Following the comments of President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast (hosted by The Fellowship Foundation) yesterday (more here), I am compelled to revisit the posture of prayer. What is prayer? How might we approach the the Maker of heaven and earth with an appropriate disposition?
Prayer can be considered personal communion with God as we seek to participate in his merciful mission of advancing his kingdom in the world. Tim Keller categorizes prayer as both a conversation and an encounter with God (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, 80). Thus, prayer presupposes a filial relationship and intimacy. Further, the purpose is not for advancement of self, but a humble submission for the Lord’s kingdom to come and his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).
With these truths in mind, how do we respond to the newly inaugurated American president’s call to pray for his reality TV show replacement because the ratings have allegedly “went down the tubes” without him? (full transcript here). As the most powerful leader in the free world, do President Trump’s prayer breakfast comments lead the international community of Christians toward a pure and prayerful mindset? Is it the best choice to divisively joke about reality TV ratings at a prayer breakfast just one day after the first soldier has been killed in the line of duty under the Commander-in-chief’s leadership? Teresa of Ávila’s admonishment may be a better choice, “Prayer is the mortar that holds our house together.” Unity with God and respect for all he has created are at the heart of prayer, which leaves no room for gasconading or facetiousness. As we bow our head and say, “hallowed by thy name,” our eyes are open to see that the world is God’s and his name is written upon it, not ours (Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition, 31).
Some Christians have cited Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast comment about “the God who gave us life, gave us liberty” (full transcript here) as evidence of his commitment to biblical ideals. Yet, Thomas Jefferson’s full quote (originally stated in opposition to slavery) is worth reading, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever” (more here). It is true, when injustice is pursued, God will not sleep forever. Is there a nationality requirement for life and liberty from God? This Jefferson citation is one of the limited times Trump invoked the name of God during the prayer event, yet he chose to quote a deistic founding father who actually denied the divinity of Jesus. Does this National Prayer Breakfast quote shore up our questions about Trump’s spirituality? There is much food for thought here.
In my disappointment and deep frustration with Trump’s rhetoric at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, it is easy to find fault and highlight his offenses. Yet, reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s writings this morning calls me to examine my own prayer life, “If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ…The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart” (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible). May God move in my poverty-stricken heart and align my thoughts, prayers, words, and deeds to bring him glory and honor. When I am tempted, as we all are, may Jesus be the very center of my focus as his rich word transforms me to be more like him. As my dear professor, Jerram Barrs, inquired, “Where does the kingdom need to come in my life today?” (The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us, 30). Yes Lord, where does your kingdom need to come into my life today?
Yet, it is also right to yearn for more from our president as his comments and actions carry international consequences of great import. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “It is simply impossible to lead, without the aid of prayer, a virtuous life.”