Prayer is not Partisan! (Keynote Address at the 37th Annual Legislative Prayer Breakfast for Otero County, NM)

Legislative Prayer BreakfastBelow is the text of the Keynote Address that I was honored to deliver at the 37th Annual Legislative Prayer Breakfast for Otero County (NM) on Friday, January 15, 2016:

Elected Officials. Honored Guests. Fellow Citizens. It is an honor tobe with you this morning at the 37th Annual Legislative Prayer Breakfast. When Chandell approached me several months ago about being the keynote speaker at this year’s event, I paused and took a deep breath, knowing that if I said yes, that I would be making a significant commitment. I told Chandell that I would be honored to do it.

There’s that word again – HONOR. It’s seemingly used all the time. Just yesterday, someone was in my office talking to me about holding a Mother’s Day Tea at church to honor Mothers. She specifically wanted to invite the Pastors’ wives so that they could be honored, particularly in light of trying to keep their husbands on the straight and narrow. I’m not sure that we can honor our wives enough, but that’s a speech for another day.

What does “honor” mean in today’s culture? Webster’s defines it as:

a showing of usually merited respect” or a person of superior standing —now used especially as a title for a holder of high office, particularly judges and justices of the court.” Honor can also mean “one whose worth brings respect or fame.”

It is in this last definition that we come closest to the Biblical definition of honor. It begins with the worth of the person. And, in the case of God – to whom we are to give our ultimate honor and allegiance – it is because of His infinite worth and beauty and power and character – seen most clearly in and through the person of Jesus Christ – that we are to show honor.

However, honor does not stop with God. Honor actual begins with God and extends to His creation, most especially to those who bear His image — people.  In fact, the Bible calls us to honor all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. One of the most well-known statements of honoring is found in the Ten Commandments, when God instructs the people of Israel to

“honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

While we may not always do a perfect job at giving honor to our parents, this command is certainly not seen as controversial. However, it is to another set of folks that we are commanded to honor that gives us fits, particularly in our 21st Century American culture.

And, when I say “us,” I mean Christians. Now at this point, I should probably do what I sometimes do before a sermon on Sunday morning. I  warn folks that what I am about to say may step on your toes. That is certainly not my intent. For you see, what I am about to say is intended for me as much as it is for you. I hope that what I share is both a reminder and an encouragement as we pray for the upcoming legislative session and as we begin the campaign season in Presidential election year.

So, what group of people who God calls us to honor do American Christians have such a difficult time actually honoring? That would be the very people who we are honoring and praying for this morning – our elected officials. It’s easy to come to a once-a-year Legislative Prayer Breakfast and “honor” our government leaders. We eat a nice meal, we catch up with people we haven’t seen since last year’s breakfast, and we recognize elected officials.

But, what happens when we leave here? How well do we do at honoring those same elected leaders when they make a decision at the Statehouse in Santa Fe or in the Town Hall of Alamogordo that we disagree with? How quick are we to post on social media a dishonoring and disrespectful comment about a local, state, or national government official who we don’t particularly like? All the while, we give ourselves an excuse for the lack of honor because we don’t agree with a President’s, a Governor’s, or a Judge’s decision. After all, aren’t we just supposed to give honor to those with whom we agree, politically, religiously, or culturally?

Of course, I think we all know the answer to that question, even if we don’t always put into practice the right answer. In our modern culture, particularly within the political arena, we are a nation that is becoming more and more divided. That division has seeped into our spiritual life and  affected how believers interact with a government that is increasingly hostile to the public display of the Christian faith. And, instead of doing what we are commanded to do – which is to honor our government officials – we begin, like lawyers (sorry, I had couldn’t resist), to carve out exceptions to the rule. Except, God has not given us exceptions when it comes to honoring those whom He has called us to honor. We don’t get to pick and choose – based upon political ideology or party affiliation – whom we honor or don’t honor. That is simply not up to us.

Does that mean it is easy to do what the Apostle Peter calls us to do when he writes in 1 Peter 2:17 – “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Absolutely not! I don’t imagine that it was easy for the church to receive Peter’s letter, instructing them to not only “honor everyone,” but to also honor the Roman Emperor. It must have been almost impossible for them to put into practice the actual honoring of a leader who was violently mistreating Christians at the time.

How then could the church in the 1st Century and how now can the church in the 21st Century “honor everyone,” particularly all of our government officials, from those who hold local offices to the person, regardless of party, who holds the highest office in the land? Glad you asked.

