I sat in a room filled with hundreds of Christians and felt a little bit like an outsider.
This was the second year I’ve attended the Iowa Prayer Breakfast… held every Maundy Thursday in Des Moines. It includes prayers for our state and leaders, music, and a keynote message. On the site, it clearly states that “people from all walks of life come to enjoy this Maundy Thursday celebration.”
I am so grateful for the opportunity to go and be in prayer with so many faithful people and for those who have invited me. And that is because my hope and prayer for this kind of public gathering of people of faith is that the above statement is lived out: that the tent is big enough for all walks of life and all corners of the Christian family to find a place in that room. After all, ALL of our prayers are needed during these difficult times.
Yet, that wasn’t entirely my experience.
I found myself constantly wanting to interject with a “yes, but…” or “what about…” or “that’s not exactly right…”
The lineup of past speakers for this event has been full of Christian apologists and I found myself wanting to apologize for the public theology I was encountering. I looked out on the 1,000+ people in attendance and feared that some might think this was the full scope of Christianity. And while it wasn’t appropriate to stand and lift up counterpoints in the moment, I do have this platform to lift up a different voice.
During the event, more than one speaker lifted up the religious persecution of Christians and Jews. Our governor said, “The lives, the safety, the well-being of Christians and Jews especially in the Middle East is certainly threatened.” Yet, Religious persecution is not limited to these two faiths. In the wake of the attacks in Brussels, I mourn for the loss of life there, and know that Yazidis, Turkmen, and Shia Muslims are daily under attack from ISIS in their homes as well. I inhabit a Christian faith that also weeps with Sikh and Muslim and Buddhist and unbelieving brothers and sisters around the world who fear for their lives because of this kind of persecution.
As Branstad turned his gaze to threats to our religious freedom in the United States, I lift up the words of George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation:
…happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it [toleration] on all occasions their effectual support… May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The Christian faith does not ask us to abandon our love, care, and concern for brothers and sisters of other faiths. Rather than being “under attack,” I am free to practice my faith every single day without fear and yet I know that Muslim brothers and sisters right here in Des Moines sometimes have to be careful about how they do so. As such, I was moved to tears as Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of Muslim refugees on Maundy Thursday. As a fellow clergywoman, Janie McElwee Smith, wrote:
The truth is this: no matter what else we do, say, or stand for, if we do not follow Christ’s commandment to love all of God’s children as Jesus has loved us, then we have not just missed the point. Nothing else we do will matter ?
What if this Iowa Prayer Breakfast, held on Maundy Thursday, was an extension of the command Jesus gives on this day: to love.
What if we lifted up in our prayers of lament and confession the realities of racism, homelessness, addiction, hunger, and poverty in our state. What if instead of simply naming the evils and wickedness of our nation (and subtly placing the blame on the sinful people out there), we actually turned that same introspection to our own hearts – to the intolerance, the greed, the fears we perpetuate in spite of our proclaimed trust in the Lord. In a room filled with elected leaders, what if together, we repented of our failure to love the last, the least, and the lost. After all, Maundy Thursday reminds us that in spite of the disciples’ failings, fears, and betrayal, Jesus loved them and washed their feet and continued to trust them with the message and mission of the Kingdom of God. This day, above all days, it is appropriate to find ourselves in that crowd of those who turned their backs and to admit our sins. What if the message we heard on this morning was a challenge to a room full of influential leaders to repent and live more faithfully as disciples of Christ in the world?
I am exceptionally curious if this event is as politically partisan as it appeared this time, every year. It felt more like the faith was promoting the elected leadership, rather than the leadership together with the public seeking God’s direction and blessing. If this, truly, was a space where all Christians could pray for Iowa, in spite of our political leanings, then I think there would be much greater room for confession, lament, thanksgiving, and prayers for vision and unity. I think whenever we surround ourselves with a particular perspective, we have a hard time seeing ourselves clearly. Our current republican administration was represented through those elected officials in attendance and I can imagine those who are tasked with organizing the event are careful not to ruffle feathers. I wonder if it felt tilted in the opposite direction during democratic administrations. Or does this gathering represent a more particular lens of Christian tradition? My imagination and hope for this event is that the walls dividing us politically might be leveled as we share a meal with those with which we might not agree. After all, we share a common love for Jesus and this world and that love crosses all boundaries.
Two final words:
1) Our speaker, Dr. Alveda King, did hearken back to the original languages in interpreting Romans 13, but then lifted up a cry against using X-mas instead of Christmas… with great applause from the crowd. Note: the X used in this expression is a Christogram, in this case the letter “Chi” and the first letter of Christ in the Greek language, often used alone to represent Christ. It can also be seen in the chi-rho, where the two Greek letters are combined to represent the person of Christ.
2) I have only attended for two years, but I have yet to see a clergywoman speak from the platform and three pastors spoke/prayed each year. I’d be happy to hear it has been otherwise in the past. Also, only four of the speakers listed since 1977 were women, including this year’s keynote. Both years, thankfully, scripture has been shared by a laywoman. One way to intentionally show that “people from all walks of life” are welcome is to include people from all walks of life as speakers.