Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move–that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service–

And the response:

Mr. Hamilton & several others expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the convention, it might at this late day, 1. bring on it some disagreeable animadversions. & 2. lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissentions within the convention, had suggested this measure. It was answered by Docr. F. Mr. Sherman & others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission–that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it: and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of things within. would at least be as likely to do good as ill.

Mr. Williamson, observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.

Mr. Randolph proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye. measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence,–& thenceforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning. Dr. Frankn. 2ded. this motion After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourng. the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.

Again–no multi-hour prayer meeting took place.  The motion was tabled. I discuss this incident on p.152 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas Before Study

O ineffable Creator, Who, out of the treasure of Thy wisdom, hast ordained three hierarchies of Angels, and placed them in wonderful order above the heavens, and hast most wisely distributed the parts of the world; Thou, Who are called the true fountain of light and wisdom, and the highest beginning, vouchsafe to pour upon the darkness of my understanding, in which I was born, the double beam of Thy brightness, removing from me all darkness of sin and ignorance. Thou, Who makest eloquent the tongue of the dumb, instruct my tongue, and pour on my lips the grace of Thy blessing. Give me quickness of understanding, capacity of retaining, subtlety of interpreting, facility in learning, and copious grace of speaking. Guide my going in, direct my going forward, accomplish my going forth; through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

(I write about this prayer in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past)

A Prayer for the Nation

Thank you pastor John D’Elia for sharing Habakkuk 1:2-5 on your FB page.

How long, O LORD, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, “Violence!”
Yet You do not save.

Why do You make me see iniquity,
And cause me to look on wickedness?
Yes, destruction and violence are before me;
Strife exists and contention arises.

Therefore the law is ignored
And justice is never upheld.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
Therefore justice comes out perverted.

“Look among the nations! Observe!
Be astonished! Wonder!
Because I am doing something in your days—
You would not believe if you were told.

Robert George: A Christian Scholar on the Spiritual Disciplines

Confessing History Available for Pre-OrderAs many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher.  Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.

If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).

So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology.  It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition.  In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.

It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians.  We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars.   But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work.  (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).

I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.

Here is just a small taste:

Prof. George, how do you pray?

GEORGE-WI

Robert George

On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.

I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.

Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?

That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.

It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.

It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.

I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.

In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]

Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.

Maryland County Commissioner Prays Bogus George Washington Prayer

George did not chop down the cherry either

A federal judge recently ruled that the Carroll County, Maryland Board of Commissioners would not be allowed, at least temporarily, to start their meetings with a sectarian prayer.  The order, however, did not stop Robin Bartlett Frazier, one of the commissioners, from praying a very Christian prayer at a recent budget meeting.  Frazier saw the prayer as an act of civil disobedience, saying that “she was willing to go to jail” to fight the judge’s ruling.  (The ruling, by the way, was a temporary one.  The judge asked the commissioners to refrain from sectarian prayer until a lawsuit on public prayers at meetings of the Board of Commissioners could be decided).

Frazier claimed that the prayer she prayed came from George Washington. I assume that she felt that if she prayed a prayer by Washington she would be sending the message that America was founded on Christian principles.  How could a federal court condemn a prayer by George Washington?

Unfortunately, Washington never uttered this prayer.  It comes from a bogus prayer book that has been wrongly attributed to the first president.  The Carroll County Times asked me to help clarify the whole situation.  Here is a taste of their coverage:

The "Serenity Prayer" in Context

Reinhold Niebuhr penned “The Serenity Prayer”

Ray Haberski Jr. thinks that Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” might be useful in the midst of today’s culture wars.  Here is a taste:

In conversations with my friends and colleagues, with my students and family and (to the concern of my daughter) with the radio, I stumbled to find some solace amidst the storm of stupidity that seemed to defy politics and logic. And when I stumble I usually look to Reinhold Niebuhr. In our recent times of war, Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952) struck me as a necessary antidote to hubris and unjustified violence. In our recent time of stupidity, I found Niebuhr’s prayer for humility—also know as the Serenity Prayer—quite helpful: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
This simple prayer has been made popular through its adoption by 12-step programs, especially Alcoholics Anonymous. But Niebuhr originally wrote it to reflect upon the Great Depression and the Second World War. While there has been some contention over the origins of the prayer, it seems fairly clear now that Niebuhr is its author.
Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton writes about his sentiments in her book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in a Time of War and Peace. “It reminds us of the virtues we must call upon in our private lives,” she observes, “and it also concerns the qualities needed to act in the intricate social networks that connect us to each other.” Thankfully, we are not stricken with the cataclysms of Niebuhr’s time, but surely this prayer offers perspective on both the inability of our national leaders to act like leaders and the capacity of the country—meaning the rest of us—to continue despite such an impasse.
The image of Niebuhr being calm and resolute in the face of tragedy is popular but somewhat simplistic. Recently, I’ve found new meaning in Niebuhr’s relationship to the spirit of that prayer as I’ve learned to see that relationship with some irony—a notion Niebuhr would surely appreciate. 
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”