Invoking in Public

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

–Flannery O’Connor

The call came from our County Supervisor’s office inquiring if I would be willing to “do the invocation” for an upcoming Los Angeles County Board meeting in mid-April. A quick glance at my appointment book confirmed that the date was the Tuesday after Easter, when I would still be in recovery mode from Holy Week. But since yet again my congregation had failed to book me on a cruise to Ensenada for a little R&R, I told the voice on the phone I’d be delighted to accept the invitation. She said she’d get back to me with the details.

Weeks passed, and from time to time as I came across the date in my calendar, I’d wonder briefly about just what I should do for the occasion. Finally, in mid-Lent, I heard from the supervisor’s aide again, confirming the date and assuring me that a letter would be arriving shortly to fill me in on the details. In Good Friday’s mail, twothirds of the way through my furious week of leading six services between Palm Sunday and Easter, a letter arrived on gold-embossed stationary. Attached was a second, hitherto unmentioned, sheet titled (in bold print) “GUIDELINES FOR INVOCATIONS BEFORE MEETINGS OF THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS.”

Beginning with a thank you for my interest in giving the opening invocation, the “GUIDELINES” went on to say that, under constitutional law, “the government cannot prefer or promote a particular faith or belief over others, nor can it disparage any faith or belief.” I nodded my head. Since the county cannot be viewed as being affiliated with any specific religious denomination, speakers were asked to “respect this neutrality” by observing “certain guidelines for invocations.”

Then followed this paragraph that attempted to articulate these “GUIDELINES:”

In preparing your invocation, please keep in mind that you may not call upon or invoke names specific to a particular doctrine or denomination. For example, the California Court of Appeal, in a case challenging use of a prayer at a Burbank City Council meeting invoking the name “Jesus Christ,” recently upheld a trial court judgment enjoining the City Council from “knowingly and intentionally allowing sectarian prayers at City Council meetings” and ordering the City to “advise anyone conducting a prayer as part of the City Council meeting that sectarian prayers are not permitted.” However, it is not necessary to strip invocations of all religious or spiritual characteristics. Thus, invocations may be made in the form of a prayer and be inspirational in content, so long as these requirements are observed.

“Huh?” I wondered, more confused than enlightened by these “GUIDELINES.” But the final sentence sounded an even more ominous and intimidating note: “Your voluntary participation indicates that you will abide by the guidelines.”

I’m not a rookie pastor. I’ve said prayers before in public: in interfaith worship settings, while blessing a tree for a public Arbor Day commemoration, when pronouncing an invocation at a public university’s commencement ceremony. But to the best of my memory, never had I been asked to pray for an official government meeting. Even before the County Board’s “GUIDELINES” arrived, I had begun wondering whether a prayer was the right or appropriate thing for me to speak in such a setting. Well-schooled in the excesses, as well as the inanities, of the piety that parades under the banner of American civil religion, I decided that my own integrity as a pastor (who is also an American citizen) was urging me to explore what might be a new kind of invocation that intended both to abide by the “GUIDELINES” and to be faithful to my own calling as a Christian.

That April Tuesday dawned warm and sunny, and I found my way to the Executive Office of the Board of Supervisors in good time. Assigned to me as my guide was a charming woman who told me she had worked for the County for nearly twenty-five years. Apparently, baby-sitting the visiting invokers each Tuesday morning was one of her duties. Los Angeles County, our politicians love to boast, is the most populous county in the U.S., with a population of over 10 million people (including 90,000 homeless), making it larger than 80% of the states of the Union. As we waited for a quorum of the Board to arrive, I noticed how the Hearing Room was filling with folks lobbying for various causes. I also noticed an entourage surrounding two bearded men in black-hooded robes, whom I took to be Orthodox priests. They were present, it turned out, to support an agenda item to endorse an official commemoration of the Armenian Holocaust. Once the quorum was reached, I was asked to step to the microphone to begin the meeting with my invocation. This is what I was moved to say:

