Wednesday, January 25, 2006

When Good Prayer Goes Bad

by Kyle Michaelis
Tuesday morning, Nebraska state senators received an unexpected sermon in place of the customary, non-denominational prayer usually opening the day's legislative activity. Rev. Tom Swartley of First Christian Church in Elm Creek delivered the following:
Almighty God, we come humbly into your presence this morning, seeking your favor.

I thank you, God, that in the great state of Nebraska we do have a Legislature that does not deny you God, but who rather seeks your favor and guidance. I do ask, Lord, that you would guide these leaders of our people. I ask that you would give each of them a renewed sense of conscience, of conviction and courage to do what is right.

I do also come, Lord, this morning with a heavy heart. I ask your forgiveness on our people, a people who have killed 47 million of my fellow Americans since the year I was born. We have aborted 47 million babies made in your image. God, forgive us. Forgive us for our complacency. We go to work and school, and come home and watch television, while genocide, infanticide and homicide is being committed on our own children. Open our eyes, Lord. Open our eyes to your morality that when you said "thou shalt not murder," you meant even the most innocent and unwanted among us.

Open our eyes to the other aspects of this 33-year-long bloody nightmare. Open our eyes to see that we've killed 47 million young American taxpayers, and indeed Social Security is in crisis. Open our eyes to see that 47 million of our countrymen are gone - doctors, lawyers, inventors, authors, musicians and artists. Forgive us, oh God, and open our eyes and change our path. Comfort the mothers and fathers who have great wonder and regret. Heal us, oh God.

Forgive us also, Lord, for the teaching of the religion of evolution to our young citizens, a religion that tells us that we are only here by chance; that we are here for no reason and human life means nothing more than any other life; that we will never face a Judgment Day. We've put our children into the same category as other mammals, and we wonder why sometimes they act like animals. Forgive us for sowing the seeds of anarchy in the hearts of children.

Open our eyes, God. We can see, when we look at our wristwatches, intelligent design, but when we gaze into the incredible complexity of biology and nature, we see chance. Open our eyes; change our path.

Lord God, I pray that in these halls this and every day our leaders would make the right choices; they would make decisions based upon right and wrong, not on politics. I pray that you and your will would indeed be done through these leaders. Bless them, oh God; strengthen them; guide them. I pray that your will indeed would be done on earth as it is in heaven, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Well, that's certainly one way of celebrating this weekend's 33rd anniversary since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. A captive audience of state senators and plenty of local media hungry for a story probably beats protesting outside a women's clinic any day of the week. That the text of this political speech appeared on-line so quickly after it was delivered leaves one wondering if Swartley didn't have copies already available for the press - maybe he even e-mailed it to them as a .pdf file.

Regardless, it seems pretty clear this was more an instance of political grandstanding than fulfillment of any supposed moral duty. I mean, seriously, the guy went so far as to call aborted fetuses "taxpayers", while mourning their inability to pay into Social Security.

Swartley's total misconception of evolutionary theory - calling it a religion and speaking as if it's all dependent upon chance - only further establishes the fact that this was no innocent gesture of conscience. It was an ignorant abuse of the legislature's goodwill and the people's trust, masking one man's political agenda in terms of spirituality and Godliness of which his own conduct shows no evidence.

The Omaha World-Herald reports on the response of the state senator resposible for Swartley's opening "prayer":
State Sen. Jim Cudaback of Riverdale, who invited Swartley to serve as chaplain for the day, said he was disappointed by Swartley's actions.

"There's a time and a place for such things, but it's not on the floor of the Legislature," Cudaback said. "It's a privilege to have a minister come in the morning - and to have one break the rules doesn't make your day."

Legislative guidelines call for pastors to offer nondenominational prayers and to refrain from discussing issues pending before the Legislature and other political topics.

Must be the influence of those "seeds of anarchy" Swartley was talking about. The Lincoln Journal-Star continues:
Sen. Ed Schrock, whose district includes Elm Creek, where Swartley is the pastor at First Christian Church, shook hands with him after he gave his prayer. But he didn’t offer any congratulations.

