School is starting, and so we have the regular drumbeat of comments about prayer in school. One of the most common, used at my church today, is the comment that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in public schools. Which is, of course, quite true. Also, largely irrelevant.
Opponents of public school prayer aren’t trying to prevent students from saying, “Jesus help me!” as they start a test. (Well, I should make the “nut” proviso — I’ve discovered that there is really no idea so stupid that there isn’t a nut somewhere who will support it.) No serious opponent of school prayer is concerned with prayer before tests. What they’re concerned with is publicly sponsored prayer. The child is required to be there. The teacher operates with the power of the government. The prayer is sponsored by political authority.
It’s not my intention, however, to discuss the politics, or to examine from the state’s side whether it’s a good idea for prayer to be prescribed or permitted when led by someone with official authority.
My concern is with prayer by Christians, or even more with talking about prayer and promotion of prayer by Christians. What we say about prayer and what we do about prayer is important. My observation is that there are a lot more people talking about prayer and advocating prayer than are actually praying. This makes me wonder about the issues we choose to make central.
During the course of a day I find that I can pray in my bedroom, my living room, my office, my car, walking on the sidewalk, sitting in a restaurant, meeting with a client … Hmmm! Come to think of it, there really are no places or times when I can’t pray in one way or another. The way in which I pray may be constrained. It might not be best to suggest a time of prayer with every client, though honestly most of them would say “yes” if I asked. Each circumstance may require a different approach to prayer, silent, aloud, head bowed, or not, brief, or longer, kneeling (rare for me), or lying down in my bed.
If I complain that I can’t pray in a public place, I’m really complaining that I cannot make it clear and public that I am praying in that public place. If I’m willing for my prayer to be between me and God, the only ones who can block it are God and me.
I’m leaving out of this discussion the question of whether it is good as public policy to allow some sort of officially sponsored prayer at public events. Personally, I prefer prayer to be individual or part of a voluntary community. But regardless of this issue, the opportunity exists.
If your child or grandchild is going to public school, let me ask a few questions:
- Will you be praying with that child (if they are in your house) before they leave for school?
- Will you be praying for that child irrespective of what anyone at school is doing?
- Will you and your church be praying for your children and those of the community?
- Will you be modeling a life of prayer for your child or grandchild that makes spirituality inviting?
I’m sure you can find many other opportunities and ways to proceed with prayer. Too often our underlying concern, as evidenced by our actions, is more with the public display of our spirituality than with the spirituality itself. This doesn’t mean that I believe that if you advocate for teacher led prayer in public schools you are somehow less spiritual. But if you do so without taking the opportunities that are available, it may be time for some self-examination.
Come to think of it, even if you, like me, advocated for only voluntary prayer, your (our!) primary concern should be what we’re doing with the opportunities we have to pray every moment of every day.