What is the real purpose of a National Day of Prayer? I have often been puzzled by efforts to get large numbers of people praying about something. Is the assumption being made that God only responds to a critical mass of people praying. That until a certain number is reached, God will not act?
The Freedom From Religion group contends that President Bush is violating the rights of non-praying people by calling the nation to prayer. As the President of all Americans, Mr. Bush should not be promoting prayer, they say.
They are wrong about this, of course. Urging people to pray, even as a public official, does not violate the constitutional mandate for a separation of church and state. Now, if the President set up “The Office of National Prayers,” and began circulating prayers from that office for the American people to pray, that would be a problem. But simply encouraging citizens to pray in a way that is meaningful for them, that is not a problem ”legally.
It may demonstrate a certain insensitivity to those who do not pray. And it may betray a certain arrogance to assume that non-praying Americans constitute such an insignificant demographic that ignoring their concerns poses no serious political risk. A 2005 Zuckerman poll indicated that about 10 percent of the American population would classify themselves as atheists or agnostics.
Beyond the legal and political concerns, however, what is the real purpose of a National Day of Prayer? I have often been puzzled by efforts to get large numbers of people praying about something. Is the assumption being made that God only responds to a critical mass of people praying. That until a certain number is reached, God will not act?
Nobody I know who both believes in God and prays on a regular basis would be comfortable thinking of God in those terms.
Maybe prayer is not about changing God so much as it is about changing ourselves. Could it be that as we bare our souls in prayer, as we diligently seek God’s guidance and help in solving our global problems that we ourselves feel drawn to become part of the solution?
There is a scene in the New Testament where Jesus tells his followers that there is a great harvest in the world waiting to be gathered. He tells them to pray that God will send laborers into the fields to bring the harvest in.
After they finish praying, Jesus says, “Now go, and get to work.” They prayed, and then Jesus sent them to be the answer to their prayers.
If that’s the way it works, then by all means let’s have a National Day of Prayer. Let us pray that those who have been most blessed in this world will develop deep compassion for the least of these in our midst. That those who have more than enough to eat will share their bread with those who have none.
Let’s pray that we will finally heed the vision of the prophet and beat our swords into ploughshares. Let us pray that we will become a community of human beings that seeks to find non-violent solutions to the problems we face.
And after we finish praying, let us be still and quiet, listening to hear God say, “OK, good prayer. Now go and be the answer to your prayer.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.