By Dr. Riley B. Case
It may not really be important, but for those interested in such things, it is quite possible to locate churches on the denominational or theological or Christian subculture scale by hearing the prayers they pray. Pentecostals plead the blood, call down angels, and break the bonds of Satan. Certain fundamentalists pray in King James English with thee and thou and wast. Generic evangelicals, whether Baptist or Methodist, favor the word “just,” as in “Lord, we just want to praise you.” Persons who go to great lengths to avoid calling God “Father” and who don’t use male pronouns to refer to God are recent graduates of liberal seminaries, or are wrapped up in liberal corporate church culture.
Churches that start out opening prayers in worship with something like, “God, it is a beautiful morning…” are trying to be relevant in their 1960s style.
But most Christians, despite their theological and social differences, pray in the name of Jesus. It is, after all, Biblical: “Whatsoever you ask in my name…” If Jesus is not specifically mentioned it is understood that it is assumed. Christians, at least Christians with orthodox theology, are sensitive to the fact that a key teaching of the Old Testament is that God is one, and that false gods, or gods which are not gods at all, abound around us. It is the Christian understanding that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and that our triune God is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose name is known as Yahweh.
And so Christians have a specific God, and not a generic, god-in-general god. Not everything called god is God. Out of respect for others and because we believe in freedom of religion, we normally do not criticize the prayers of others-if they want to pray to the stars, or mother earth, or the ground of our being, or Allah, that is fine. But we do not recognize them as Christian prayers and we would not join in those prayers because those prayers are addressed to a different god.
Likewise, we recognize not all persons will join with us in prayer when we pray to our Christian God through Jesus Christ. But we ask that others would respect us enough to allow us such prayers.
In recent times an increasing number of people object to Christian prayer. Basically, they don’t want the name of Jesus in public places. They want “nondenominational,” “non-sectarian,” and “inclusive” prayers. They claim the right not to be offended, and the name of Jesus offends.
And so the secular, atheist, and ACLU types are telling us to keep our prayers behind closed doors. In public, we must be restricted to government-imposed or regulated prayers. These prayers need to be generic, generalized prayers to god-whatever. Never mind the fact that one of the major purposes of our nation’s understanding of the separation of church and state is to keep the state from imposing a religion, in this case a generic non-Christian religion. But imposed, generic, non-Christian prayers are what are being ordered up.
In Virginia, an administrative decree ordered State Police chaplains to offer “non-denominational” prayers at public events. The Virginia House of Delegates had passed a bill reversing the administrative order but it was killed in senate committee. Six police chaplains resigned rather than pray “non-denominational” (“non-denominational” in this case is really non-Christian, prayers).
In Indiana, some months ago a lawsuit (sponsored in part by a United Methodist pastor) sought to disallow pastors from praying in the name of Jesus at state legislature. A judge ruled in favor of excising Christian prayers. The ruling wrecked such havoc that for a while all prayers were suspended.
And so the battle is being fought, at high school commencements, at city council meetings, before school events. Will the pray-er pray according to his or her
understanding of God, or compromise to pray the state-authorized prayer?
It is no wonder that at this year’s presidential inauguration the prayers were analyzed and critiqued, more than at any other inauguration in our nation’s history. As expected, Rick Warren prayed in Jesus’ name (and was called “insensitive” and “sectarian” for doing so). Gene Robinson, the Episcopalian bishop whose main claim to notoriety is that he is gay and is single-handedly causing schism in the Anglican Church, was so critical of Warren that he was asked to share a prayer at the inauguration program at the Lincoln Memorial. Robinson made it known his would not be a Christian prayer but would be all-inclusive. So it was: he prayed to the god “of our many understandings” and pointedly made no mention of Jesus.
Prayers to a god “of our many understandings” may be non-denominational (except perhaps for Unitarians) but they are not non-sectarian. Traditional Christians, Jews, or
Muslims sense that that is not their God.
The United Methodist Book of Worship offers prayers in the name of Jesus (or some variation thereof) or prayers where the name of Jesus is presumed. That is a good standard to follow.
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