>Q: I regularly watch NASCAR racing. Before every race, there's a prayer for the safety of the drivers and fans, usually spoken by a local minister. The prayer usually invokes Jesus' name. While I understand these races often take place in the South and NASCAR racing is associated with the South, in this age of political correctness, shouldn't the prayer be nondenominational?
A: Thanks for your question, which, frankly, has me stumped. On one hand, I agree with you. Since all religious people in the West believe in the same singular, unique and loving God, but not all of us believe in Jesus as the Son of God, it would seem both courteous and inclusive, loving and embracing to pray in the name of God rather than in the name of Jesus as the Christ.
The purpose of the prayer is to ask protection for the drivers, crew and spectators for an exciting but often dangerous sport. I agree with you, and whenever I hear a Christian clergyperson make an effort to be inclusive in his or her prayer, I'm grateful for this theological and personal kindness. However (and there is a big however), I also think it's wrong and arrogant to expect an invoker of God to speak in language that's both unnatural and incomplete for him or her.
We don't represent generic vanilla religion when we pray. We speak in the thick, real and believed language of our faith, and being forced by convention or courtesy to alter our language is both unfair and distorting. When a Christian clergyperson prays in the name of Jesus Christ, I'm not offended. I'm not outraged. I don't feel marginalized. After all, when I praise my parents, I'm not subliminally insulting other people's parents.
What I do at such moments is simply pray my own prayer and I don't say "Amen" to the Christ prayer. I would hope atheists would also use this prayer time to offer a nontheistic moment of reflection and hope for the safety of the drivers. There's just too much phony outrage in our culture over perceived slights not intended to wound. When a Christian chooses to offer an inclusive prayer, I consider it a gift, not an obligation.
>Q: Nothing fails like prayer. And it's remarkable how you equate your own speculation with the mind of God. Clergy are some of the most grandiose creatures on earth.
-- A psychiatrist
A: Perhaps you're right, but perhaps, just perhaps, the grandiosity you criticize works both ways. Perhaps you don't understand the reason why people pray.
I don't pray to hear God. I pray to hear my own yearnings for God, which means my yearnings for hope, courage and love. The medieval German mystic and sage, Meister Eckhardt, wrote: "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is 'thank you,' it will be enough."
I pray to give thanks for all my blessings. I pray for healing in myself and others that I can't find a way to achieve by my own effort now. I pray to find the courage to ask forgiveness for the ways my brokenness has broken others, and I pray to keep alive in me a sense of awe and wonder at the world God has so graciously wrought.
I'm saddened by the fact that your experiences with clergy have so disillusioned and disappointed you. I pray that you might encounter some of the many wonderful clergy people I know who are humbly and lovingly working in the fields of the Lord. I also don't ask you to pray yet. I first ask you to try your best to understand why I pray and why others who are filled with the love of God pray to a God of love and humility.
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