President George H. W. Bush intentionally began his presidency with a prayer before the nation. I share that moving prayer with you now:
Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: “Use power to help people.”
For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord.
The Lord our God be with us, as He was with our fathers; may He not leave us or forsake us; so that we may incline our hearts to Him, to walk in all His ways… that all peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.
We would do well to ponder the essence of that prayer. It reveals an appropriately humble understanding of the way our nation should use its advantages and its power. Power is not for abuse. Power is not for muscle-flexing. Power is for protection and for helping those who are unable to help themselves. May we hear and heed that message in our day, Gracious God.
To be able to pray a prayer like this one reveals that President Bush had a meaningful personal connection to God that he was unafraid to let his constituents glimpse. Furthermore, it reveals hope deeply embedded in the heart of nation’s leader despite having fought in a war and having served our nation as Director of the CIA where, of necessity, he had to see the seediest layer of inhumanity and utter evil alive and at work right under our noses. When someone like that sees us from the grimmest possible angle and still has hope for the nation and confidence in a God of love and goodness my attention is captured and not just for the duration of the prayer or the day I heard or read it first.
One other observation. This kind of prayer cannot be prayed by someone who has an occasional brush with God; rather, it clearly comes from the heart and lips of someone who is spiritually grounded. Even if the President had the help of a writer polishing the finished product, the sentiments of his heart of hearts are reflected in this prayer.
Though I am focusing primarily on a spirituality based on a positive connection to God, I do not think all of our leaders should have to have some kind of attachment to any religion. I want to make sure you know that I know there’s such a reality as healthy sectarian spirituality. Robert Fuller describes it:
Spirituality exists whenever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things….We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder why we are here…or become moved by values such as beauty, love, and creativity.
George Washington kept a prayer journal, and this prayer from that journal is atypically undated:
O eternal and everlasting God, I presume to present myself this morning before thy Divine majesty, beseeching thee to accept of my humble and hearty thanks, that it hath pleased thy great goodness to keep and preserve me the night past from all the dangers poor mortals are subject to, and has given me sweet and pleasant sleep, whereby I find my body refreshed and comforted for performing the duties of this day, in which I beseech thee to defend me from all perils of body and soul….
Increase my faith in the sweet promises of the gospel; give me repentance from dead works; pardon my wanderings, and direct my thoughts unto thyself, the God of my salvation; teach me how to live in thy fear, labor in thy service, and ever to run in the ways of thy commandments; make me always watchful over my heart, that neither the terrors of conscience, the loathing of holy duties, the love of sin, nor an unwillingness to depart this life, may cast me into a spiritual slumber, but daily frame me more and more into the likeness of thy son Jesus Christ, that living in thy fear, and dying in thy favor, I may in thy appointed time attain the resurrection of the just unto eternal life. Bless my family, friends, and kindred. Amen.
I would not call this a model prayer, one that all of you or any one of you should attempt to emulate. I’m sorry that the first president of our country was weighed down by a fear of God that he had been taught was only proper piety. I am drawn to his concern about falling into a spiritual slumber, however. That is a brilliant and stirring core to this prayer.
My sisters and brothers, we desperately need political leaders who are spiritually grounded, and I don’t mean “religious politicians.” The religion or spiritual system to which they are connected is of little importance as long as it is inclusive and based on the reality that God is love and that the divine love extends to all people around the world who ever have and who ever will live. A president who believed that his or, someday, her religion was the one for all people in this nation and in every nation would be a tremendous danger to all of us. God does not love U.S. Americans more than God loves all the others who make up the one human family. In the racist South, when and where I grew up, we sang a children’s song that we cherished even though we rejected its message by the time we hit our teen years:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
It seems that in many times and places perhaps most times and places political leadership falls to those with money rather than to those who do not have access to abundant funds. Of course, there are exceptions. I can think of Lech Wałęsa in Poland. He is a human rights advocate and one time trade union organizer. He founded the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union–not without consequences, of course. Wałęsa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and was eventually elected as the first President of that nation as it began breaking free from the strictures of Communism. He was never wealthy. Before getting involved in politics, he had been an electrician–an hourly worker probably. He had no higher education either, but he nonetheless was a remarkable leader who knew first hand the struggles of the people he served as president.
We know that Jesus talked about how difficult it is for many wealthy people not to be completely enamored by and preoccupied with their wealth. You probably know Jesus’ famous image of the complications faced by a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle as his way of talking about how challenging it is for people with great amounts of money to look away from the money and focus on other important matters–such as spirituality.