“I told him he shouldn’t have brought abortion into this — keep politics out of your prayer,” Schrock said. “We have enough trouble keeping prayer here without having political issues inserted.”

The saddest thing about this is that some are going to uphold Swartley as a hero for this disrespectful and Constitutionally suspect behavior. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see him use this momentary infamy to embark on a speaking tour across the state - or, hell, maybe even turn it into his own campaign for the state legislature.

Think about it: both Cudaback and Schrock (take your pick) are being term-limited this year, and Mike Foley of Lincoln - the state senator best known for engaging in his own anti-abortion theatrics - is hoping to make the leap to State Auditor in November. That leaves Swartley a prime candidate for Nebraska to reload on its single-issue zealots in the legislature. After all, a state can never have enough of those.

Now, let's just hope that's my taste for whimsy talking and not my other tendency towards keen political insight. 'Tis a curse, I tell you...a miserable curse.

**For more worthy commentary on this incident, see Ed Howard's column at Nebraska StatePaper.


Blogger Knightn said...

Today’s events exemplify why prayer should be absent in our legislature! You can listen to the audio of the prayer and Sen. Chambers' reactions at

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

That's some excellent material you have on your site, Jeff. The audio files are particularly illuminating as to the legislature's business and, need I add, oftentimes very amusing.

Highly recommended to all NNN readers.

Anonymous Texas Red said...

Thank you for posting the Reverend's prayer. I would like to add -
Romans 1: 18-25
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
19 Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
20 For since the creation of the world his divine attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,
23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.
25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen

1 Corinthians 2:14
14 But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised,
15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.
16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that we will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
I have to think there are more people in Nebraska who know God than deny him. Look upward Brothers and Sisters.

Anonymous Lynn Margulis - Prof. of Biology, Univ. of Mass. said...

. . history will ultimately judge neo-Darwinism as "a minor twentieth-century religious sect. . . "

Blogger NELBUM said...

Every so often a news story comes along that just speaks volumes about the times we live in. Today's story comes from Nebraska.

More precisely, the story comes from that state's Senate, where they open each day's session with prayer delivered by various clergy. Some folk don't like the practice itself, but the content of the prayers themselves rarely becomes a big issue.

Until one day in January, when the Rev. Tom Swartley stepped into the legislative chambers.

A few sentences into his prayer, Swartley was asking God's forgiveness, not just for sins in general, but for very specific sins. He cited legalized abortion, a "33-year-long bloody nightmare," and the public's indifference: He confessed that "We go to work and school and come home and watch TV while genocide, infanticide and homicide [are] being committed against our own children." He also cited the "religion of evolution," committed to teaching "that we are only here by chance, that we are here for no reason." He said that "We put our children in the same category as other mammals and then we wonder why sometimes they act like animals."

You get one guess how that went over. Lots of senators predictably cried foul, and one (Ernie Chambers of Omaha) reportedly stormed onto the floor to proclaim himself "enraged and furious" and declared that "this day has been poisoned for me."

But the more interesting reactions came from legislators who might've been expected to be more sympathetic. Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek (where Swartley serves at First Christian Church) told the reverend he should've steered clear of the controversial stuff. As Schrock put it, "We have enough trouble keeping prayer here without having political issues inserted."

And most telling of all was the reaction from Sen. Jim Cudaback of Riverdale, who had invited Swartley along with other clergymen in his area to deliver the prayer. "You don't bring that kind of subject," he said. "You're here to make us feel good."

Ah, so that's the job of a Christian minister. I must admit, I missed that part in the Bible. I noticed a lot about speaking God's Word. And I couldn't miss all that talk about sin and judgment and repentance and forgiveness. But somehow I can't recall any verses to support the Cudaback interpretation. No Thou shalt all feel good about thyselves. No Pat thyselves on thy backs without ceasing. Zero. Zip. Nada.

So what should we make of all this?

Well, I can't help but be struck by the sheer arrogance of the "feel good" remark — not only that elected officials would think it, but that one would say it out loud, in front of the press. It tends to confirm my long-held view that the worst corruption in politics isn't money or even power per se (though the latter is closer to the heart of the problem): It's ego. When you think you can tell men of God that their purpose is to please you and your colleagues, you're afflicted with a pretty severe case of self-importance.

