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The Tale of Two Prayer Services

2005 May 12
by Mike

This article by Ken Ellsworth was in last Sunday’s Abilene Reporter-News. It raises some of the questions many of us will have to ask as we continue to hold to the unique claims of Christ (try revisiting Lewis’s MERE CHRISTIANITY) while living in an increasingly diverse culture. Yes, even in Abilene. Assumptions that were possible fifty years ago in the Bible Belt can’t be made today. It invites us to think about how we can follow the one who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” while doing so with humility and respect for others. I appreciate ARN’s permission to reprint it here.

Two groups met at noon Thursday in Abilene to celebrate the National Day of Prayer with prayer services.

But they did not pray together. They prayed apart, sadly separated, it seemed to me.

The separation caused me to wonder.

If it is true that a ”family that prays together stays together,” could it be applied to a community? ”The community that prays together stays together.”

Probably not, and it’s probably not necessary. That may be why Abilene has hundreds of churches. People like to pray with kith, kin and kind.

I attended some of each service Thursday.

One group met at Everman Park, drawing about 200 people. It was exclusively Christian, in fact, evangelical Christian. The service was organized by Pray Big Country, a group of local pastors.

The other group met in front of City Hall. About 80 attended. Its participants included people of the following faiths: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Unitarianism. This service was organized by the Abilene Interfaith Council.

The Christian service began with praise songs. Many participants raised their arms in the air, palms up as if they were receiving love radiating down from the heavens. This was not the kind of worship service that I grew up with. The music was unfamiliar and accompanied by guitars and percussion.

I grew up with J.S. Bach fugues played on church organs. It was inspiring. I’m not sure praise service music is as good. For me, trading in Bach for praise music might be something akin to trading in Shakespeare for comic books. Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy. Well, there’s no ”maybe” about it.

There were some speakers. Most emphasized their belief that the only path to salvation is through Jesus and that other faiths are in error.

I see how people can think that way, but I am usually thinking more like this: ”In matters of religion, the only absolute wrong is to believe without doubt that you are absolutely right.” But that sort of thinking could be wrong.

One pastor recalled the visit to Abilene several years ago of a Buddhist monk. The monk blessed the city during a ritual. The pastor on Thursday hinted that the Buddhist blessing might have brought bad things to Abilene, including the drought.

I don’t know how the pastor can believe that. I’m quite sure it rains in Buddhist countries.

At City Hall, the atmosphere was much different. People of different faiths and denominations offered prayers. For me, there was warmth to it.

It was lovely to watch people of obviously different faiths hugging each other, sharing each other’s humanity and the need of most to believe.

At the end of the ceremony, loaves of bread were passed out to symbolize that we all can sit down and break bread together regardless of our differences. Almost everybody had a bite.

At the back of the crowd 10 or 12 young people wore shirts that said ”Jesus Crew.” I had seen the same shirts earlier at Everman Park.

For some reason, those young people refused to participate in the breaking of the bread. They weren’t obnoxious about it. In fact, they were polite. They just quietly turned away.

I don’t know, but I think Jesus would have had a bite.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. May 12, 2005

    I miss Ken. For those of your readers who live in Abilene, you have something to be grateful for: one really fine community newspaper that – most of the time – exceeds its limitations. Try moving somewhere else and reading whatever is available there.

    Somehow the church in century one managed to make people of every nation, tribe, kindred and tongue feel welcome at the same table – at least for a while. There were glitches, of course; Peter forgot his table manners once. But I can’t help but feel that after Paul said what was on his heart to him, Peter picked up his dinner and moved over to the Gentile table.

    Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have referred to Paul later in one of his letters as a “dear brother.”

  2. May 12, 2005

    In but not of. That is our relationship to the world.
    How fine that line must be in some area and like a wall in others.

    I would have had a bite.

    Of course I’m not one to pass on food. Next year the Interfaith Council should try some of the bread from Lytle Land or those rolls from Town Crier or better yet…pass some of those Hot Water Cornbreads from Harold’s out.

