Last summer, I received a request to offer a prayer of invocation and a benediction at a civic event. The VFW planned to dedicate a plaque in honor of town residents who died in World War II, as well as presenting pins and certificates to surviving veterans. I didn't have to think hard about it. I said "yes," and began planning prayers that would invoke the God I understand to have been called upon by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence, a Divine Providence not individualized to meet the needs of any one religious group or subset.
It always surprises me when other pastors seem unaware of this. When we stand in front of the public library to honor war veterans, we are Americans who happen to be Christians or not, rather than Christians who happen to be Americans. I have no trouble sorting this out, not at all. I have a sense of what it means to be American, one I'm proud of, even though some days (and some years and some presidencies) may have challenged it. I have a clear understanding of what I believe and also of how it differs from what you, or you, or you might believe. When I'm invited to pray at a civic event, I'm not there to convert you to my way of seeing Jesus or anything else. I'm there to invite something greater than any of us to be present among us as we take up matters of gravity or rejoicing to the larger community.
And so with great curiosity I have listened to the different pray-ers of the past few days. I have watched preachers struggle to keep their eyes down to pray, because they have this moment, only this moment, and they want to engage the crowd because as preachers they cannot help themselves.
I understand them. I am a preacher, after all, and a professional pray-er, too. But more than that I am a writer, and I believe that words matter. Words matter. My words for God, if they must exclude others by their very nature, are also by their very nature limited. And God is by God's very nature not limited at all. God means, to me, everything beyond our seeing, everything grounding our existence and everything outside our understanding. The details of our attempts to pull God closer sadly make the infinite measurable, because we demand it. We contract the Divine Source of All Love into an old man who tells us what to do and punishes us when we are bad and rewards us when we are good because such a system organizes otherwise disorganized forces known as human beings. We convince ourselves that those who succeed in this world must be in the Old Man's favor. We invoke Him the way some people might fondle a rabbit's foot.
Is it any wonder that sensible people, thoughtful people, cannot play that game with us?
In my family reside believers and questioners and one person who feels left out of the civic oratory whenever it invokes the Almighty. But today, the words of the President included him. The President, a believer himself, included those who differed from him not only economically, racially and socially, but theologically.
We're a long way from real respect for each other in America when it comes to religious beliefs. I found the inclusion of Rick Warren today very hard to take, and I cringed when he used The Lord's Prayer. That prayer belongs in church, or in gatherings of the faithful or even the seeking whose purpose is primarily religious. Today we stood at the door of a new national era and no sooner had it opened than the words of a prayer I value highly were used to close it against people of other faiths and people of no faith at all.
That was wrong of him. This is America, and we are free to believe and practice what we will, Rick Warren and I. But in the public forum, I believe faith leaders have a responsibility to be Americans first, to live out the creed of country first and faith second, in gratitude for the freedom to do otherwise all the other days of our lives.