August 5 – The Purpose of Prayer: Bubba, NASCAR and Policy Protest

For the sake of full disclosure, I should acknowledge my own practice of public prayer. I have prayed at the launching of a ship and the dedication of a pulp mill; at the opening of a county board of supervisors meeting and for the Elks and the Rotary clubs.  I have prayed for the lighting of a Christmas tree in the town square and at a wedding reception where the guests shouted “Let’s get drunk!” rather than “Amen!”  when I had finished.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with public prayer – at a high school graduation or an invocation to open a session of Congress. But I think imams and rabbis, Native American witch doctors, Catholic priests, and Protestant pastors ought to have equal access to such events if it’s public prayer we want. But if you invite me to pray in public, expect a Christian prayer.  It’s the only kind I know how to do. I’d expect nothing less than a Jewish prayer from a rabbi or a Islamic prayer from an imam. We humans are inherently religious and it is important that religion not be banned from the public square.

I am not sure civic prayer was what Jesus had in mind when he was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

What are we to make, then, of the recently famous NASCAR prayer and a less famous protest prayer in the news this past month?

Joe Nelms is the pastor at Family Baptist Church in Lebanon, TN. When Joe was asked to give the opening prayer at Nationwide Federated Auto Parts 300 in Nashville, he made it a NASCAR prayer. He beseeched the Almighty on behalf of the Dodges and the Toyotas and the Fords; Sunoco racing fuels and Goodyear tires. He thanked God for his “smokin’ hot wife” and closed saying, “In Jesus’ name. Boogity, boogity, boogity. Amen.” The prayer has become a You Tube phenomenon.

Just five days later, the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, our PCUSA representative in Washington, D.C., was among a small group arrested in the Capitol Building for refusing “to end their public prayers for an equitable resolution to the debt ceiling debate, despite repeated warnings from the U.S. Capitol Police.”  A news report said, “Reverend Nelson led religious leaders in prayerful civil disobedience, kneeling down in the Capitol Rotunda to pray for a debt ceiling deal that does not sacrifice the poor on the altar of political ideology” The story led the PCUSA news page for a week. Read the full report here.

Pastor Nelms’ prayer has gone viral on You Tube and has been the object of elitist snickering and not a few “amens” from the bubba crowd.  It turns out that the prayer was full of NASCAR code words and if you’d seen the NASCAR inspired movie “Talladega Nights” (which I have not), you’d probably get the prayer, smokin’ hot wife and all.

The Reverend Nelson’s arrest did not go viral, a well-publicized arrest appearing to have been his hope. And like Pastor Nelms’ prayer, the Reverend Nelson’s prayer was full of code words for his intended audience.  If you read the New York Times or the New Republic you’d probably get the prayer, altar of political ideology and all.

Our Second Helvetic Confession reminds us that the language of worship and prayer must always be the common language of the people gathered for worship and prayer. (BOC 5.217) So maybe there’s nothing wrong with praying in NASCAR-ese in Nashville or liberal-ese in D.C. Maybe that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do.  Still, “boogity, boogity, boogity, in Jesus’ name”???

But even if Jesus is okay with prayer in the common language of the people, it seems as if he has a problem with prayer that’s prayed for the sake of the person praying and the people who are listening rather than to the God who hears all our prayers.

Joe Nelms got his fifteen minutes of fame and J. Herbert Nelson got his arrest (if not his fifteen minutes of fame). Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

To whom and for whom do we pray?

Boogity, boogity, boogity. See you Sunday.