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Mark Osler

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Prayer Breakfast Heresies

Posted: 07/11/2011 11:27 am

As someone who has worked for the past decade at religiously-affiliated institutions, I have on occasion had the opportunity to participate in what has become a regular Christian ritual in some places: The prayer breakfast. What fascinates me about these events is that they drape themselves in the faith, yet create a scene that Christ himself would (and did) directly condemn. They are the epitome of a culture that celebrates itself, rather than embracing what Jesus actually taught.

The pattern of a prayer breakfast can be as ritualized as Kabuki theater. There is music to kick things off, one or two introductory speakers, and then a primary speaker (often a politician, successful businessman, or a former athlete) who will offer a lengthy prayer. One regular feature of these events is a "head table," where there are seats for the speakers and other dignitaries.

I have been invited to dozens of prayer breakfasts, but not once have I been invited to a prayer lunch or a prayer dinner. I suspect that there is a good reason for this -- lunch is reserved for business, and dinner is a time for families. In other words, prayer gets America's least popular meal, because we are busy with apparently more important things the rest of the day. This, of course, inverts the very dictum that prayer breakfast speakers usually recite: That God comes first in their lives. At least ... if it is before noon.

Jesus never directly commented (at least as recorded in the gospels) on gay marriage or abortion or government budgets, but he was pretty straightforward in coming out against how a prayer breakfast is structured.

First, the centerpiece is usually the very public prayer by an honored figure such as a governor or former quarterback. But how does this jibe with Jesus' teaching? The truth, if you believe the gospels to contain truth, is that prayer is to be a private matter; Jesus's instructions were that "when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

Second, a truly Christian prayer breakfast would feature an utterly vacant head table. This is what Jesus taught about banquets: "When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Yet, somehow, the head table always seems full from the start.

Finally, the prayer breakfast is structured so that the primary speaker is presented as a heroic figure. He (and it is usually a "he") is given a glowing introduction, a seat of honor, and more often than not a standing ovation when the prayer is concluded. How seductive this must be! Those of us with theological ambitions, meanwhile, cannot help imagining ourselves as one of these Super Christians as we watch from the back. Of course, like all who are honored, these Prayer Heroes are held to impossible standards and when subjected to scrutiny too often see their status dissolve in scandal or confusion. Is it the seduction of power and privilege? Could this be what Christ himself warned against in teaching "when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men?"

In the end, the prayer breakfast is structured to ignore the key nutrient of the Christian faith, which is humility. It is not in gazing up at the Super Christian that I glimpse God in others. More often, it is in a humbler scene, fraught with quiet and light: The silent circle of Quakers, the Catholics kneeling with reverence and cupped hands, the Mormons on bicycles, and the Baptists with hammers, building a home where once there was none.