For several years, I have said the opening and closing prayers at our college’s commencement ceremonies, a privilege I was granted soon after being hired. I probably appeared a natural choice, being a former pastor and the religion instructor. Or, perhaps more likely, nobody else wanted to do them. Most people don’t like standing in front of large crowds, let alone talk, or even worse, say a prayer.

We are in the Bible Belt, so I guess prayers are expected. I’d keep them short and generic, invoking the Great Spirit for the Cherokee in attendance, Krishna for the lone Hindu on our faculty, and the God of Abraham for everyone else. At the end, when the applause, air horns, and flashbulbs were finally still, I’d bless them with wishes for a wonderful life and gratefully leave the stage.

This year I asked to be replaced, because I don’t enjoy doing them. Other people were the ones who liked me doing them. Quite a few expressed gratitude that I was brief. If you give the mic to a Southern Baptist preacher, the most common type in this territory, the ceremony might be extended for a good half-hour, assuming he didn’t issue an altar call. A former Vice-President for Instruction had never heard of Krishna, but he didn’t seem offended. A Buddhist atheist suggested I include prayers to the Great Nothingness. All in all, I tried to be unobtrusive, while not establishing an official college religion, and appeared to succeed.

I suppose the problem is that prayer for me is more than window-dressing attached to a graduation observance. I felt like the emcee of a game show, providing the opening and closing credits to a half-hour of contestants and prizes. Why is prayer necessary? I once said the opening prayer for a legislative session of the New York State Assembly and wondered the same thing. I stood behind the podium in the assembly hall and intoned a request for the guidance of God, as legislators talked among themselves and strolled in and out of the room. My performance seemed more like an inoculation for politicians against a charge of being godless.

One of my mentors in the ministry was a pastor and spiritual healer named Edgar who had very particular practices when it came to prayer. He was the only minister I knew who refused to open church meetings by praying. He thought it trivialized prayer. He didn’t want anyone praying for him unless they knew what they were doing, because he literally believed amateurs did more harm than good, interfering with the flow of Spirit. And he absolutely never, ever told God what to do. Blasphemy was the term he used to describe asking God to heal a disease, fix a marriage, or make a cake rise. Who are we to tell the Creator of the universe what to do? God knows what needs to be done; anything else is a lack of faith.

Due to his influence, I have always regarded prayer as a seriously personal activity. Prayer is a form of intimacy, a touching of mind and spirit with Mind and Spirit. Prayer is a channel by which the Spirit of creation can move in our lives, working its will, bringing about the purposes of God, in response to people who trust in that purpose. Prayer requires complete honesty and a willingness to stand naked before our Maker, opening our souls, lives, and futures to whatever God has in mind.

The closest parallel to prayer among our human activities is sex, not conversation. Like sex, prayer is most powerful when we to give ourselves completely to whatever occurs because we have no doubts. Jesus said, “When you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and pray to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” That doesn’t sound like a casual chat to me, but a far more private pursuit.

I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to have sex in public, which is why I finally declined the invitation to pray. I knew what Edgar would say.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

2 Responses to “Prayer”

  1. Thanks Bucky. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of prayer in much the same way myself, but I couldn’t express my thoughts this coherently.

  2. I think I have to agree with you, I find praying a very private happening, though at times I also find it hard to pray as I am not always sure what to say, so I go the the Lord’s pray believing this was Jesus’ way of giving us an outline of how to pray to His Father, when i do this I feel I have covered all the bases.

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