Monday, December 18, 2006

Praying at the State House of Representatives Tomorrow

Tomorrow, I'll be trekking to Columbus, where I'm to offer a prayer for the opening of the day's legislative session at the Ohio House of Representatives.

This is exciting to me for several reasons.

One reason is that, quite simply, it's wonderful to have the opportunity and I thank my representative, Joe Uecker, for inviting me to lead the prayer. (Joe's a great person, by the way. He beat three other guys and me in our party's primary for the office he now holds back in 2004. But after he'd thrashed me, we became friends.)

Another reason for my excitement is that it will be a homecoming, of sorts. Before I went to seminary, I worked for the House. I have a deep reverence for the institution and for the Capitol Building in which it meets. In recent years, the Capitol has been restored and renewed. As a boy and a teen, I often went inside just to soak up the place and all its history. (I once saw Jim Rhodes, the best Ohio governor in my lifetime, chatting one-on-one at the bottom of the marble staircase running from the rotunda to the Senate side of the building. I was with my mother and grandmother at the time and when I caught sight of him, they prompted me, "Go ahead. Introduce yourself." But I was too terrified to do it.) Given the awe of the place I've always had and unabashed love I have for Ohio--I know that seems hokey, but it's true, I loved working there. But I only worked for the House for one year before I sensed God's call taking me to seminary and the pastoral ministry I've done for the past twenty-two years.

On top of this, it will give me the chance to spend a few hours in my favorite city on the planet, my hometown of Columbus. And, I get to take my Dad with me.

All in all, it'll be a little pre-Christmas fun...and I hope, ministry.

The prayer I've prepared is short, just four lines. Brevity is something for which I always aim in public praying. (I don't always hit my target!) My general rule of thumb in this regard is something I picked up from Billy Graham: Spend a long time each day praying, personally. Give God access to your life and lay everything out for God. But keep your public praying brief. That will allow more people to be engaged with you as you pray. (In other words, they'll actually pray, too.)

Another thing that I think is important for pastors (and others) to remember when they do public praying is that there's a difference between praying and preaching. When we preach, we're out to convince. But when we pray with others, the only real audience is God. It's fine to employ language that invites people to pray along with you. But public prayer isn't a performance. You're not trying to convince those with whom you're praying. And you surely shouldn't use public prayers to score debating points or bash those with whom you disagree. Such practices have nothing to do with prayer!

Often, when we pastors are invited to offer public prayers, we use the occasions to impress others. We ramble on in supposed eloquence, all the while subliminally screaming, "Look at me! Aren't I smart, insightful, and spiritual?"

Ironically, the worst example of this I've heard happened at a gathering with Billy Graham. About 150 people attended this event and a fellow asked to give the closing prayer couldn't pass up the chance to wow us all.

I have a fairly durable attention span when it comes to listening to public speaking. I enjoy listening to lectures, speeches, monologues, and sermons. But as this guy's "prayer" dragged on and on, I found myself offering another, silent prayer. It may have not been appropriate either, but I kept saying, "God, shut him up. Please, shut him up." Finally, after what was probably a ten-minute prayer, he said, "Amen," which as you know means basically, "Yes!" I uttered my own hearty "Amen!" at that moment, thankful that what seemed like a performance disguised as a prayer had ended.

As to the constitutional issues associated with praying at a legislative session, I can only say that the courts have consistently held that such prayers, so long as they avoid proselytizing or pushing a particular political agenda, don't violate the establishment clause. Clergy from various faiths are invited to offer prayers at the General Assembly. (That's the name of our state legislature in Ohio.) And going all the way back to the period when our country operated under the Articles of Confederation, provision has been made for chaplaincies in the military and in legislative bodies. The Founders made these provisions despite their commitment to the separation of Church and State and the fact that they were as religiously as diverse a bunch as the new country could muster at the time.

Tomorrow, I'll share the text of my prayer, which is a lot shorter than this post.

[UPDATE: In a generous link to this post, Don Surber questions whether the courts have the right to tell a legislative body what sorts of prayers may be used. I based my characterization of court rulings on information supplied to me by the House. I'd like to learn what lawyers who read this piece might say.

[As to Joe Uecker's motivation for asking me to do the prayer might be, Joe can answer for himself. But I will tell you that, from my experience of him, he is a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, he will introduce me as a Christian pastor, I'm sure.]

[ANOTHER UPDATE: The session's start tomorrow has been delayed until 1:00PM. You can watch all sessions of both houses of the General Assembly here.]


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a wise and helpful guide to public prayers. May many read and follow it.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your kind words.


Charlie said...

I always find public prayers to be difficult because I'm conscious of speaking on behalf of the group, and to the group. I find myself getting into a tug of war between praying and performing. It's a hard thing to do well, I suspect, having heard a great many people like myself who preach and perform instead of praying from the heart.

An exciting opportunity for you, Mark. Pray from your heart.

Mark Daniels said...

You well describe the dilemma--and the temptation--associated with public prayers. The more supposedly august the body, the greater the temptation.

I'd appreciate your prayers.

Blessings in Christ,