the Power of naming

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by Ann Fontaine

There has been an ongoing discussion on Facebook about the Prayers of the People and whether or not to pray for the President-elect by name. The Book of Common Prayer does not require names in any rubrics though many churches do use the name of the President and other leaders. Our church prays by name for “Our President, Barack, our Governor, Kate and all local officials.” Since the election, we have added President-elect Donald. For at least the last 4 presidents we have called them by name.

 

The reasons for dropping this practice seems mostly related to the pain the name of the President-elect causes to those who are terrified of his statements and his abusive actions towards women especially. It is argued that church must be a safe space for those who are victims of abuse and those who may be affected by his proposed policies. Those who advocate for no naming say it is an ethical issue and that these are times that demand a different response.

 

My response to this is that the Bible is very clear that we are to pray for those in authority and for our enemies and those who persecute us. Jesus, Paul, Peter all speak of this. It is hard for me to do, but it is the practice I want to foster in myself. Naming is a part of that for me. The power of naming is noted throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. By saying the name, I take my power back.

 

My non-churchgoing brother noted that in the Harry Potter novels “most characters in the novels refer to Voldemort as “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” rather than say his name aloud.” Only a few actually say the name but Dumbledore says that the name has no power and it is only their own fears.  However, we find out in the last book that Voldemort can track mentions of his names and uses that to target his enemies, so saying his name basically sends up a signal flare once he has returned to power.  Which might be a part of the pain and fear that saying the President-elect’s name evokes.

 

My spiritual director modeled praying for her abuser – and I saw that it changed her. Her prayers did not change the other person and did not say what happened was in any way anything but evil. I decided to try it and I found a different sort of peace. Do I still have anger about what happened? Yes, but I am not holding the poison of that anger and bitterness inside. I wrestled with saying Donald in the prayers of the people when it was my turn to pray (I am not priest in charge) – could I do it without being sick? I do it because it is my practice and it is a decision that our church made after the election.

 

Also there are people in our congregation who choked on praying for “Barack” by name and who voted for the president-elect. They would find it more than odd if we stopped our practice of naming now. They already feel in the minority in the Episcopal Church but soldier on in the community.

 

I wonder about the idea of church as safe space and think that sets us up for failure. I have not found it to be safe all the time. Many Bible passages are terrifying: Lot offering his daughters to the crowd to be raped. Eli’s sons use their position to take advantage of women. Jephthah’s daughter is sacrificed because of a rash promise. The crucifixion.

 

I find myself drawn to this quote from Annie Dillard:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

 

Also I wonder about only praying by name for those who we think are “good people” which seems to come out in these discussions. That seems to set up a dynamic where we use prayer as a form of approval or disapproval.

 

The discussion has made me think about what I believe about prayer and what I think we are doing when we pray. But in the end, for me, it comes down to following Jesus in his way and prayer is something he talks about more than anything else. A few passages that I take seriously:

Matthew 5:43-45 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Luke 6:27-28 “But I tell you who hear Me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Romans 12:19-20 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

1 Peter 3:9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.

 

Then, of course, there is this from Fiddler on the Roof on blessing the Tsar.

 

The Rev Ann Fontaine is currently the Priest Associate at St Catherine/Santa Catalina in Nehalem/Manzanita, OR. Her blog is “what the tide brings in” and she is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible, daily reflection on the Daily Office. She edits the Speaking to the Soul Essays and occasionally does duty on The Lead here at Episcopal Cafe

 

image: Isaiah’s Prayer by Marc Chagall

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26 Comments
  1. My very first time to attend an Episcopal Church was in 1984. Ronald Reagan was the President, and George Wallace was serving his final term as Governor of my home state of Alabama. Both of these men were sources of consternation for me. As I stood in that congregation, however, and heard the Prayers of the People name “Ronald our President” and “George our governor,” I was struck by the fact that I was confronted with their humanity. By calling them by their first names, I was able to see them as fellow humans rather than political anathemas, and thus was able to offer with the congregation needed prayers for our leaders. It was an important lesson for me.

    • Alan Christensen

      I assume the practice of praying for the President and other leaders using their first names goes back to the CofE praying for the monarch (“Elizabeth our Queen”, etc.). I’ve had the same thought as Charles, though, in that it confronts us with their humanity. Also, it emphasizes that before God the President isn’t “the leader of the free world” but just George or Barack or (alas) Donald.

  2. Jay Croft

    Hello, Charles. Glad to see you here!

    I’m living in Maryland now, but as the saying goes, “I feel your pain.”

    Praying for public officials doesn’t necessarily mean support of their policies. With the new president, I’m going to pray silently that God gives him a little common sense and decorum.

  3. Lucia Robinson

    Some years ago I found words in the BCP that are useful in praying for one’s enemies: “God bless Soandso and send them everything they need for soul and body.”

  4. Daniel Williams

    love this !!