    Now we are talking!

  3. May 12, 2005

    Gosh…
    Isn’t that like the Christians? Standing far-off, looking down with skepticism on just about everyone else. Maybe even waiting for an opportunity to “evangelize.” I’m thinking about attending the Interfaith gathering on next year’s Day of Prayer — like Ellsworth, I think I might connect more there than at the Christian service.

  4. May 12, 2005

    When I read Ken’s article, I was disturbed. Tolerance sounds so nice, so loving, even so “Christian.” However, though Jesus brings peace to those who accept Him, He is a stumbling block to those who disbelieve. I salute those Christian brothers who chose to take the high road and not force a Christian service upon the City Hall but instead held a service exalting Jesus Christ as Lord — and as the only way to the Father. They would not compromise. The cross does bring unity among Christ-followers, and yet is a dividing sword between those who claim Jesus Christ as the exclusive way to God and those who want to think there are many ways to God. Without the blood of Christ covering me with the righteousness of Christ, I would be lost and living an empty, useless life. But thank God I’m saved. And I will forever take a stand for my Savior — even if it means being unpopular. — Jim Clark

  5. May 12, 2005

    If you want to think more about interfaith relationships, try browsing the latest discussions at A Spiritual Diablog. I recommend starting with this post.

    Also, Philocrites discusses the possibility of professionals whose job it is to help people of different faiths peacefully co-exist.

  6. May 12, 2005

    I think the question here is, “Is the national day of prayer for Christians only or is it for everyone?” I take it from what I’ve read that it is a call for all citizens of our country to pray, not just the portion of the country who are professing Christians.

    To me this isn’t an issue of whether we believe Jesus is Lord or not. Obviously we do. Nor is it a test of whether or not his claims are exclusive. Nor is it a promotion of Tolerance as the ultimate virtue.

    But can people with genuine differences in communities still be together for a National Day of Prayer? Can they respect each other? Can they both share and learn?

    Christians in America live with such a persecution complex. It would help if we could get past this.

  7. May 12, 2005

    God came to earth with a message to the world of love and respect for EVERYONE. I wonder why we have so much trouble reflecting that part of who Jesus was. To eat bread with someone of another faith isn’t recognizing their beliefs…it’s just being friendly. If Jesus ate with prostitutes, then I’ll eat with a Hindu. Wanting the best for the community in which you live and sharing that concern with a Buddist isn’t sin…I think it might be Christlike. Those who get so upset at interfaith activities seem to me to be harboring doubts that their belief in Jesus just might be wrong.

    I wish we had more faith in our faith.

  8. May 12, 2005

    I’m torn between “Amen, Jim Clark” and “Amen, Mike”

    The warm fuzzies of blending in with those that do not believe in Jesus as the Savior and partaking of bread together [which our LORD gave as a symbol of His body given for us]is very attractive. But I must admit to a mental image popping up in my mind of the Apostle Paul in the midst of that group. Yes, I believe he’d attend, but I also believe he’d make HUGE waves, declaring Jesus as Savior, rather than quietly giving a tacit impression of accepting the non-Jesus believing religions.

    I don’t know Ken Ellsworth but his article seems more inclined to point fingers at a form of worship he doesn’t care for than objecting to the lack of religious blending.

    One paragraph really was troubling to me, “…but I am usually thinking more like this: …”In matters of religion, the only absolute wrong is to believe without doubt that you are absolutely right.” But that sort of thinking could be wrong.”

    Is he saying there are no absolutes to be found in God’s word? I don’t know, again, I don’t know the man.

    My personal choice was to not attend what had the potential of causing a rift between neighbors, rather than being a true lifting of Abilene to the Throne of Grace and Mercy. I stayed home and observed the Day of Prayer in private. My choice and in no way a suggestion others should have done the same.

