Prayer before panel declares God’s claims, but, under pressure, buckles

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Christianity, which began as a tiny mustard seed, has grown into a mighty tree like this Osage in front of the Hamilton County courthouse in Chattanooga. On Sept. 18, 2012, this tree toppled to the ground.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”

— Matthew 7:21

“And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it. If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

—John 14:13-15

The commissioners serving the people of Hamilton County, Tenn., placidly continued their custom Wednesday of public prayer prior to a regular meeting. Before they entered into the day’s public business, the group of representatives bowed and heard a prayer from the Rev. Jerry Harwood, a Presbyterian Church in America minister at First Pres downtown.

His prayer bore elements of a politic spirit in that it cited a prayer uttered by President Bill Clinton at his second inaugural ceremony in the federal capital. Later Wednesday Mr. Clinton on TV addressed the Democratic national convention. Mr. Harwood reveals the Christian argument as against the professorial class at UTC that  transcendance is part of reality, and that a spiritual world exists of God’s making to which men have access — through a mediator present by implication. It makes a claim that communication with God through prayer is a form of speech loftier than meditation, dreams, hopes or ordinary thought processes.

The Rev. Harwood’s prayer bore witness to his belief that the sovereign God who gave mankind the Bible and His son Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for sin is the sole party to whom prayer is to be addressed. This understanding of the relationship among the members of the Trinity is considered a matter of orthodoxy.

Is man to pray to God only? Since only God is able to search men’s hearts, hear his requests, pardon his sins and fulfill his holy desires, and since only He is to be believed in and worshiped in a religious sense — prayer has a special place in men’s actions and is to be directed to God alone, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith and its larger catechism, to which Mr. Harwood, the PCA elder, has bound himself.

Words of former president

The prayer begins with the familiar and respectful opening, “Father God.” Going out of his way to disarm critics, the prayer quotes Mr. Clinton at length.

“May those whose generations we cannot yet see, whose names we may never know, say of us here today that we led our beloved land into a new century with the American dream alive for all of her children, with the American promise of a more perfect union a reality for her people, with America’s bright flame of freedom spreading throughout the world. From the height of this place and the summit of this century, let us go forth. May God strengthen our hands for the good work ahead.”

Several points catch our attention reading through this address to the sovereign of the universe. Mr. Clinton has an interest in “a more perfect union” — the federal monolith — and the people’s interest in America making that union “a reality for her people.” Mr. Clinton uses the mythical and revolutionary language of smouldering ages past, speaking of “America’s bright flame of freedom spreading throughout the world.” That language President Bush brought into reality with his political and military drive to power after 9/11. On Jan. 31, 2002, Mr. Bush said, “We are resolved to rout out terror wherever it exists to save the world for freedom.” ‡  President Clinton asks that God will strengthen the hands of the federal government “for the good work ahead,” a toil with which the Chattanooga minister might not agree.

Mr. Harwood magnifies the work of the county commission by saying it cannot be known which acts will be great, and which small. Since men do not know how present events unfold into the future, he petitions God to give the commissioners a sense of humility. They are to work carefully as if seemingly minor decisions today may ripple out unbidden to great effect tomorrow.

Lord, even as [Mr. Clinton’s] words for a presidential term, they also fit for the meeting today. Father, we do not know what events in history are small and what events are of great magnitude in the future history of this city, of this state and of this nation. May the work of the men and women here today be done as if every decision holds great significance in light of eternity. May you bless those in authority here with unfettered wisdom, noble discernment and forthright humility. (Italics added)

Implicitly, a Christian prayer uses terms such as wisdom, discernment and humility in a biblical sense. If an act is wise, it does not offend God’s law, as summarized in the 10 commandments. God gives great freedom to mankind in his actions, in his forms and his customs. God’s will encompasses monarchies, empires, democracies and republics. I would argue the scriptures and the teaching of God’s covenant with his people largely seem to favor a representative federal system of national or state government.  I would suggest God favors liberty of church and family, and a strict and limited scope of duty to the magistrate (duly elected, as were the elders in ancient Israel and the church). I might make these claims, but God leaves it to men to choose and gives it to them to live with the consequences of their yearnings.