  5. Margaret

    For future comment approval, please follow the posted comment policy of using your first & last names. – ed

    The operative phrase here is “praying for those in authority.” PEOTUS has not yet been sworn into office. Therefore, he is not (yet) one of “those in authority.”

    • Jay Croft

      He thinks he is, though.

    • Alan Christensen

      True, but he will be in only 18 days.

  6. Linda Pineo

    Thanks, Ann!

  7. Lelanda Lee

    This article was helpful, Ann. Thanks for writing and sharing it.

  8. David Allen

    Yes, Ann, may God bless our future president Donald and keep him far away from us! 😀

  9. Susan Grant-Nash

    Thank you for this topic. While sympathetic, I have been uncomfortable lately when President- Elect Donald Trump has not been included by some leading the prayers in my church. I am worried and appalled that someone with his demeanor and values, or perhaps the lack thereof, will soon be my president, and feel one of the few affirmative things I can do about it is pray. I am sad that soon when I walk into my grandchildren’s school, instead of a picture of President Obama, I will see President Trump. I will likely sometimes avoid looking at it. I understand the desire by some not to speak his name unless or until necessary. I do add him quietly to my prayers, if somewhat desperately, and hope that we all will do so once he is sworn in. He, and all of us in our country, and this world, need God’s grace and prayer. While I sincerely hope that he is not truly my enemy, I do hope prayers by all of us who believe in the power of such, will result in the spirit of “do unto others”, and benefit us all.

  10. JC Fisher

    Instead of praying for Donald, can we just cut out the middle-man and pray for Vladimir?

    • Ellen Campbell

      Funny!

  11. On Sunday, I presided and preached for a colleague who was on a wee bit of a holiday after the holidays. I noticed in the Prayers of the People that we simply prayed for “the President”, etc. – no names. That had not been my experience the last time I was there. There is a very long list of church members who are prayed for by name. (This is a church with a very active Eucharistic visitor ministry – including to the local jail.) This is also a church with a very large Hispanic outreach, including an Hispanic day care in their church. I was curious. So, in between services, I asked.

    There were three women at the 8 AM service – one in her late 70s, the other in her mid-80s and the third who was 92 – all “cradle Episcopalians” who have an admitted “romantic fondness for the 1928 BCP”. They said that the day after the election, members of the congregation noted several Hispanic mothers weeping and the day care director said she spent most of that day – and the weeks that have followed (and still) – consoling parents and children who were crying and displaying anxious behavior. They went to their priest and one of the issues that came up was what to do about the Prayers of the People. The very wise rector said, “Well, it’s not up to just me. They are the Prayers of the PEOPLE. So, let’s talk about this, people.”

    Long story short, after a spirited (and sometimes difficult) conversation with the rector, vestry, day care staff, and people from the community, including the staff of the food pantry, soup kitchen, elder services and domestic violence shelter, they decided there was wisdom in the rubric of the BCP to simply pray for “The President (and President-Elect). They based their decision on what they felt were moral and ethical imperatives.

    They also said that their rector noted (again, quite wisely), that there is a difference between private prayer and public prayer. He strongly urged them all to pray, as they are able, for this particular person, calling him by name, in their daily private prayers. He further directed them that their particular prayer petition ought to be Christian in intent, not to seek revenge or any harm or illness.

    Every congregation, every clergy person, will have a different approach to this. I hope this inauguration and administration will inspire us to move away from the sort of flabby theology that is sometimes a side effect of Anglican pragmatism and, rather, spark some spirited conversations about the role of the church in the moral and ethical discourse of our culture as well as the nature of prayer.

    For me, that would be the best possible outcome of a situation which has been dangerously contentious and woefully divisive.

  12. Katie Ross

    JC: ok that’s funny!

    • Harvey Cottrell

      Beautifully stated. This is my hope for my own parish.

  13. Harvey Cottrell

    Being forced to hear the name of a man who called my family rapists and murderers, and who has threatened to break my family apart is a form of liturgical abuse. Being forced to pray for a man who has publicly admitted he feels empowered to sexually assault women is not within the power of the Church.
    The Church is not only the Church within the USA, we should pray for all leaders of the world and leave it at that. If my parish continues the practice of naming the President by name I will find a new parish. It is shameful and hurtful to be forced to hear the name of a person who is abusive and who has threatened my family. Christ calls us to love our enemies, and that struggle is between he and I. I should not be forced to encounter it week after week. The Church should be empathetic to the members who have the least voice. Latino members, LGBTQ members, people of color and women. Consider the words and actions of DT and consider how we will be losing members because people like me will seek a place of worship where we will not have to be attacked week after week by using prayers as weapons under the shadow of saying we are being “Christlike” I have a godmother who prays for me not to be gay and for my nine year relationship to end, because she says that’s “Christlike” It is not of Christ and neither is forcing congregations to name DT in the prayers.
    The rubrics do not say we must–and other forms simply say, “for the leaders of the world” including in rite 1.

