The Prayer on the Brazos

Sometime around 2007 we started thinking more seriously about the world. Ben provided the lead in this, and although I would often question the wisdom of some of the things were we were talking about and the direction we seemed to be moving, I look back now and appreciate the way he was expanding our horizons and thoughts about the Kingdom of God. The emergence of the One Campaign was making us more aware of the injustices around the world, particularly in Africa. Through his contacts at Baylor, Ben connected UBC to a community in Kenya where we began to take groups of congregants, mostly students, to work with an orphanage outside Nairobi.

After years of deconstructing our faith, this seemed like a positive step toward creating something new we could move toward. Many of us had grown up in faith traditions that took missions and evangelism seriously, but had become weary of the cultural and religious imperialism inherent in these endeavors. The word “missional” started to be in vogue, and slowly took the place of “community” as the sexy buzzword in the church. Being “missional” was something we could hop on board with because it didn’t require us to make definitive theological claims about heaven and hell, being lost and found. Through the writings of Shane Claiborne and others, we were being exposed to the social justice tradition within Christianity, and many among us liked what they saw.

Not everyone was happy about this, and I was was one of the most vocal of this group. I embraced, at the time, a belief that individual Christians could, and should, be active in the political and social institutions of the country, but churches should stay out of these conversations and should avoid, at all cost, conversations that had the slightest whiff of partisan politics.

I grew up in a conservative, evangelical Baptist church, as well as in a family that leaned heavily Democratic. As the Evangelicals in the U.S. began, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, to coalesce into the Republican party, this created a feeling of dissonance among people, like my dad, who worked in unionized factory jobs, and simultaneously attended conservative churches. As a result, many of us discovered the phrase “Separation of Church and State” and interpreted it to mean “That pastor better not say something from the pulpit about politics!” This was still imbedded in my psyche when UBC started focusing on social justice issues (which, in our country, turns political very quickly.) 

For me, unlike my generational peers, my political identity was strong, and my internal sense of loyalty compelled me to hang on to it. I had become a Republican many years before and was trying as hard as I could to make the political identity I was holding on to compatible with my identity as a follower of Jesus. Embracing an ethos that left out any room for political conversation within Christian discourse was the easiest way to do this. If my disdain for welfare programs didn’t have to be in conversation with my belief in the Bible, then that was a much easier situation for me than if it did. (For the record, I believe the same would have been true had I been a Democrat.)

But the One Campaign seemed to eliminate this need for a strong separation between political and religious activity,  because it included voices from a wide array of both political and religious backgrounds. Leaders and celebrities from as disparate points of view as Pat Robertson and Bono, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Desmond Tutu and Condoleezza Rice all were advocates for the One Campaign and its efforts to alleviate poverty and suffering around the world. This made conversations linking social justice with the Kingdom of God more palatable to people like me.

The most contentious issue we talked about in those days wasn’t social justice, but war.

***

In the aftermath of Kyle’s death, and with the removal of the baptistery from the church building, we transitioned to having one baptism service a year, held on Palm Sunday at Indian Springs park. These services were meaningful times of reflection, nearness to each other, and of joy. There was no preaching, only music, communion, prayer and baptism, followed by a church picnic. Usually Palm Sunday fell within the 10-12 days of the year in Waco that can legitimately be labeled “Spring.”

Indian Springs Park is an amphitheater with a concrete stage at the bottom of a grassy hill, leading down to the Brazos river. We sat on the lawn that rises up toward downtown.  It is a relatively large space, and these services were as much about soaking up the sun with those closest to us and enjoying the beauty of the day as they were about participating in what was going on from stage. It was easy to zone out and just look around without giving much thought to the actual service going on, the leisure and ease of the day as much a part of the worship as the liturgy.

During one of these services Ben, (a student, not Ben the Community Pastor,) walked up to the stage and began to read a payer. We bowed our head, no doubt prepared for an average, run-of-the-mill prayer, which is how it must have started, even though I was tuned out, taking in the day. But my ears started perking up when I began to hear the words “Forgive us” stringed together with “wars of greed and deception” and the words “Iraq,” “Afghanistan” mixed in with “Oil,” Blood,” and “Profit.”

Head bowed as I sat on the grass with my elbows resting on my knees, I slowly raised my eyes and began looking around to see if anyone else was hearing what I was hearing, and if it was registering a reaction. It was, but few of the reactions seemed to be identical to the others. There were looks of terror on the faces of some, of surprised satisfaction on others. The former seemed to be saying, “What is happening?!,” the latter, “Finally!” Because of where I was politically at the time,  I was with those who were dismayed at what was happening, appalled that someone would use such a sacred occasion as a congregational prayer to make such a political statement.

But I wasn’t as upset as others, most notably David. When he and his wife heard about the prayer, they were livid. They weren’t at the service, but were on the road, which was becoming more frequent with every year that passed and new album released. I have been told by those privy to these conversations that they confronted Ben and John Mark, who were responsible for the service that day, about what happened and wanted to talk about how to rectify the situation, hoping the church would be more careful in the future about how we represented ourselves in worship.

