Today was the official “National Day of Prayer,” so designated by the U.S. Congress in 1952 — a period of evangelical fervor that also saw “under God” added to the pledge of allegiance (1954) and “In God We Trust” adopted as a national motto and mandated to appear on all coins and paper currency (1956).
These days, the National Day of Prayer is promoted by a task force that was led for a while by Vonette Bright, the wife of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright. Since 1991, it’s been led by Shirley Dobson, the wife of “Focus on the Family” founder James Dobson. It’s not surprising, then, that the promotion of the observance has a decidedly conservative Christian flavor. People of other faiths are rarely invited to participate.
Many communities host an official prayer observance on the courthouse lawn or beneath a flagpole bearing an American flag. I’m always a little skittish of things that smack of civil religion, but don’t doubt the sincerity of folks who believe in the importance of prayer.
At an observance held in Lillington, NC, this morning — in a small park embellished with a flag and monuments to local veterans, a variety of folk were asked to pray for different aspects of national concern, and my friend Ed Beddingfield was asked to offer a prayer for the armed forces. Beddingfield, an Air Force veteran who recently became pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Buies Creek, recognized all veterans present, then called to mind a military hymn as the prelude to the prayer.
I thought his sentiments deserved a wider audience, and with his permission, here is the prayer he offered:
Lord, guard and guide the ones who fly, And those who on the ocean ply,
And those who march upon the land, And all who for our country stand.
(Tune MELITA. Text adapted from Book of Worship for United States Forces, 1974)
Almighty God, God of earth and sky, of land and sea; who has made from one all the peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26); by whom every family on earth and in heaven is named (Eph 3:15); and who holds the nations in the palm of your hand:
We thank you this day for those who from the beginning of our nation have fought and bled and died to defend the safety of our country and to “secure the blessings of liberty for [themselves] and [their] posterity.”
We thank you for those “heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life,” who answered the summons to serve in foreign lands, both in defense of our own nation and in defense of the people of other nations who were themselves oppressed and their own liberty and safety denied.
We thank you for those who served on the home front in war or peace, and even those state Guardsmen who were called up to defend and protect their neighbors and fellow citizens when their basic rights were threatened here in their own country.
We praise you for those men and women of our armed forces – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard – who even now stand watch at home and carry the torch abroad; we pray that they may remain under your safe protection and that they will conduct themselves and represent our country bravely, courageously and honorably.
Bless the families who wait with eager longing for the safe return of their loved ones. Bless those veterans who returned from the fight with the wounds and scars of battle, along with those who care for them; and let us never forsake our responsibility to care for those who gave so much. Bless those whose loved ones never returned, and whose only consolation is the memory of the dear sacrifice laid on the altar of freedom by the ones they loved.
We ask your blessing on all who are under the protection of our armed forces: those in foreign lands whose lives are marked by fear and conflict, and here at home the people of every state and county, every city and town, every hamlet and crossroads; those of every race and national origin and social circumstance; and those of every creed and every faith – all who make up the rich and varied patchwork of America.
And, against all our instincts, but as Jesus required of us, we pray even for our enemies, for those who hate us and wish us ill, that by so doing we may truly be “children of [our] Father who is in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45).
While we know that prudence demands a watchful eye and a willing arm, remind us again that our trust is not in princes, in the chariot and the war horse, in sword and shield, or in the arm of flesh; but “[Our] help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” God is our keeper, God will not let our foot be moved, God is the one who does not slumber or sleep, God is the one who “guards [our] going out and [our] coming in from this time forth and forever more” (from Psalm 121).
Preserve in us the godly longing for that day when we shall all “beat [our] swords into plowshares and [our] spears into pruning hooks; [when] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore; but all shall sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” (Micah 4:3-4). Until then, “insofar as it within [us] lies, [help us to] live peaceably with all people” (Romans 12:18).
All this we pray in the blessed name of the one who was called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility and makes all his children one (after Ephesians 2:14). AMEN.