    I’m always concerned when making written ‘dogmatic’ statements, remembering I’ve never, EVER made a small mistake. I hope my love for this community, followed by my worship of the LORD is evident here. If not, your forgiveness is requested.

  9. May 12, 2005

    This post has been removed by the author.

  10. May 12, 2005

    Mike-

    I love the way you put your question in the context of this article. Christians need to be thinking about how to engage emerging culture, especially in Abilene, where it is still possible to bury your head in the sand and pretend that it is 1955.

    I wish that I had the answers, because the time to find answers is running out. Your question is quickly going to become much less theoretical and much more real to all of us.

    I love what Joel and Keith have said. I am also convicted by Jim’s words. They are all voices that need to be taken into account in answering this question.

    But here is the real problem: can a community that is all a-froth (on all sides) about the extent to which it should be distinct from the remaining evangelical faiths even comprehend what is coming, much less engage in meaningful dialog about these issues?

  11. May 12, 2005

    Steve, (Holt Jr.)

    Brother, you know I love you. Quick word of advice:

    When you said, “Isn’t that just like Christians?” my blood got a little warm.

    Throwing sweeping inditements and sterotyping a group of people is both convinient and cruel.

    I just Goggled the name – Steve Holt and found everything from a jazz musician to a vegitarian body builder. If one of those 900,000 Steve Holt’s happens to do something good, bad, or ugly that doesn’t mean that I can paint you with the same brush.

    Yesterday there were Christians praying, serving the poor in Jesus’ name, rescuing souls, forgiving enemies, practiciing integrity, and attempting to bring glory to God in a myriad of other good ways.

    I knew what you were saying when you said it and yet I think that it is still indicitive of how we label so losely.

    I know your heart. It is God-hungry. And know this: if I had a dollar for everytime I said something wrong I’d make Gates look like a pauper!

    May God have grace on all of us!

  12. May 12, 2005

    Mike –

    After reading your post and all of the diverse and divergent comments, I went back to the beginning of your post and think that your opening words and advice are well spoken when you say:

    “It raises some of the questions many of us will have to ask as we continue to hold to the unique claims of Christ (try revisiting Lewis’s MERE CHRISTIANITY) while living in an increasingly diverse culture.”

    I’m thinking that we should all do what you suggest and re-read Lewis’s MERE CHRISTIANITY first here, today, and THEN comment.

    Somehow, I think all of the comments would be of a much different tenor afterward if we all did so. Think I’ll go get mine off the shelf while I’m thinking about it. It’s been a long while since I last read it.

  13. May 12, 2005

    This was an interesting article. Grant and I have already discussed it in length. I left the reading of the column with more questions than answers. For what it’s worth, here are my questions:
    *What was the intent of the column?
    *Did the columnist intend to sound so condemning of people who most likely were doing what they felt was right? (I think he may have been condemning their condemning!)
    *Is it really that easy to figure out what Jesus would do in 2005?
    *What is the purpose of the National Day of Prayer? (This might clarify the purpose of the events.)
    *How does a believer know how to respond to interfaith situations knowing that Jesus claimed that HE is the way to the Father?
    Many more come to mind, but that’s my sampling for the moment.
    Amy Boone

  14. May 12, 2005

    Are we being asked to break bread with non-Christians, or are being asked to equate Muhammed with Jesus? Should we break bread with non-believers? Absolutely. Why? Because Jesus did.

    As for the author – seems he equates old, King James crusty stuff as “more religious” on one hand — and on the other hand he wants all religions to equally share the same path to salvation.

  15. May 12, 2005

    I appreciated what Jim Clark had to say. Yes, we need to respect those of other faiths and not treat them as many of us have in the past.

    But as Kathy said, I can’t see Paul sitting quietly and basking in the diversity as some guy prays to buddha and someone else prays to mother shabubu (obscure Simpsons reference). But then again, maybe it shows that I still have a long way to go.

