The Chaplain

Wen I was a student I witnessed a pastor who was trying to push members of his congregation to lead prayer in public. He would protest when asked to offer a blessing or invocation, saying that others could lead the prayers. It was a bit awkward. I decided that as a pastor I would never refuse to pray when asked. I do work hard to teach others to lead prayer in public. I help confirmands learn prayers that they can use when asked to offer a blessing. I’ve advocated for passing around the job of leading devotions at meetings. But I never decline when asked to pray. Not long ago at a meeting of a statewide organization, I witnessed another pastor showing reluctance to lead a prayer and thought again about how awkward that felt.

This resolution of mine has led to my offering prayers in a variety of settings outside of the congregations that I serve. I’ve given invocations at service club meetings and banquets and fund-raising events. I’ve prayed over meetings of city councils and state legislatures in multiple locations. I’ve offered blessings at lunches and dinners and at meetings of all kinds. I’ve served as chaplain to corporate boards and non profit organizations.

I put considerable energy into crafting prayers for those events. Although I am comfortable leading prayers that are not scripted when working with board and committees within the church I serve, I usually write out prayers before delivering them at the occasions of other entities. I try to say words that are meaningful and relevant. I try to imagine the ways in which my pryers might be heard by those who have different opinions and traditions than my own. I am aware that there are times when I am leading a prayer as a Christian knowing that there are Jews and Muslims and those of other faiths present.

At the core of my prayers before interfaith groups is my conviction that there is one God. Even though our religious traditions are different, even though our ways of worshiping are different, I am absolutely convinced that there is only on God who has compassion and deep love for all people. I do not see the world as containing those who are saved and those who are damned. I see it as containing people who are beloved by God and whom God longs to forgive for our sins.

I’ve prayed with prisoners in jails and prisons, including those who have confessed to me that they had killed other humans.

Having said that, I do not believe that the role of religion is to govern. I am not in favor of governments establishing and supporting any particular religion to the exclusion of others. I am grateful to live in a country that has many different faiths. I don’t believe in using the power of government to impose religion on others. I’m firmly committed to the separation of church and state.

When I am serving the Sheriff as a chaplain, I am deeply aware that I am called to serve all, not just those who are Christian. I am especially careful not to use my position to recruit members for my church or to promote my denomination. I have worked hard to educate other chaplains in understanding our role as servants. And I understand that the position is at least partially political. I serve at the pleasure of the Sheriff. I have been appointed by an elected official. I chose to engage in that service as a volunteer and I understand that serving those who serve is a privilege.

I am, however, challenged to continue thinking about such matters carefully by the recent firing of the Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives by House Speaker Paul Ryan. I’m sure that Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest, was well aware that there were politics surrounding his appointment. There are politics surrounding everything in the House of Representatives. If he had temporarily forgotten that, he was certainly reminded when he was reprimanded by the Speaker for praying that those who “continue to struggle” in the United States would not be made “losers under new tax laws.” Apparently praying for the poor was too political for Speaker Ryan.

However, being a chaplain doesn’t make a person not a Christian. Any serious disciple of Jesus will find her or himself praying for the poor. It is what Jesus did. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) If you read Conroy’s prayers you will find references to the Christian scriptures and Christian tradition. He is, after all, a priest. He prayed to God that lawmakers would help “the least among us.” He prayed fr them to follow the example of St. Nicholas, “who fed the hungry, brought hope to the imprisoned, gave comfort to the lost.” He asked lawmakers “to serve other people in their need” and “to pray for the unemployed and those who work but still struggle to make ends meet.” He urged “those who possess power in Washington to be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power.” He prayed for lawmakers to be “free of all prejudice,” and to “fulfill the hopes of those who long for peace and security for their children.” The prayers of the chaplain are recorded in the Congressional Record and available for all citizens to read. Click on this link for the archive of prayers.

Apparently Patrick Conroy’s prayers became too political for the Speaker. Anyone who preaches the gospel will make those in power squirm from time to time. We are often charged with the task of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

Speaker Ryan can probably find a chaplain who will agree with him more often. He can find a chaplain whose politics line up with his own. He can find a chaplain whose prayers will not make any mention of the real challenges before the legislature. But as a Catholic and a Christian, he will not avoid the conflicts between his faith and the actions of the legislature under his leadership.

Last Friday, Rev. Conroy prayed “for all people who have special needs” and “those who are sick” and for those “who serve in this House to be their best selves.” Speaker Ryan might not have noticed, but Rev. Conroy has been praying for him all along. Firing the chaplain won’t stop the chaplain from praying.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!