I noticed in The Christian Century this week an announcement of a book, a brand new book I think, about how because of the way wealthier folks are sometimes vilified in Scripture the church, unless it’s collecting from said wealthy people, spends great deal of time and energy condemning them. Apparently the aim of this book is to say that the wealthy people deserve care and compassionate ministry as well as the poor, but that is a rabbit to chase at another time, although a very important rabbit. Oscar Ameringer has said:
Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.
For the purposes of our considerations today we have a young man, a contemporary of Jesus, who is very wealthy and very attached to his wealth. He is never named, but he gets this nickname by the Gospel writer; it sticks: the Rich Young Ruler. He likely had given some thought to the reality that wealth wasn’t giving him the spiritual richness in living that he desired. He was rich in the ownership of precious metals, gems, livestock, and land. He was, however, poor in spirit. This is what prompted him to seek out Jesus. Was this the only time he’d ever sought Jesus’ counsel, or was he in the habit of calling on Jesus with regularity?
He comes to Jesus to say, “Yes, I’m wealthy; yes, I’m in a position of power. Still, Rabbi, I feel that something is painfully lacking in my spiritual life.”
Jesus said, “If you want to feel more closely connected to God you certainly can keep your position of political influence and power, but in your case you’re not able to keep your eyes away from your wealth so you will need to sell all you have, give the proceeds to the poor and then all will be well. You will be able to be focused on God, and you’ll be able to be focused on carrying out your political responsibilities with real compassion for the people you serve.”
The Rich Young Ruler didn’t bite: “I don’t feel connected to God even though I have kept all the religious rules I was ever taught. I’ve been a good prince, and I’ve never been naked in an inappropriate place where the pavaratzi could see me and sketch me in such a state for humiliating public distribution. I’ve never brought shame to the crown and most importantly never to God. I see that the poor are attended to as long as they don’t whine about welfare and the lack of available faith healers willing to care for poor people. And, Jesus, I’ve never believed or acted as if I were above the most rudimentary spiritual exercises just because I happen to be a person of wealth and of power by appointment. I pray as the commoners pray. Still, it’s as if the God you proclaim who wants us to be relationally connected to Godself and not to rules that we have been taught will rather automatically create a connection with God is no where near where I live and reign. I believe that I could a better servant of God and a better leader of the people if I felt spiritually alive, but the stark, sad, embarrassing truth is that I’m a ruler who has everything–almost everything. I feel dead spiritually. I’d give up everything I have to feel alive spiritually.”
Jesus said, “Good, because that’s what’s going to have to happen. Give up the riches. Distribute all the proceeds to the impoverished, and you’ll wake up one day free from that distraction. You can give your energy and focus to making, then keeping your spirit healthy and whole. God has always been close to you, but now you’ll sense the divine presence within; and you’ll feel alive, fully alive.”
The Rich Young Ruler came back quickly, “Now, Jesus, you know I didn’t mean that literally. My wealth came as an inheritance. I couldn’t give it up.” And the Gospel writer tells us that after the filthy rich young man had run out of excuses he walked away from Jesus overcome with sadness because he was wealthier than all the shrieks in Saudi Arabia.
Jesus says, doesn’t he?, that spirituality is connected to spiritual exercises–like prayer and fasting and such. But you can’t stop with the spiritual exercises. You can have a meeting with the Dalai Lama on a daily basis for prayer and reflection, but if you don’t make your spirituality something active based on your spiritual exercises then nothing will occur.
In this case the ruler realized that that his power based wealth could not be the primary focus of meaning in his life. Political leaders should recognize that, and those who believe that power is an end in itself are either dangerous or careless or both. Political leaders should live to serve, and they can do so more effectively with strong spiritual foundations.
Here are words from President Jimmy Carter, the first portion spoken in his inaugural address and latter portion spoken to the nation as a whole on Thanksgiving Day nearly three years later:
I would like to have my frequent prayer answered that God would let my life be meaningful in the enhancement of His kingdom and that my life might be meaningful in the enhancement of the lives of my fellow human beings.
I call upon all the people of our Nation to give thanks for the blessings Almighty God has bestowed upon us, and to join the fervent prayer of George Washington who as President asked God to “impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.”
We need political leaders who keep their spirituality healthy and seek out answers to spirituality-based questions that they have. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with a president or a senator or a governor having a spiritual advisor, or a collection of them. If anyone in politics were to ask me, and no one has, I’d say in our increasingly diverse world spiritual insights from a number of religious traditions should be consistently kept in mind. All healthy religious voices need to be heard and considered.