From my own experience, I can tell you that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to honor someone, including our elected officials, if we do not take the time to pray for them. And, not just once-a-year at the Legislative Prayer Breakfast. We need to pray for our government leaders all the time, not just because it will help us to honor them, but because God has also commanded that we pray for people – all people. The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, the Pastor of the Church at Ephesus, told him:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions of authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Not only is it commanded, not only does give us a practical way to honor everyone, up to and including the highest government official in the land, but praying in such a way is both good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior. Even when it is difficult – and obedience is not always easy – we should want to do that which pleases our heavenly Father. Even when the person we should be praying for is someone who we would not naturally feel inclined to pray for, we should nevertheless pray. It takes commitment and it takes practice. For me, I have had some wonderful lessons in praying for government officials and leaders who I would otherwise not feel led to pray for.

Fourteen years ago this week, my family of four (my youngest Andrew was not yet born) began packing up our home in the Kissimmee, Florida area as we prepared for my first full-time senior pastorate at Grundy Baptist Church in Grundy, Virginia. One of the reasons that we felt called to this small town in the Appalachian Mountains, located in the far southwest corner of Virginia – on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia – was that the church was located next to – in fact, shared a parking lot with – Virginia’s newest law school, the Appalachian School of Law. Wow! Former lawyer turned pastor serving at a church located next to a law school. God certainly does have a sense of humor. Or, so we thought.

While we were packing boxes, I got a call from a church member at our church in Kissimmee who used to live in Virginia. She asked if I’d heard what had happened at the law school in Grundy. With no television or radio to listen to, I told Miss Edna that I was unaware of what was going. Earlier that day – fourteen years ago tomorrow on January 16, 2002 – a disgruntled former student went into the law school where he shot and killed the Dean, a Professor, and a student and wounded three other students before being subdued by fellow students. A memorial, complete with national news coverage, was held at  Grundy Baptist Church, where I would be starting my first day in the office on Martin Luther King Day in 2002, just five days after the shooting.

From the moment we rolled into Grundy until the moment that we left and headed west to Alamogordo and the Land of Enchantment 8 ½ years ago, I learned many  valuable lessons, most of which they do not teach you in seminary. How to help a community deal with a horrific and violent tragedy? How to help people struggling financially in the midst of a severe economic downturn, in our case the coal industry? And, how to pastor a church where the majority of members identified with a political party that was different from the one I generally identified with?

While I’m still not sure if the first two lessons are ever fully learned, I believe that the time spent in southwest Virginia has allowed me to learn how to be a non-partisan pastor in a very partisan culture. Now, to be non- partisan does not mean that pastors or churches have to avoid speaking the truth on the pressing moral and Biblical issues of the day. In fact, we must have the freedom to speak the truth in love and that freedom, at the end of the day, is a God-given gift that cannot be taken away by any government at any time for any reason!

I still remember the time that Jay Rife, a leader in our church in Grundy, asked me to give the invocation at an event sponsored by the county political party that he was also chairman of. I’m quite sure that he knew that this was not the political party that I normally identified with, particularly after my then five year old son, Stephen, burst into the Fellowship Hall on the Sunday after the 2004 Presidential elections to announce who his daddy had voted for.

Nevertheless, Jay saw it as a honor to have his own pastor pray at this event  and I saw it as an opportunity to pray for government officials and to show honor to those in positions of high authority. Prayer, even at a political event, should still be non-partisan. That’s why I did not pray for winners or losers or the triumph of political parties or ideologies. I prayed for the safety of the government leaders and candidates as they traveled across the Commonwealth. I prayed that God would give the leaders wisdom from above that, as the book of James in the New Testament describes, is

“pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”

I prayed that God would guide and direct the government leaders in discharging their responsibilities in office. I prayed that the elected officials would make decisions that would be pleasing to God. And, above all, I prayed that everything that was said and done would bring honor and glory to God. After I prayed, I left. I was not there for a partisan political rally, but rather to offer Biblical prayer.

Whether at a annual legislative prayer breakfast or throughout the year, we are called to offer our prayers for all of our elected Senators and Representatives as they head to Santa Fe. We are called to offer our prayers for all those in positions of higher authority. Whether we agree with them or not. Whether we share the same party affiliation or political ideology. We pray for your safety in traveling across the Land of Enchantment. We pray that God would grant you heavenly wisdom as you make difficult decisions that will affect the citizens of this great state and that He will guide you as you carry out your official duties. We pray ultimately that God would receive honor and glory in all that you do and say as you represent the people of New Mexico in Santa Fe this legislative session.

As we leave here this morning, let us always remember that prayer must always be non-partisan. Prayer is not Republican or Democrat. It is not liberal or conservative. Prayer is Biblical. And, through our prayers, we honor those whom God has placed in high positions of authority over us and, we ultimately honor God Himself, who is worthy of all of our honor, love and devotion.

Thank you so much for allowing me the great honor of speaking with you this morning. May God bless our wonderful community and great state and may God continue to bless the land of the free and the home of the brave, the United States of America! God bless you.

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