    • Rochelle

      Thanks for commenting. We ask all commenters to please use their first and last names – thx. The Editor

      Sounds like you need to embrace “love your enemies and pray for them that despite fully use you.” Leaving your parish will not help you but hurt you— I pray the Lord will soften the hurt in you so you can do what Jesus did while on the cross: Pray for the forgiveness of murders and rapists. If Trump has hurt your people, take your hurt and Trumps name to the throne if Jesus. Don’t leave your church— or Satans dart which he has shot at you will have met its mark.

      • David Allen

        I don’t recall Jesus naming all of the folks he was praying for in that instance by name.

        Naming the man is the objection, not praying for the office/office holder.

  14. Rochelle

    [Rochelle: We cannot approve any more comments from you unless you use your full name as per our guidelines. Thanks, editor]

    Saddened at the waste of internet space and time by the convention. If we had spent half of the energy and consternation on bringing the light to the lost—- the Kingdom would have been greatly advanced. Friends, this is Christians sadly bringing their political bias to church worship. If we have named the presidents and POTUS elect by name for Four years, then we keep praying for them by name. Problem solved. If people are scared or hurt by Trump, then teach them to pray for their enemies. That makes us more like Christ….By the way some people are equally terrified by Obama’s anti- Israel words yet this discussion was never entertained concerning him. To me this shows the leadership bias. If folks are upset, give them the proper biblical perspective that we are not citizens of this world but of Christ’s kingdom; changing worship to appease the weakest amongst us is not spiritual leadership— we need to be strong loving shepherds as the days are evil. Use these issues to teach what God wants us to be: royal ambassadors who can navigate any earthly power because we carry the keys to the kingdom and the most powerful message in the universe. If you don’t like Trump,
    Pray for him more…. by name!!! If folks are terrified of him as an enemy, then pray for him all the more– by name. The Apostle Paul warned us to clearly to stay away from small and divisive issues which would keep us from the kingdom work of releasing the lost
    from darkness and ringing the Gospel message. No matter who is president, pray for him by name, remembering that the days are short— Jesus is coming soon.

    • David Allen

      Regardless of the custom of previous years, there is no wrong in returning to the rubrics of a liturgy.

      some people are equally terrified by Obama’s anti- Israel words

      As much as you may wish to misconstrue or misunderstand his words, US President Obama has never been anti-Israel.

  15. Michelle Jackson

    Of course he should be prayed for by name. Does he not need our prayers?

  16. David Curtis

    Years ago, I had great difficulty with a person with whom I came into contact frequently. Before long, this difficulty turned into active dislike. A much wiser and more thoughtful person suggested that I pray for this person for 21 days, and that my prayers for this person were to be for grace, for peace, for security, for love…in short, for the very things I wanted in my own life. I didn’t want to do this, but I ultimately did. My active dislike began to fade as I began to view this person, not as a combatant in life, but as another broken child of God, just like me. While I still had difficulty with this person, I was able to view her as my sister and a fellow traveler on this journey to know God.

    Sometimes, praying for another is not about changing the other person as much as it is about changing me and my view of others.

    However, prayer does not mean permission, not does acceptance mean approval. While I find many of President Elect Trump’s positions objectionable, I will pray for him by name and with intention. And I will do my best to stand in opposition to those policies and positions that I believe will harm the marginalized, the poor, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQIA+ community, and others.

  17. Geri Nelson

    This is a “sticky wicket” for me. As a deacon, I lead the Prayers of the People in our congregation. The custom of our parish is that no names are said aloud. So I’m off the hook, as it were. But what about those who have been deeply wounded by some of the statements made by Mr Trump? Will it continue to stave open the wound to hear his name offered in prayer week by week? Or will it eventually heal and reconcile? I really wonder about that.

  18. Elizabeth Kaeton

    I am absolutely all for “freedom of expression” in private prayer. Pray for whatever, whomsoever, you choose. Please don’t pray for bad things to happen to others. When all else fails, pray the Serenity Prayer.

    In public prayer, especially something we call “Prayers of the PEOPLE”, I think there are some serious moral, ethical and pastoral issues that we’ve never before had to consider. We do now. And, I don’t think, either way, it’s sufficient to look someone who is in pain, and/or someone who feels strongly about “praying for one’s “enemies” and say, “Well, sorry, that’s the way we’ve always done it. We’re not going to change now.”

    The really wonderful thing about this time in our common lives of faith is that it calls us to reexamine the nature of prayer and the moral and ethical, pastoral and prophetic leadership of the church. I’m delighted that, at least in this forum, we seem to be rising to the occasion and at least discussing this issue. We don’t have to agree, but it’s important to look at the issue from every perspective so we’re clear about why we’re doing what we’re doing.

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