A wise American president will realize that not all Americans who have religious connections are Christians; we are a tapestry of multiple religious traditions woven together, and woven into the tapestry of American religion are the threads of agnostics and atheists as well. The ideas that we are a Christian nation or that Christianity can be forced onto all citizens need to be tossed for good. A politician who wishes to be a strong leader with a sturdy spiritual foundation can’t live in a dream world and absolutely cannot serve keeping alive the secret notion of ultimately winning all citizens to her or his religion. Do you remember President Obama’s daring press conference in Turkey back in 2009 at which he declared before a predominantly Muslim nation and, in a sense before the whole world, that we are not a Christian nation? I was astounded.
One of the great strengths of the United States is…we have a very large Christian population–we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.
The Obamas are a spiritually grounded family, and all kinds of churches in DC thought the presidential family would surely join their particular congregation. It was entertaining, sometimes funny, to hear representatives from these churches telling television reporters–and they were as serious as they could be–why the Obamas should worship regularly with them. I enjoyed hearing about their decision to connect with a small congregation out near Camp David.
We need leaders who do not let political responsibility eclipse in their minds their need for a healthy spiritual life from whichever tradition they find the most encouragement, inspiration, and clarity of contribution to our citizens and the wider human family. It is clear here that spirituality along with the strength it provides and the service to which it sends us cannot be a fractional part of the whole. Yes, spirituality needs some of its own uninterrupted time in anyone’s life–not just the leaders who literally carry the weight of the world on their shoulders–but the benefit of a healthy spirituality is that we and our leaders can take it into the most conflicted places, the most tenuous of moments when decisions must be made that can never be undone, and into those places where we have no sense of what must be done for the well-being of the most people.
Not all systems of spirituality have much to offer those leaders who would be peacemakers. There are those leaders, therefore, who are always more than ready to go to war based on something read in the holy writ of a given religious tradition–therefore always trying to bring God, or the gods for polytheists, into the justification for war. In Homer’s Iliad he dramatizes powerfully how an omen believed to have been sent by Zeus himself kept a bloody battle waging on:
Over the [warriors] an eagle flew, holding in its talons a blood-red serpent. The serpent struggled with the eagle and the eagle with the serpent, and both had sorely wounded each other. But as they flew over the host of Greeks and Trojans the serpent struck at the eagle with his fangs, and the eagle, wounded in the breast, dropped the serpent. Then were the Trojans in dread, seeing the blood-red serpent across their path, for they thought it was an omen from Zeus.
The Trojans, ready to let this particular battle go and retreat, did not because they thought the bleeding serpent dropped into their midst was sign of what would happen to them if they failed to continue the killing.
A healthy spirituality discourages a hunger for power. Though not a political leader per se, Jesus could have wielded much more power than he did. In his time of desolate deliberations in which he defined what his ministry would be, he said no to the ways of power enhancement and yes to the ways of meeting the needs of the neediest first. This pivotal decision was made in a moment of profound soul-searching, certainly a part of a healthy spirituality.
You know, if ours was a Christian nation, not that there can be a Christian institution of any kind–only people can embrace faith–life would be much different from the way it is. A Christian presumably would be living according to the teachings of Jesus. I don’t see much of that. Too many of our political leaders are afraid to show open compassion and concern for those who are poor and those who struggle otherwise. It’s simple to prove that Jesus gave most of his energy and attention ministering to the hungry, the ill, the excluded. But these are not purely Christian values. Many of the same concerns certainly show up in other major religions.
So, what spiritual system is it that allows political leaders to vilify the needy? I can’t think of one; therefore, I’m concerned when there is no evident trickle down compassion proving that spirituality for this politician or that one has been swept under the carpets altogether. We need political leaders who have a passion for the poor, and I think that is rare, as I alluded to earlier, with an aristocratic political leadership base, leaders who have no understanding, even if their intentions are superior, of what it means to struggle to put food on the table or to pay a bill or to find ways to have heat in the dead of winter.
President Kennedy prayed this prayer on the last Thanksgiving Day he would enjoy:
Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings–let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals–and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world….[L]et us gather in sanctuaries dedicated to worship and in homes blessed by family affection to express our gratitude for the glorious gifts of God; and let us earnestly and humbly pray that He will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.
Pragmatically, we need political leaders bold enough to act on healthy spiritual values, which are certainly connected to mentally and emotionally healthy people, but also to people who have the grit to act on their convictions including their spiritually-influenced convictions. Real religion isn’t just a facade used when invoking God as the God of our nation, mistaken by many to be God’s favored nation. Religion is getting your hands dirty because you as a political leader have said that service to the neediest trumps money and raw power any day of the week.