We are in quite a moment in the United States (though the world is looking on curiously and even anxiously). The launching of an impeachment inquiry is, if not exactly a historical rarity, unusual. The Republic was 92 years old before the first attempt to impeach a sitting President and then it took 106 more years before that prospect seemed very real again. Thus if you do the math, there were only two possible impeachments in 198 years but now we have had two potential impeachment attempts in just the last 21 years. No President has actually ever been removed from office. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were acquitted by the Senate and Richard Nixon fled Washington before the formal process got fully underway. President Trump is exceedingly unlikely to be convicted even if impeached by the House and seems even less likely ever to consider resigning. Even so, here we are.
In any event, I am old enough to remember three of the nation’s four impeachment inquiries. In fact, the Watergate hearings are just about my earliest memory as a child involving events outside of my own family circle. I remember my Mom’s soap operas being pre-empted for days and even weeks on end as people sat riveted in watching the House’s inquiry live on TV. Previously unknown people like Irvin, Baker, Dean, and Jaworski became household names.
What I do not remember is how my pastor prayed during those many months in 1973 and 1974 as the Watergate drama unfolded. Maybe even people who had been adults during that time could not recall either. Nor do I remember if my pastor at Ada Christian Reformed Church ever brought up such matters in any sermons.
All I do know is that my fellow pastors today find themselves in a tight spot. I know I have mentioned this before here on The Twelve but my observation—and the reportage of so many pastors from a variety of denominations—is that our ecclesiastical “acoustics” have changed across the last 20 years. Even by the time I left my congregation in 2005 to work at Calvin Seminary, I started to notice that things I could have said in a prayer or sermon—the very same words and phrasings—that would have sounded like a whisper in 1995 began to sound like a shrill partisan scream by 2005. And things have become only more acute since 2005.
During a perilous time of division and even hatred, there is no way any conscientious pastor could fail to pray for the larger situation in which we find ourselves both as a nation and as a church. But how should one pray? What can be prayed for that will not earn the pastor post-service ire from some members for being perceived to be grinding a partisan axe to the left or to the right? And if a congregation has long ago sniffed out a given pastor’s political leanings, can the pastor pray anything without being perceived as a partisan hack? Is there no neutral or safe speech left for prayers or sermons?
I have a few ideas that I will get to in a moment but first let’s state the merely obvious: clearly any pastor can be guilty of partisanship one way or the other. There are ways to pray that would convey—via subtle semaphore or overt rhetoric—a conclusion as to how he or she would like to see things turn out on the national stage. Pastors who get into trouble by being ham-fisted and careless (or even reckless) with their words from the pulpit probably earn whatever snoot-full of trouble they get. And it may be in certain contexts that such trouble cannot be avoided even by the most thoughtful pastor, though that is no reason to refuse to pray for something that is a source of hurt and anxiety for people.
So what is a pastor to do?
First, recognize and admit that even among God’s people gathered in any place on any given Sunday there is disagreement. Indeed, that is part of the reason why we need to pray in the first place. Think of Paul’s blunt engagement with the Corinthians. Some claimed to follow Apollos, some claimed to follow Paul, some claimed to have Jesus all to themselves. Paul had to admit this sad situation before he could address it.
Second, given this set of circumstances, pray for peace and unity. Yes, easy to pray for, hard to achieve. And perhaps the honest pastor can confess to God that he/she has no clear roadmap for achieving such unity among diversity. So the pastor can implore God on behalf of everyone to show us the way. Pray for the Spirit to take the lead, to startle us. I have long been struck by a line from The Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God” where, after sadly noting the fractious and broken nature of the Church, the Testimony says in Article 40,
“We marvel that the Lord gathers the broken pieces
to do his work
and that he blesses us still
with joy, new members,
and surprising evidences of unity.”
Surprising evidences of unity. That’s a great line! It should also be our fondest hope in times where what is totally unsurprising is how we all tend to retreat to our own social media echo chambers from which we snipe at each other.
Third, and perhaps most perilously, we pray for justice to be done. As an old saying has it, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. So also here: one person’s view of what constitutes justice is another person’s view of what constitutes a travesty and total derailment of justice. But justice—along with its cognate New Testament concept of reconciliation—is too huge of a theme to avoid praying about even when fellow church members may disagree fiercely on what a “just” outcome might look like on any given issue, much less on something as dramatic as the prospect of an impeachment process. Again, perhaps pastoral confessions that we cannot always see all ends or know for sure what the coming of justice will look like would nuance this. Still, we pray a justice that, in the end, will benefit more and not fewer people.
To my fellow pastors who are navigating these choppy seas, I pray for wisdom and courage. To my fellow church members who are led in prayer and the Word by these pastors, I pray for charity and a willingness to believe the best of our pastors. To all of us, I pray for grace and, through this, for a peace that passes all understanding and that may, in the end, show up in surprising places.