Mr. Harwood in the conclusion of his prayer makes further concessions with which I am not perfectly at ease, but which reflects his prerogatives as a devout Christian minister and pastor entering a circumstance widely watched by people great and weak.

For any of us to succeed, we must succeed as one America. Therefore, strengthen the hands of those today for the good work ahead. In your holy name, Amen. (Italics added)

The concession is twofold. He identifies the success of “any of us” with a national success “as one America.” Mr. Harwood places himself a second time on the side of the nation state which Mr. Clinton has worked all his life to strengthen. As have presidents before him, Mr. Clinton unites his sense of good work with cleansing flames of the French revolution, which established a cult of statism that survives into dotage today. If we are to believe certain authors on the geopolitical scene, the nation state is in its sunset, having outlived its utility and falling clearly into discount as its welfare and warmaking debts sink it into bankruptcy.

In Christ’s name?

Orthodox Christianity — whether lived out among the Church of God, the Church of Christ, the Methodists, the AME church, the Baptists and Presbyterians — is vigorous in defense of prayer in Christ’s name. Mr. Harwood omits Christ’s name at the end, offering instead “in your holy name, Amen.”

The Westminster Confession explains why Christians pray in Christ’s name. The duty arises from the austere and mighty person of God the Father, who loves us through his Son Jesus Christ, and not directly, for we are sinners. The sinfulness of man has put a great gulf between him and God. So vast is that chasm that we have no access to God’s presence without a mediator. There is none other given to man who is fit for and appointed to that work other than Jesus Christ, and “we are to pray in no other name but his only.” (Question No. 181)

I do not wish to suggest that God does not honor Mr. Harwood’s petition and the silent indwelling of his words by the commissioners nor those in the audience. God honors whatever He wills despite the faults and fears of men in their utterances. He is not bound by our outward forms, whether perfect or sloppy. A prayer perfect in all its parts gains no audience with God if the hearts of His people are not in it and their lives full of deceit and wickedness. A simple prayer, as by the tax collector in the parable, is sufficient to open salvation to a sinner, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13), though it may not contain the parts a thoughtful elder or minister will include in a given petition.

A good public prayer should contain an element of repentance, a request for forgiveness, a reference to God’s holy law and standard, and a plea for grace and mercy, since those who hold the power of the sword (as to members of the civil magistrate pursuant to Romans 13) are considered ministers unto God.

‡ “The revolutionary faith was shaped not so much by the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment (as is generally believed) as by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany. This faith was incubated in France during the revolutionary era within a small subculture of literary intellectuals who were immersed in journalism, fascinated by secret societies, and subsequently infatuated with ‘ideologies’ as a secular surrogate for religious belief.” James  H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men[;] Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980). Dr. Billington is the librarian of Congress and this work is of major importance (Italics added). The quote is from a book by James Bovard.

Here’s the whole of the prayer, copied from the Times Free Press website:

Father God, as we seek to open this day and this meeting with prayer, I am mindful and called to remember the words of President Clinton’s second inaugural address, where he said, ‘May those whose generations we cannot yet see, whose names we may never know, say of us here today that we led our beloved land into a new century with the American dream alive for all of her children, with the American promise of a more perfect union a reality for her people, with America’s bright flame of freedom spreading throughout the world. From the height of this place and the summit of this century, let us go forth. May God strengthen our hands for the good work ahead.’ Lord, even as his words for a presidential term, they also fit for the meeting today. Father, we do not know what events in history are small and what events are of great magnitude in the future history of this city, of this state and of this nation. May the work of the men and women here today be done as if every decision holds great significance in light of eternity. May you bless those in authority here with unfettered wisdom, noble discernment and forthright humility. For any of us to succeed, we must succeed as one America. Therefore, strengthen the hands of those today for the good work ahead. In your holy name, Amen.