Thank you for inviting me to give an opening invocation for today’s meeting. Even before receiving your “GUIDELINES FOR INVOCATIONS,” I’d decided that as a Christian, who is also an American citizen who strongly values the rights and protections articulated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a prayer would not serve us well. Please know that I’ve already prayed for you and for the business that you Board members have to conduct and that my congregation regularly prays for its elected leaders that you might be given the wisdom and courage to pursue justice, peace, and the welfare of those you are elected to serve as leaders. Furthermore, I don’t believe that I or any other religious leader has the power to “invoke” God in the sense of calling God’s attention to what we’re about. Rather, I believe that God is the One who calls us into the vocation of our everyday lives where we are each and all “called” to perform God’s work in the contexts of our very specific responsibilities.

Looking out on the assembled throng, including the Supervisors and their staff, I could tell that at least I had their attention as some probably began to worry just what this guy at the microphone was about to say next. I continued:

You know that just two days ago we Christians of the Western tradition (I was aware of my Orthodox brothers in the room) celebrated Easter, the day that God raised Jesus from the grave where he had been laid following his execution by the political authorities of his day. Next Sunday in our churches many of us will hear this particular text that I think has relevance to the work you are all called to do as well as all of us who call ourselves Christians. This text from the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles gives us a strong hint as to what it means to live in the light of the resurrection: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” This is a text, as some of you know, that became the inspiration of Karl Marx’s (now I could feel the fidgeting of the crowd) famous “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” a text that we can admit neither free market nor socialist societies have found easy to embody–for that matter, neither has the church itself. It remains for us the challenge of seeking the welfare of the city rather than merely ourselves and “our own,” as the prophet Jeremiah urged. So, instead of a prayer, I’d like to read as inspiration for your important work a bit of a prophetic poem written by the poet/farmer Wendell Berry. It’s titled “Manifesto” and articulates well, I think, what many of us think comes much closer to articulating genuine Christian values than what some today are claiming as such.”

I then proceeded to share with them Berry’s fine poem–a lyric set of thoughts that include the lines,

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

The poem concludes by saying,

Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

Practice resurrection.

“Thanks. It’s been good to be with you,” I concluded. And finally, giving the Board the prayer they’d invited me to give, I ended, “Blessings on your work!” Following this we all turned to face the stars and stripes, put our hands over our hearts, and were led in the Pledge of Allegiance by my fellow invitee, a retired vet who got us through “one nation, under God” alright but then stumbled over “indivisible” on our way to “with liberty and justice for all.”

Driving back home to my noon appointment (a regular pick-up basketball game at the nearby county recreation center), I couldn’t help but ponder both the possible impact and appropriateness of my “invocation.” Had I performed the service I was invited to provide? Had I supplied the “inspiration” the Board desired? Had I abided by the “GUIDELINES” to which my “voluntary participation” had committed me? Had I been true to my own responsibilities as a citizen and to First Amendment protections? Had I been true to my own faith commitments as a Christian called to be a pastor? Had I been a witness (a “martyr” in Greek) to the Good News of Jesus Christ? And finally, had I lived up to my own exhortation to the County Board to “practice resurrection?”

Just as I was dropping off to sleep two nights later, I suddenly remembered that a tape of the County Board meeting was scheduled to be broadcast that same evening on public access television. Rushing downstairs, I turned on the TV to find the Board session being opened by a rather rumpled-looking, balding guy who took something less than four minutes not to say the opening invocation that the crowd seemed to be expecting. But for all my admitted lack of objectivity, I was satis- fied with, if not exactly gratified by, what I heard and saw. I was, I thought, practicing resurrection in my own way. After all, the Gospel is an “odd” truth that makes us free, even free from conventional “invoking.”

John Rollefson is the pastor at Lutheran Church of the Master in west Los Angeles, California. In the past thirty years he has pastored congregations in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Ann Arbor. John and his wife Ruth are the parents of two grown sons.