WHY I DON’T WANT VERBAL PRAYERS IN PUBLIC SCHOOL
When the staff of First Christian Church, Tacoma arrived this past Sunday morning at the beautiful campus where we meet for worship and study, we were greeted with this sign nailed to one of our beloved Douglas Firs:
Now, I’m certain that whoever posted that sign was sure that we, as a church, would agree. And indeed, we may have many members who do agree. And others of you will wonder why, with all the other terrible and important things going on in our world, I’m weighing in on this issue. But as the pastor and teacher of the gospel of our participants, I’d like to offer some “thinking points” regarding why prayer matters — and why it matters too much to capture in a bumper sticker or slogan.
I do not pretend to speak for all participants in the faith community at 6th and Orchard. I don’t believe my position is the absolute and complete truth. But (as I pointed out in my sermon last Sunday [click here for podcast]) we cannot come to a better understanding of truth if we do not discuss and even argue (lovingly and spiritedly) our various opinions. So here are my opinions:
- What we teach about prayer matters because it communicates what we think about God and how we relate to God.
- For example, we often see prayer at sporting events. And if we’re not careful, prayer begins to look like asking God to throw the game for our team.
- Often we see athletes bowing their knees to God in prayers of praise or praising God to the press for a victory. If they mean to thank God for getting their weaknesses out of the way so they could do their best, then praise God. But if they mean to claim that their victory means God is on their side, this makes God look like a dishonest sports manager manipulating results for his favorites.
- Prayer IS NOT about getting God to do what I want because I prayed hard enough, or said the “right” words, or got enough people to “like” my prayer on social media or got enough followers to re-Tweet it. Over the centuries, getting the “popular vote” on prayer or claiming that God only pays attention to the right words has led to some truly horrific practices.
- And prayer certainly isn’t about getting God to do the job God has called us to do: to study for tests (a frequent school prayer), or to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the imprisoned. We may rightly ask God to help guide us in the right way to do these things. But asking God to do them for us is the equivalent of the recalcitrant young child who answers his or her parent’s request to pick up the toys by petulantly demanding that the parent do it. If we want to remain spiritual infants, that will do it!
- These are the reasons I am not willing to cede the teaching of prayer to public servants or even to those who would volunteer to do so in the public schools. Public teachers work hard and deserve respect. And they must be certified to teach in their areas of expertise. But no public-school teacher is certified to teach prayer and the ones who’d like to teach their students to pray (in their way) are willing to impose their version of faith on our children. To that I say NO!
- Another reason I am not willing to cede the teaching of prayer to just anybody who’d like to do so is a growing concern I have about many who would call themselves Christian but who are unwilling to reflect with a Christian community and with the larger Christian tradition about what it means to be Christian. Too many appear to me to see “Christianity” as a part of what they inherited (for many, particularly, as white, privileged people). Sometimes what I hear in their appeals is this: “I’m healthy. I’m employed. My family is better off than most. And that’s because God loves me more than ‘those others’ who believe differently or live differently.” I want those who teach prayer to our children to show some theological awareness of God’s unconditional love for all those whom God has created rather than appealing to our appalling ability as humans to hate.
I hope you can tell that I’ve thought about these things (and prayed about them) a lot. That doesn’t mean I understand all there is to know about prayer. I want to learn from your experiences and understanding. May we talk?