The chaplain at the center of our nation’s power looks at our personal powerlessness.
For more than 18 months I have I been serving on the Hill as chaplain of the U.S. Senate. They have been totally fulfilling months. It has seemed that everything I have ever learned, or believed, or preached, or taught has somehow come into focus in greater depth than ever before. All of the beliefs and convictions of 45 years seem to be in place.
Two fundamentals have emerged, stronger than all the rest of the convictions I have believed, taught, and preached. They are prayer and presence. Prayer is basic, imperative in everything else we do. And the ultimate revelation of God in history is in the person of Christ, the divine presence.
I am reminded of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, when he said to his magicians and astrologers: Tell me what I dreamed, and interpret it. What a predicament! He warned that he would cut off their heads if they failed to tell him what he had dreamed. In their response to the king, the astrologers said, “No one can reveal the dream to the King except the gods, and they do not live among men.”
There you see the fundamental distinction between the faith we profess and all other religion, all other truth. Only in the New Testament faith does God dwell among men in this special way. My thesis is that this is the maximum, the ultimate, the consumate revelation of God in history—incarnation: God dwelling in a human body, first in the body of Jesus, but now in the bodies of all who believe.
This happened once in history. God did dwell among men in the person of Jesus. But since Pentecost, God continues to dwell among men in your body and mine. This revelation of God in history through the bodies of believers is the greatest single fact we need to grasp today—that and the necessity of prayer. And we’ll never make it any other way if we do not realize this.
My awareness of these two fundamentals, prayer and presence, has arisen out of a profound sense of personal powerlessness in my job as Senate chaplain. There is no way to describe it fully. I am “a nobody” in the Senate; I wasn’t elected there. I’m simply a servant in the most exclusive club in the world. I cannot speak on the floor of the Senate, except for my two-minute prayer. I have no power, no authority. I’m like a nonperson. If I could not believe that Jesus Christ, who has all power, dwells in me, I would be utterly frustrated by this sense of personal powerlessness. I realize how subjective this is, but it is very different from being a pastor, being in the midst of a congregation that loves you, cares for you, defers to you. It is totally antithetical. And yet, the experience has been thoroughly renewing and exhilarating.
So the question is: In what does my personal effectiveness for Christ lie, or, for that matter, the personal effectiveness of followers of Christ who are senators? This is especially important because more than ever I’ve been made aware of the essential powerlessness of human best (individual or collective)—whether in the Senate or the Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department—to deal individually and corporately with issues of great magnitude.
In the Senate, that center of such awesome concentration of human power, futility seems to overshadow everything. Nothing seems to work. It is almost as if economic problems, social evils, and international tensions are snowballing, getting larger despite the best that the most powerful human beings can do to prevent disaster. The essential powerlessness of human nature, individually and corporately, is very real.
These emphases of prayer and presence both appear in 1 Timothy 2.
First, Paul gives prayer top priority in his instructions to the young pastor. He says: First of all, or more important than anything else I am going to say, “pray for everyone, but especially for those in authority.” Notice in his instruction the intimate connection between prayer, godliness, honesty, and peace. Peace! “That we may lead a quiet and peaceful life, godly and honest.” Furthermore, he teaches a close connection between prayer and evangelism. “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Godliness, honesty, peace, mission, and evangelism: all are intimately connected by Paul and the Holy Spirit to prayer.
You can organize until you are exhausted; you can plan, program, subsidize all your plans. But if you fail to pray, it is a waste of time. Prayer is not optional for us. It is mandatory. Not to pray is to disobey God. Not to pray for the President and the Supreme Court and the Congress and governors and the state legislators and the mayors and the county executives is to disobey God.
I ask the question over and over: Why do we not pray? There are at least five reasons.
1. Unbelief. Some of us simply do not believe in prayer. It is seen as a religious exercise reserved for the sanctuary with very little practical value.
2. Indifference. We have no real concern about a problem until it impinges upon us. As a pastor I have watched this. Parents do not get excited about drug abuse as long as their children are not involved, but once their child goes on drugs, suddenly they are crusaders. Until then, it is just academic; they are indifferent.
3. Priorities. We do not pray because other things are more important to us.
4. It is work. We do not pray because prayer is hard work. It is easier to do almost anything except pray. It is hard work to accept responsibility to get under a burden and lift it by intercessory prayer. Suppose, for example, that you and I really believed that the prayers of God’s people are more important even than the decisions made in the White House and Congress and the Supreme Court. Just imagine the difference that would make. Because ours is a government of the people, I believe the people of God have a greater responsibility than government and that our prayerlessness is more responsible for failure than are our public servants.
5. We hope in the wrong things. Our hope is centered in this life, in this world, in a particular political party, in a particular leader of a legislative body. Our hope is in the kingdoms of this world rather than in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We are simply not kingdom-of-God oriented. Our decisions, our efforts, our aspirations are directed to earth, not to heaven; to this life, not eternity. We are citizens totally committed to the affairs of this life, not pilgrims here with a commitment to the kingdom of God. Our goals are no greater than what we think we can expect in the here and now.
We have all prayed, “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” Have we meant it?
A Humble Attempt
J. Edwin Orr tells about a Scottish Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh named John Erskine. In the early 1700s he published a book pleading with the people of Scotland to unite in prayer; a copy was sent to Jonathan Edwards. This great theologian was so moved that he wrote a response that grew longer than a letter, and so he finally published it under the title, A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of All God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies concerning the Last Time.
