On public prayer

bridgeOn a number of occasions, I have been asked to offer an opening prayer, or to ‘say grace’ at a gathering. Most often the request is to offer a prayer for the daily life of one of our faith communities. But on other occasions, I’ve been asked to offer a public prayer at a public gathering of the broader community. Those public gatherings bring together Christian neighbours of different strands, as well as neighbours who may be Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or those who would not define themselves in any particular religious community. I’ve often wondered how a Christian might offer a public prayer that both respects our own Christian beliefs, and that also shows love and respect to others who are gathered in public gatherings? This question came to life for me at my daughter’s convocation from the University of Regina this summer. Let me tell you the story.
We gathered in the Conexus Art’s Centre in Regina—parents, grandparents, friends, relatives. We received our programs and took our seats. As I turned to the names on the program, it was obvious that we represented many different ethnic backgrounds—pronouncing the names at convocation must have required a good deal of practice! I also noted in the program, that after the Processional, and after “O Canada,” there would be an “Invocation.” As I looked around at the quite evidently diverse gathering of people in the Centre, I wondered how anyone would go about “invoking” God, performing a public prayer in this context.
Here is what happened. The invocation was given by an Elder from the Aboriginal Student Centre. The elder moved to the microphone and gazed at the people gathered together. He began, as I recall the words, like this: “In a moment, I am going to invite you to take a moment to give thanks to the Creator for learning and for growth. To give thanks for the people who will be presented with degrees of accomplishment today and for those who day by day taught them. I am going to pray to the Creator in the way that I have been taught, in the ways I learned. I invite you to offer your prayer while I sing—in the way that you have been taught, in the ways you learned. I invite you to do this while I sing to creator. “And when I sit down,” he added with a smile, “you will know that I have finished.”
What followed was a moving prayer to the Creator sung in the Cree language. Likely very few of the people gathered knew what the words exactly meant. But I found myself caught up in the moment even so: silently giving thanks to the Holy Trinity for my daughter’s journey at the university; for the professors she had told me about who had offered their knowledge and counsel to her; for the God-given ability and skill she discovered in herself; for this moment on this day that we were able to share together. As I prayed, as I looked around the gathering, it seemed to me that many were caught up in their own prayers, no doubt, ‘in the way they had been taught; in the ways they learned.’ I wondered what exactly they were praying. I wondered what names of God were being ‘invoked’ in that room? And I wondered, to use a too concrete image perhaps, what God’s email inbox looked like on that day? Would messages of thanks only be received by those who held to a certain orthodox “theology”? Or was God, indeed, infinitely wider than our definitions?
It would have been so much easier for the University to simply not include an invocation in a pluralistic society. Or it would have been easy to simply “pretend everyone was Christian” (the majority of the gathering probably was). Instead, in public prayer, the elder embraced his own tradition in praying to the Creator, and embraced all of us in inviting us to pray to God in ‘the way we had been taught; in the ways we learned.”
Stories have a way of meaning different things to different people—as they must. So I’m not sure what this story will mean to you in your time and place on your journey with God. But I will say, that as the elder who led this public prayer sat down, as I looked at this public community that had been gathered together in prayer, I shook my head in wonder and thought: God must have been smiling today.

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