And yet, the politicians aren't really the heart of the problem. A bigger part of the problem is that Christians have let things get to this state.

For a long time now, most Christians in the West have been cutting deals with the world — continually swerving to avoid any sort of conflict with it, any clash that would violate the unwritten cultural peace treaty. We all know the terms of the treaty. Everyone can do whatever they want, and no one is allowed to so much as speak out against it, much less, on occasion, actually restrain them from doing it. Someone might feel bad.

Christians should be the first people to recognize the "treaty" as a variant on the devil's bargain: "You shall be as God, knowing [defining for yourself] good and evil." (Now that part really is in the Bible.) And really, we can see that; we just don't want to. What we want is to have it both ways: To call ourselves Christians and feel like Christians, and yet to get along smoothly with the world around us.

So we keep on going to church, and we want the world to leave us alone inside those walls. Some of us go further, surrounding ourselves with "Christian culture" (radio, music, books, videos, etc.). Most, however, implicitly if not explicitly accept the terms of the treaty: The people outside don't want to hear from us as Christians (as opposed to "as neighbors" or "as co-workers" or "as fellow sports fans"), and we'll steer clear of anything that intrudes on their personal autonomy. Above all, we'll steer clear of saying that we're all answerable to the same God.

Only it's not quite that simple. Because a lot of the people outside do want to hear from us as Christians — so long as it makes them (back to this phrase again) feel good. Few people want to think of themselves as atheists, and many want a general sense that God approves of them. But this is a far cry from wanting God Himself. They'll take a substitute deity traveling under the same name, thank you; one who leaves them ample room to believe and act as they like.

Many a Christian goes along with this sort of thing. It's easy to rationalize: "They may not be Christians, but at least they want to join us in prayer, so that's better than nothing and may lead them in the right direction."

But will it? Are we really doing people a favor when we give the impression they can "drop in" on Christianity when it suits them, and thus consider themselves part of the faith, yet spend much of their lives rejecting God's authority (not just sinning, but denying that they're sinning) and believing/doing what they choose? Or are we acting as their enablers, and watering down the Word of God we're supposed to proclaim in its entirety? It's one thing to reach out and minister to non-Christians. It's a very different thing to encourage their delusion that they are, essentially, Christians already.

Regrettably, we're often so eager for any sign that the world might acknowledge God that we don't see what's happening. Many of us are happy to get a generic prayer to "Almighty God" in a public institution, like a legislature. Yet we forget that Christians can and should pray for everyone, but can only pray as they ought with each other — with people who confess the same things about the same Lord. We should have no place for a generic prayer to a generic god. And that's the kind of prayer you get in public institutions.

Which brings us back to the Rev. Swartley, who tried to deliver a decidedly non-generic kind of prayer. I think his effort was misguided in one important way. Since these senators weren't his fellow church mates, his words should have come either in the form of a prayer with his fellow believers or a message presented to the senators. The distinction is important, even crucial, for the sake of what God would have prayer be.

But the main objection among the senators wasn't for God's sake; it was for their own. They expected to hear about a tame deity who would give them a feel-good faith filled with warm fuzzies. They got, instead, One Who hates sin and names specific things as sin. They also got a call for forgiveness, but they wouldn't hear it because they wouldn't admit to sinning in the first place.

If Christians regularly spoke the truths we're called to speak, the senators wouldn't have been surprised by what they got. They wouldn't have liked it, and they probably wouldn't have allowed anyone to pray to begin with. But they wouldn't have been surprised by it, because Christians would have given them no reason to expect a bland, inoffensive effort to "make us feel good."

Much as we should and do want to speak the truth in love, we have to remember that the operative words are "speak the truth." There's no such thing as hiding the truth in love — not the truth about God's Word. The results, we know, will include a lot of strife, for Christ tells us so: and the divisions will come among those close to us, within our own families. But it's not our job to control the results any more than it is to make people feel good. It's our job to be faithful.


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