Twenty-some years ago, as a new pastor in town, I was asked to give the invocation at the commencement ceremonies at Fairmont State University. I was honored. I crafted that prayer carefully, using expansive as opposed to particular language. I referred to God generically. I attempted to make sure that I would bring no offense to the audience, not all of whom were Christian. I delivered the prayer in a heart-felt way, convinced that I would not run foul of the Constitution. The commencement speaker that day was none other than the late Senator Byrd. I recall that he invoked the name of Jesus Christ no fewer than a dozen times in his speech. I recall thinking that it was odd that I, an ordained pastor could not pray from my convictions and yet a member of the U.S. Senate could go beyond what I allowed for myself.
This was my introduction to “ceremonial prayer”, a phrase in the recent SCOTUS decision that rubs me the wrong way. Is prayer that is ceremonial even prayer? For that matter, is generic prayer really prayer? When we say, “Let us pray” in public settings with people of vastly different religions and religious experiences, what is it that we are doing and is it appropriate? Some of my more conservative Lutheran brothers and sisters refuse to pray with those who have different beliefs or are of a different religion. More and more, I think I’m with them.
Prayer is an intimate conversation with God, particular not generic. When I pray, it is to God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not to some entity, power, life force, or whoever happens to be listening at the time. If I invite you to pray with me, I’m inviting you to pray to God … God to whom I pray, not the god of your imagination. If you are not praying to the one to whom I pray, we are not praying together.
Ceremonial prayer is like that too. In ceremonial prayer, the audience of the prayer are those gathered, not God.
When SCOTUS referred to prayer as ceremonial, then they said to me that my prayer isn’t what I think it is. They just neutered my prayer. That offends me.
I don’t do ceremonial prayers. I’ve been asked to pray for any number of public events since that time long ago. I’m always torn. I’m always tempted to participate because I know that I’m more accommodating than many of those who like to hear themselves pray in public. But I generally decline, several times a year, including the Maryland Legislature, the Chamber of Commerce Meetings, or other local events, unless it is clearly a Christian gathering.
If I do accept a public prayer “gig”, I think I’ll simply invite the participants to listen in as I pray.