Every pastor gets invited to offer invocations at public gatherings. It goes with the territory.
I once prayed at the grand opening of a big box home-and-hardware store. As a thank-you, they gave me an electric Stihl saw. Not being a woodworker, I passed it on to a neighbor.
Once in a pastor’s office I noticed the wall covered with plaques and degrees and framed certificates. Not only was his high school diploma on display, but when the local supermarket thanked him for praying at their grand opening, he framed that letter too.
Okay. Here’s what happens. The secretary of the city council or school board or state legislature calls. “Pastor, would you say the opening prayer at next Wednesday’s session?” Before the call ends, you may expect them to say something like, “And pastor, please make the prayer inclusive.” Or interdenominational. Or non-sectarian. What she means is a) don’t preach to us and try to convert people in your prayer and b) if you must include Jesus, try to be gentle about it.
In other words, be nice.
You would think no one would have to tell a preacher to be considerate of others when he prays. But these public prayers have been abused by so many preachers, it’s necessary.
Now, if they tell me to leave Jesus out of it–in just so many words–I tell them I will not be able to help them, but “thank you so much for asking.”
Here’s my prayer
I once prayed at the opening of the American Dental Association’s convention in New Orleans. The president said his Sunday School teacher in South Carolina gave him my name. His teacher, it turned out, was editor of the state Baptist weekly and had used some of my cartoons.
My journal records that prayer. And because there’s probably not another such prayer in these books (my journal covers only the decade of the 1990s), and because it’s a pretty fair specimen of what such a prayer should be, I want to run it here.
Just before the invocation, Miss America led us in the National Anthem. That was the year Heather Whitestone, the near-deaf lass from Alabama, wore the crown. 1994 or 1995.
Our Father who art in Heaven…. Thank you for Heather Whitestone! What an example! Please keep her in all her ways.
At the start of this new day, we pause to confess to ourselves that this is the day the Lord hath made, and to determine that we shall rejoice and be glad in it.
We thank Thee that Thy mercies are new every morning, that thy grace is sufficient for all our need.
At the start of this great convention, we thank You for bringing these friends to our city. We pray for their meeting. Bless them. May their business be done well, the fellowship of old friends and new be good, and their leisure time be spent profitably. May we all be faithful to the God we worship, the people we love, and the convictions we hold dear.
We are surrounded by those who have dedicated their lives to serving others, to being part of the answer for this world and not another of its problems. We pray you to keep our focus true–that we may always love people and use things and avoid the trap of loving things and using people.
Now, may we trust in Thee with all our heart, and lean not unto our own understanding. In all our ways we would acknowledge Thee, and thus be directed in all our paths.
In that matchless name that is above all other names we pray. Amen.
After the prayer, the president made a lot of introductions, after which some New Orleans musicians presented a 55-minute concert. My notes say, “It was incredibly good.”
Oh, and they paid me. Two hundred dollars, as I recall. (And yes, I took it. Smiley-face goes here.)
For those asked to pray in public gatherings…
–Be clear about the group and its purpose. If you pray at a meeting of the KKK or the National Organization of Women, even though we all agree both groups need a lot of prayer, you will be branded as one of them. So, make sure you know who they are and are in support of their purposes.
–Then, if it’s a meeting you can endorse, I suggest you accept the invitation. Even though your appearance will be brief and even if your prayer is forgettable, you may meet some people before/during/after whom you will want to know. After I prayed at a community Easter sunrise service, two families in the audience were interested enough in my prayer that they began coming to my church and became great members. That never happened before or again, but proves it can happen.
–Get clear with the one inviting you on the instructions and expectations, locations and times.
–Arrive early and meet the people in charge, then stand back out of the way. This gathering is not about you. To some in this meeting, you are an appendage, a potted plant, part of the landscape, a nuisance, even a necessary evil. But that’s fine. You’ve been invited and they will treat you with respect. You shouldn’t need any more than that.
–Plan your prayer. Give it a lot of thought. Go online and learn the purposes and a little history of the group. You should even pray about your prayer.
–Brief is always good. Not overly so, but a couple of minutes will be perfect.
–Do not try to wing it spontaneously or you’ll end up praying every platitude (i.e., boring, hackneyed, trite expressions) in the book, you’ll pray too long, and you’ll probably embarrass yourself.
–Do not read your prayer. Or, if it’s necessary to do so–I’m under the impression that those praying in the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate Chamber must submit prayers in writing–then be so familiar with it that you don’t appear to be reading it.
–Do not preach in your prayer. This is not the time or place and it would not be welcome. (You know how to preach in a prayer, don’t you? “Lord, help us to be aware that…”)
–Do not try to get people saved in your prayer, for the same reason. Pray for the United States of America–that’s always in order–and as you wish, for the men and women serving in our Armed Services throughout the world, for our law enforcement people, for educators and community leaders, etc. But don’t overdo that. This is no place for a long list of “all whom it’s our duty to pray for.”
–I’m not one who thinks you should necessarily end with “Lord, I make my prayer in the name of Jesus,” as though the first person singular pronoun covers your crossing that line. No one will ever convince me that up in Heaven, the Lord feels better that His name actually got mentioned in our prayer. I seriously doubt it matters to Him, and I’ll tell you why…
–I cannot think of a single prayer in the New Testament that was prayed “in Jesus’ name.” Even the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t have it. So, we needlessly make an issue of this. (But as I said above, if they ask me to “leave Jesus out of it,” I’m gone.)
–Practice reading (or speaking) it aloud, to hear how it sounds and help you decide whether “this” works or not. Then, ask your spouse to listen and give you her best judgment.
This is not a place for a display of the flesh. Don’t be a banty rooster strutting before admirers. Be a servant, content to be nameless, here to bless others in the name of the Lord.