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SOTM #8: Secretly

August 2, 2010

1 “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

I did not teach on the text of Matthew 6:1-8 at SMMC. Instead we had a guest preacher, which meant that I had the pleasure of hearing my own father preach for the very first time in his life! He did a fantastic job with the sermon, and even quoted N. T. Wright! My father has taught me so many things in life (too many to count)…but I introduced him to Tom Wright 🙂

For me this passage brought to mind the “See You At the Pole” prayer rallies at schools that teenagers participate in around the country each September. During my senior year of high school in 1992 I was part of one of these prayer meetings, which was I think the first year SYATP went national. Overall this was a very good experience for me: I met a lot of friends through it, and I specifically remember feeling like “Holy crap! I’m going to pray in front of the whole school!” the morning of the rally.

Though I now have some reservations regarding events like SYATP, there were definitely some beneficial things I saw happen through this prayer movement: connections within the local Body of Christ occurred (I discovered other Christian students at my 3000 student high school; churches partnered together); a strong sense of encouragement was felt, but it was also an opportunity to discover courage-being a Christian in public was a HUGE challenge for me, and I feel that it was something God used to help prepare me for a public leadership position like pastoral ministry; praying for our schools, community, etc is always good, and opened our young eyes to needs around us. As a youth pastor for a number of years I promoted this event with my students, and planned evening events to celebrate what happened that morning.

But it was after 5 or 6 years of those events that I started having real reservations about it. It just seemed like the motivation for the event was less about praying for the needs of the community, and more about “being seen” praying for the needs of the community. Numbers of students who came to the prayer gathering at each school would be compared. A local Christian radio station even asked people to call in and let everyone know how many students came to their school’s prayer meeting! Youth pastors (me included) would video tape the prayer meetings at the schools, which would then be edited together and shown at the evening youth event (students would applaud wildly when their school was on screen). As my area was heavily influenced by conservative Evangelicalism, there also was the “culture war” perspective that inevitably flavored the event, thanks to some of the adults. You probably know the argument: “Liberals are taking prayer out of school (and probably kicking kittens too), and this is a way to fight back! Student-led, of course.” The more I thought about it, I really didn’t want to be training students to fight the culture wars I was prepared for in the 80’s. I had had enough.

For folks involved with SYATP who may read this, please understand that I am not denouncing SYATP or students praying together in public. I just have questions concerning how I participated in this event in the past, and helped take it in a direction that may have crossed some lines regarding Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6.

This Matthew 6 instruction on acts of righteousness and prayer challenged me to think about how we publicly display our faith, and why we sometimes feel such a need to be public in such ways. What if, instead of the public displays (which, let’s be honest, probably were not completely understood by “non-churched” folks anyway), what if we committed to discovering the art of being subversive in how we express our faith and work for the Kingdom?

  1. August 3, 2010 2:22 pm

    I appreciate the honesty & humility of sharing this example. The Christian school I went to made the issue a bit obsolete, but one of the Mennonite teachers cautioned us just as you have here. It was an important part of my formation.

  2. August 3, 2010 5:46 pm

    Thanks for reading and for your comments, Jamie. I’m learning that even though I’m at a different place now, I wouldn’t change the fact of living through that particular experience. It, too, was formative and I think I understand the Matthew passage in a different way because of that experience.

    As I study through the SOTM (esp Lord’s Prayer, fasting, acts of righteousness), I’m also finding myself interacting often with the Hebrew mindset of “kavanah”. A helpful way to guard against practicing with the wrong intentions, which I find myself so easily doing.

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