    As for what Steve said about evangelizing… I know this has become a dirty word in politically correct circles… but you know what? If a guy is worshiping buddha, he is dead in his sins — without God and without hope. Why would you not want to share Jesus with him??? I think Paul might have taken the opportunity to tell about the one true God.

    Maybe I just completely missed the point (a very real possibility), but I just have no desire to participate in a prayer service to anyone except YAHWEH.

  16. May 12, 2005

    Mike,

    I have been quietly reading your blog for about a year and have enjoyed it very much. I have resisted the urge to comment until now…actually, I haven’t had that much to resist, I enjoy reading other people’s thoughts on faith and guacamole, and someone eventually posts a comment along the lines of my own thoughts on the subject at hand.

    But I have to respond to today’s post. I have been attending the Abilene Interfaith Council meetings the last two years, as much as my work schedule allows. It meets one Tuesday a month at noon at the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest, although recently they’ve been trying to schedule more evening events so more people can come. We meet to enjoy a potluck meal together and get to know one another, and the program usually is a topic of religious interest related to current events. It has been a highlight of my time here in Abilene, and I hope after the summer break any who are curious will come and see what an interfaith gathering looks like.

    In an increasingly diverse society, Christians would do well to educate themselves about the major world religions. Ignorance is not a virtue, and this head in the sand routine only deepens the distrust and widens the gap. And I would also argue that when one develops relationships with people of different faiths that one’s own faith is deepened through having to articulate your beliefs in the face of someone who believes otherwise. My Christian faith is enriched through my experience with the neighbors I have encountered through the Abilene Interfaith Council.

    Jeff, I don’t know you, but I have to address your posting. Buddhists don’t worship Buddha. Technically, it is an atheistic religion with enlightenment as its goal…(Someone once asked the Buddha, ‘Are you a God?”. He replied “No, I’m awake!” ) If you would like to know more about Buddhism, I’d encourage you to drop in to the AIC sometime in the fall…in the meantime, there are several great websites, like beliefnet, that can give you an overview of that religion.

  17. May 12, 2005

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if many of the Christians who refused to be part of a National Day of Prayer with people from other religions were also the ones pushing for prayer in public schools?

    If there is prayer in public schools, there will regularly be prayer led by people who are not Christians. That may not be AS true in Abilene as in, say Seattle or New York City, but it would still be true.

    Aren’t we already asking people of other faiths in this increasingly pluralistic society to listen in on our prayers in certain places? It doesn’t mean they have to fall on their knees and confess Jesus as Lord (though that’s something I would hope all would do); they either listen respectfully or they “re-address” their faith by their own consciences.

    Ah, but better to feel persecuted and Intollerant for Jesus.

    Yes, there will be places to draw the line in the sand. But I think the National Day of Prayer is not it.

  18. May 12, 2005

    I can’t speak for Ken Ellsworth, but my guess is that, as a journalist, his purpose was to point out what Christians look like to non-Christians.

    He’s done us a favor, by the way. He doesn’t paint us all in one hue or shade. Some Christians participate in the interfaith event. Some don’t. They’re not rude. They just don’t.

    But the point is made. Some have fellowship with unbelievers. Yup, that’s what I said. They’re in the world. They’re believers who rub shoulders with those who don’t believe in Jesus as Christ, Son of God. They stand by themselves, not willing to break bread.

    That’s just the way some Christians are. They wear the same tee-shirts as the ones who share bread. But they’re different.

    Then Ken does what everyone does, journalist or not; Christian or not. He makes a judgment. He doesn’t claim to know Jesus better. He just states an opinion.

    It’s the kind of thing Christians need to hear in order to know where we stand … and where others perceive us standing.

  19. May 13, 2005

    Mike,

    All of this reminds me of a song we sing. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love. . .by our love. . .yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

    I too believe Jesus would have set at the table and broke some bread with his “neighbors.”

    I long for a day that we too will sit once again not just at other believers’ tables but also the tables of the outcast, the overlooked, and the abused.

  20. January 16, 2007

    Google is the best search engine

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