All Christians are aware of and participate in the National Day of Prayer, right? Not really. For the younger and saucier amongst us, the word “National” does not sit very well. Add to that the identification with certain ministries and ministry leaders and we start reaching for the Pepto.
Before this year I had only a vague idea of what the National Day of Prayer was. In high school some students met once per year for “See You at the Pole,” which signifies a National Day of Prayer for students. In case you are unfamiliar with this event, it plays out like it sounds: students meet around their school’s flagpole every fourth Wednesday in September and pray. I don’t know what they pray for but I’m assuming they pray for pretty epic stuff on a day like that.
Given the titles of these events, complete with patriotic hash-tags like “National” and “Flagpole,” the clear intention for the praying participants is identification with our nation’s religious heritage in a way that supposedly reinforces that identification for those who are unaware or skeptical. I used “religious” on purpose because we are not a “Christian” nation. If we were, then the founder of our religion—Jesus Christ—is glaringly absent from our documents. Furthermore, the pitiful “understood” connection between being a “true Christian” and a Republican renders interdenominational agreement (not to mention evangelism) impossible. Lastly, we take for granted a vague “majority” that occasional polls seem to support, when in reality different samplings could demonstrate the opposite case that the majority are not Christian in any solid sense of the word.
The call for unity amongst the vast, incoherent amalgamation of widely differing viewpoints is respectable, but also naïve. It’s the outside-of-church equivalent to showing up only on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday; it’s nice and we all look like we have it together, but the rest of the time consists of in-fighting and slandering of those to whom we allegedly feel a strong bond. Anyone can force the kids together for just one nice picture at Thanksgiving, but that snapshot fools only those who are unaware of the turmoil. Or who don’t know what siblings are.
Too often we say to one another, “All we can do is pray.” This sounds fishy to me. All we can do? If we are indeed praying to a God who sees, knows, loves, and acts, and if our prayers have some kind of effect on that God, then our first inclination should be to pray. This is akin to someone saying, “All I can do to counter the snake venom in your leg is give you the antidote. But I think first we should put some band-aids on there.” We must take action when we need to; but prayer and action are not mutually exclusive. We can pray and do something. Prayer is indeed a mysterious thing and we do not know how exactly it affects God nor what kind of answer we can expect from prayer. But we do know that we are commanded to love. It’s right there in our Bibles, regardless of translation or version.
Instead of calling attention to ourselves and only reminding the rest of the nonreligious country why we are so annoying and sound so self-righteous, let’s do what Jesus said and not pray in the open for everyone to see (Mt. 6.5–6). Meanwhile—while we are praying—let’s do that other thing Jesus said and love people, hang out with “sinners” (Mk. 2.15–17) and be “a light” (Mt. 5.13–16.) If we work on those things, a National Day of Prayer might actually make some sense outside of our bubbles.