National Day of Prayer: A Homecoming of Sorts

Today morning marks the 60th National Day of Prayer.   

This morning, as I sat with coffee in hand (still half asleep) and looking at an empty screen, I realized that the task of marking this day is not necessarily an easy one. I am not sure any position on a day of prayer could be said without running the risk of upsetting one side or another.   Ultimately, this is a day that has become anything but expected and understood, and has been and will continue to be rife with controversy.    It is a day that typically highlights, with subtleness all that is good and bad about our faith, as well as the misconceptions of those who travel outside of it.

Even the future of the holiday itself is uncertain.   It wasn’t until last month when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this annual moment is for the time being constitutional.  At least for now, the day was given a green light  for 2011.  It should not come as a surprise that this day brings with it controversy, as It seems that all one needs to do is mention prayer in any organized sense, and you come face to face with all types of fear and apprehension.

With this most recent court decision the day will be celebrated.   President Barack Obama, who championed the court room fight for the continued recognition of this moment, will once again mark the day with official and presidential proclamation.   As the president does, I can’t help but wonder how each of us will mark this moment.  I cannot help but wonder whether we will demonstrate to a seeking world a faithful approach to prayer that misses the mark or one that actually hits it right on.

Missing the mark often seems to be what we as faithful do most effectively.  There is a certainly an unsettling reality that has become commonplace in our country.   There seems to be a tendency for mainstream faithful to dress God up in Red, White, and Blue and to thinly veil their nationalistic tendencies as the only framework for living out our faith.    With our tendency to create God with the same likes and dislikes as we hold, we all too often are left with a God that looks like a cross between an omniscient and omnipotent Uncle Sam and a game-show-hosting, Bob Barker.  We are left with a God miles from the one that you find when a serious and responsible dive into the Bible is taken.  

Just as we miss the mark in answering “who is God?” we miss it when we ask “what is prayer”.

I begin by stressing that I am certainly one of the biggest advocates of prayer you will ever meet.

I have seen the power of prayer wonderfully realized in the life of the congregation.  I have seen broken hearts and shattered lives made whole again through the wonderfully beautiful act of prayer.   I have been witness to the miracle of answered prayer.   I have and will continue to urge (and push) a life of prayer upon all who seek.   I begin each day with the goal of finding myself moving closer to that unending, day long conversation with God (that pinnacle of a life of prayer).

At the same time, I have too often seen people cling to gnarled and twisted understandings of prayer.   I have been witness to those that believe we suffer or we struggle because of our failure to pray intensely enough.    I have witnessed the obsession with speaking the right words taking the center stage over the purity and mystery of a simple and unscripted moment with God.   I have seen prayer used as a gimmick to try to get the new job, the new car, the big house, or the fancy gadget as if prayer is a Harry Potter like spell to change one’s world.

Those “get rich-get happy-get thin quick” schemes or the general bless my politics approach to the entirety of our faith, seems to run at epidemic levels on days like today.    Just a quick search of the internet will reveal thousands of cringe-worthy prayers written especially for today. Too often it is the words of our prayers which reveal the brokenness of our theology.

As I read these prayer attached to this national moment, I am left without words.   Too often they hint at a return to ordered and dictated prayer as the first step to bringing back the glory days of this country.    I sense this and wonder when prayer, and our faith for that matter, started to travel so closely to ignorance or shortsightedness.   

All that is wrong with our culture is not a result of a lack of prayer at school, or sporting events, or in the workplace.  We don’t fix it by mandating that our kids say a prayer at 9:00am Monday through Friday.   We won’t solve the woes of this nation by adding stone monuments of the Ten Commandments in every courthouse across the country.   Voting for a certain candidate over another doesn’t make you holier and another more evil.    At some point we have arrived at a point in the evolution of our faith that the US has become the new Jerusalem and we expect “God Bless the USA” to be part of at least one of our Gospels.

Today, it is my prayer, that instead of using this day to meet at the flagpole and blurr the lines between faith and politics, I would hope that at least some of us could approach it different.   Could you imagine if this was a day not to further our own priorities or to encourage stereotypes but instead we actually, as a nation, stood and truly embraced the reality of the radically life changing power of prayer.

There is a great movie called “The Shadowlands” about the life a C.S. Lewis, theologian, professor and author of the Narnia series of books.   (1985 BBC Wales Film)

The love of his life, a woman named Joy, is suffering from cancer and is slowly dying.

Throughout this struggle, Joy and Lewis fall deeper in love.   Through the moments of pain, suffering and prayer together their love deepens and takes on almost legendary qualities.   They decide that they will wed, and their say their vows from the hospital ward.   In the slow death of this woman, Lewis discovers true love itself.

As he temporarily leaves her bedside and returns to Oxford, he is met by a colleague, a priest, who asks Lewis of any news.

Lewis decides that the news is the marriage and not the sickness and responds :  “Wonderful News, Wonderful news”.

The priest, without thinking reveals his broken theology, by responding; “See, You have prayed hard, and God has heard.   God is answering your prayers”

Lewis stops walking and looks to the priest.   After a few moments of thought he responds:

“That is not why I pray.    I pray because I cannot help myself.   I pray because I am helpless.   I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, and without stopping.    It flows out of me while waking or sleeping.”

Finally, he adds a final statement:   “Prayer doesn’t change God, it Changes ME!”

As I think on the scripted words from this movie, I cannot help but think that we need that realization now more than ever.   We need to realize that Prayer isn’t something we do to get something in return.   We don’t pray because we think it will make us better, make us whole, or make us happy.    We pray because it adds firmness to our foundation.  

We pray because the act of praying changes us.   There may be miracles to be had through the act of prayer, but we should not pray simply for the expectation of miracles.   We should pray in the realization that the miracle of prayer is how it always changes us.    We are made different when find ourselves having no other place to go but to our knees.   

As we pray, we need to recognize that all prayers are answered, even if they are not the answers we expect.  We need to remember that some of the answers to our prayers will be “Yes”, some “No”, and some “Not Now”.   If we pray only with the expectation of the answers we want, than our prayers are without power.

Ultimately, prayer returns us into the company of God.   It changes our struggles into a walk with God.   Prayer changes God from the angry, vindictive, and judgmental far away God, to the one who stands beside you, strengthening each step of your journey.

Just imagine, on this national day of prayer, if we approached prayer in that manner.   Imagine the possibilities if we practiced humility and humbleness, and realized that we are made different simply by the act of praying in this filter.  Pray takes us home, and God knows how far we have travelled from Him.

What if this was a national day where we bowed our head, in humility, and partook in the homecoming?

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