Charles Hambrick-Stowe: How to pray in public

Rick Warren’s inaugural prayer was smart. Sometimes we should say the “J” word more; sometimes less.

Invitations to offer public prayers in civic settings sometimes come pastors’ way. They come my way not as often as for my dad back in the 1950s, when he was minister of a reasonably booming congregation in a small city with all the action of a college town and county seat. Those days of civil religion, at least for traditional denominational types in the northeast, are gone. But opportunities come around often enough to keep it interesting.

The question of how to pray as a Christian in public is even more complex in today’s post-establishment reality than in the days of Will Herberg’s “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.” There is no single stock formula.

Rick Warren illustrated one approach with his invocation at the inauguration of President Obama. His opening sentences employed the language not only of Christianity (“Almighty God, our Father . . .), Judaism (“Hear O Israel . . .), and Islam (“the compassionate and merciful. . .”), but also of generic American therapeutic spirituality (“you are loving to everyone you made . . .”). He finessed the matter of whether to pray in the name of Jesus Christ by making it simply personal. He closed “in the name of the one who changed my life” and pronounced “Jesus” in several languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, and English. Then he recited the Lord’s Prayer, which, ironically, contains no overt Christian references. Whether Warren’s prayer was bold or bland is a matter of opinion. It was certainly smart.

This past spring, for the second year in a row, I prayed at the opening ceremonies for the town’s Little League. This is actually a big deal, with a crowd of several thousand on hand to cheer the parade of baseball and softball teams in their uniforms. The town is small but sophisticated, at the outer edge of metropolitan New York City. I decided not to follow Warren’s example of invoking the name of Yeshua/Isa/Jesus. I began my baseball prayers with praise appropriate for the day -- “God of all creation: You made the planets in the shape of a ball.” And I closed in similar fashion -- “Fill us all with your Spirit as we hear the ancient cry echoing down the generations: Play Ball! Amen.”

Nor did I consider calling on Jesus by name at the fund-raising breakfast for the local senior center, a country club-like facility that benefits greatly from Jewish philanthropy. Same with the regional hospice fund raiser, held at a banquet facility in a nearby city. I tried in these cases to make it clear to any astute listener that my prayer was coming from a person of Christian faith, but it just seemed inappropriate to end with anything but a simple “Amen.”

The breakfast for the regional Habitat for Humanity organization was different, although it was held at the same banquet hall as the hospice event. The benediction would be given by a leading African American Baptist pastor in the city. Many of the tables were sponsored by churches and Habitat is an organization with Christian roots. So I prayed, “You have revealed yourself, O God, in a particular, decisive way some twenty centuries ago in one Jesus of Nazareth . . . the carpenter, the son of Mary . . . and the poor, the disadvantaged, the outcast, those rejected as unclean found in him a new and living hope.” I had not typed “in Jesus name” in my notes but decided on the spot to end that way, as if I were in church.

I was not invited to participate in the National Day of Prayer observance in front of the town’s community center. Despite the fact that elected officials have seats on the platform, the clergy association, which includes two rabbis, has long disassociated itself from official involvement. The local National Day of Prayer Committee that has a lock on the day uses materials from Colorado Springs and lines up speakers mostly from area nondenominational churches, including a Messianic rabbi. They prayed energetically for revival “in the mighty name of Jesus.”

I said “Amen” along with the forty or fifty others in attendance. But I would have adopted the Warren model had I been at the microphone.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe is pastor of the First Congregational Church, Ridgefield, Conn. He was formerly an academic dean at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.