This was prayer, a humble attempt. And the result of that humble attempt was the Great Awakening.
Today, we evangelicals have never had it so good. We have tasted political power, and each year we are gearing up for elections. We have recognition. The “born again” phenomenon is news. Christian books are best sellers. We enjoy the incredible success of the electronic church. And we are very comfortable in our world; the only change we desire in the status quo is for things to get better. What more could we want?
What place does the kingdom of God have in all of this? In our interests, our priorities, our value systems? Etched in my memory is a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he cried out, “I have a dream!” I sometimes think we do not have any dreams: we have arrived.
The apostolic church dreamed of the kingdom of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They believed in it, lived for it, laid down their lives for that kingdom. There was nothing in this world good enough for them. That’s not true today. We never had it so good.
Why should God visit us with renewal—with a cleansing, purging awakening that would issue in righteousness, godliness, honesty, purity, simplicity of life, peace—when we’re not interested? We don’t really want it; why should God give it? Consider Revelation 3:15–17: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Christ’S Presence In Believers
The second imperative is presence. In the words of King Nebuchadnezzar’s frightened counselors, “What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men” (Dan. 2:11, NIV). Here is the central reality of New Testament faith: Incarnation! God living among men.
The experience of these past months in the Senate and 40 years as a pastor tell me that there is more potential power in this reality than in all the television broadcasts, radio broadcasts, evangelistic crusades, pulpit preaching, and classroom teaching put together. There is potentially more power in that one fact in terms of God’s impact on human history than in any other fact.
The Epistle to the Hebrews opens thus: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He [the Son] reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.”
In time past God spoke but now God reveals himself through a man, Jesus.
John’s Gospel starts, saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the begining with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory …).”
Nebuchadnezzar’s astrologers had never seen anything like that. This is the unprecedented fact of history: God entered history and dwelt among us.
In John’s first epistle he refers to “that which we have heard, which we have seen … and our hands have handled.” He records the sheer visible, tangible nature of the divine revelation in history—God in the midst. Words were not enough for God. And they will never be enough in this culture, where we are bombarded daily with an avalanche of words. Obviously words are important or I would not be preaching or writing this, but they are severely limited in communicating reality. They were insufficient for God, so he revealed himself in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. But that is not the end. God’s revelation began with incarnation in Jesus Christ. It continues with his “incarnation” in the body of Christ, the church, or to put it more precisely, in the bodies of believers who are the members of the body of which Christ is the head.
Jesus said in his last discourse, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do because I go to my Father” (John 14:12), and then he gives the promise of Pentecost. Notice he said, “the works I do” not “the works I did.” Luke opens Acts with, “In my first book I wrote all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” What Jesus began in his human body was going to continue after Pentecost in the church, his body in the world, which is the reason for the Pentecost event. Jesus said, “You shall receive power when the Holy Ghost has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses everywhere.”
Why did they have to wait for Pentecost? They had all the information. They had spent three intimate years with Jesus, hearing everything he said, seeing everything he did, and in addition they had 40 unforgettable days with him in his resurrected body as he taught them about the kingdom of God. They had all the data, including his resurrection. Why could they not now rush off and proclaim it? Because the gospel is infinitely more than information. The gospel is incarnation! The gospel is a person—God in human flesh.
Jesus dealt with each person differently during his incarnation. He never spoke in the same way to two people so far as the record shows. But there was a constant in all his relationships with people, and that was Christ himself. He was always there. In this lies the essence of the believer’s witness. Wherever there is a true believer, in the infinite variety and diversity of believers, there is one constant: Christ is present. He wants to show himself in as many ways as there are those in whom he dwells. He is present wherever we are. He desires to reveal himself in whatever we say, how we say it, and in what we do. That is the essential witness everywhere, in a hundred million places. That is the point of Pentecost.
Contemplate the immeasurable effectiveness of this witness of presence. Wherever there is a disciple, Christ dwells within, and as the Spirit works through that one, there Christ himself is present, continuing the work he began in his own incarnation. But now he is doing his work in a hundred million places, simultaneously, wherever he places a believer.
I have emphasized prayer and presence. I should add one more word: power. It is the power of God released through the prayers of God’s people, the power of God actually present wherever there is one who believes in Jesus Christ. Each of us is someplace every day, every hour, every minute of every week. Believe this! Believe what the Word teaches, that wherever you are, at any moment, Christ is there. Allow him to do his work through you.
To me, Ezekiel 22:30 records one of the saddest incidents in the Bible. God says, “I looked for one to stand in the breach so I would not destroy the land; but I found none.” God looks where you are. He looks for a man or woman to stand in the breach by prayer, to believe that the Almighty God dwells in his body, releasing his power by the presence of Christ in him. Will you be that person? When God looks where you are, will he find no one? Or will he find you? Will you be that one where you are?
Not to pray for the Congress and governors and state legislators and mayors and county executives is to disobey God.
Richard C. Halverson has been chaplain of the U.S. Senate since February 1981. This article is adapted from a sermon he preached earlier this year, at Washington, D.C.’s Fourth Presbyterian Church of which he was pastor prior to his Senate appointment.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.