This was one of the watershed moments in the life of UBC, as it revealed several things that were becoming true for much of the life of the church, but had been obscured by the charismatic leadership of Chris, David and Kyle, and by the basic fact that young churches are not prone to self-reflection.

For one, the prayer was indicative of a movement that had nothing to do with the actual content of the prayer. The fact that there was an element to our corporate worship time together that was thought out in advance and placed in a specific place, and was meant to be a general congregational prayer (in some traditions known as “the prayer of the people,”) was a sign of us being in the latent stages of being deliberate about corporate worship. Up until this point our worship times consisted of announcements (which were required to be funny, like a Sunday morning stand-up routine,) music and a sermon. Somewhere in between we took up offering, and every now and then we took communion when we realized it had been a long time since we had last done so. About once or twice a year a seminary student and some of us “long timers” would create what we called “alternative services,” which would sometimes contain guided moments that were borrowed from traditional liturgies, but these were certainly the exception rather than the rule. It was during this interim time when Ben (the Community Pastor) and a couple of seminary students began inserting written prayers, readings and “Calls to Worship” that were beginning to add a little more liturgical depth to what we were doing.

(In later years people would credit me with this change. Though I did appreciate this direction UBC was going in, it was mostly the leadership of Ben, the Pastor, and Adam, a seminary student, that got the ball rolling.)

Also, Ben’s (the student) prayer made known publicly what many of us who had been a part of the church had known for a long time: We were a diverse collection of characters, if not racially and socioeconomically, then certainly politically and theologically. Those of us who had been a part of Coffee and Culture and other community groups had experienced some of this diversity firsthand. But this was the first time it was given center stage for everyone, especially those not involved in the daily life of the church, to see.

The negative reaction of David and others to Ben’s prayer also revealed that some in our ranks had a belief that UBC needed to be careful with the image we craft, because people are watching and we don’t want to scare them away. I realized in the midst of all the hullabaloo about Ben’s prayer that I could care less about whatever image it was we were trying to maintain. It’s not that I didn’t care about what people thought of us. I loved UBC and wanted others to love it as well. But I instinctively believed that if what Ben had done was going to run someone away from the church, they were probably going to run away for something else we would eventually do. And besides, wasn’t UBC founded on a sense of antipathy toward having to put forward a calculated image to the world?

I didn’t agree, at the time, with Ben’s prayer. And if I would have known he was going to do it, I probably would have tried to stop it. (Even though I have grown more sympathetic with the content of the prayer, I still think there could have been a better way to communicate what was being communicated.) But it was done, and what did it matter? I knew Ben. I worshipped with him, was a part of small groups with him, and although we weren’t close friends, I admired who he was and the man he was becoming. If there were any conversations that needed to be had about the prayer, it should have been about better ways to craft a moment of worship that took into account a wide array of nuance surrounding theology, ecclesiology and liturgy. Not whether or not it was going to upset someone, which should never, under any circumstances be a reason not to do something in worship. (Granted, it should also never be a primary reason to do something in worship either.)

Which brings up the last thing I think Ben’s prayer, and the reaction to it, revealed about who we were becoming: On the one hand, there were those intimately involved in the weekly life of the congregation. Some resonated with Ben’s prayer, some didn’t. But regardless of which one we were, it was really no skin off any of our backs, because there was always next week. And there was always an opportunity to talk to Ben, figure out where he was coming from,  to determine if he would be willing to shift his language in the future to better serve God and the community. Or, more importantly, figure out if there were ways I needed to change my stance on the matter. Perhaps those of us who had a negative reaction to what we were hearing from his prayer were the ones who needed to be more malleable, not Ben. And in the course of days, weeks, and years, with someone—sharing meals, going to games, praying with each other during tragic times—the opportunity existed for us to be formed by each other. Ben by me, me by Ben.

On the other hand, there were those who were around the community sparsely during the week, who rarely sat across the table from any of us, rarely gave themselves an opportunity to be shaped over a long period of time by those of us who were worshipping at UBC every week. To be fair, these people did love UBC. Indeed, they were the ones who followed God’s leading in starting the church. But it was becoming evident that what they originally wanted the church to be and to become was not what some of us who had joined along the way wanted it to be and to become.  It seemed that they wanted to create a product that would be placed before seekers and marketed in such a way that would maximize consumers. Certainly, it was a good product. It was even a product that would foster change and transformation in the lives of people. But the change and transformation didn’t seem to be what was driving decisions about the life of the church. It was the product that mattered, and there was no room in that product for political or prophetic sermons and prayers that might drive people away. (Never mind the fact that the same sermons and prayers may drive other people toward UBC.)

These were the folks, it became increasingly clear, who were calling the shots.

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