I was watching the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals play football on Monday night, and there were two players who had to be carted off the playing field by medical staff. One of the announcers, John Gruden, made repeated references to "praying for these men, their families and teammates." Nice. In fact, each player interviewed after the game, when asked about the injured players responded the same way – "they are in our prayers." Nice times two. I cannot think of a more appropriate action in such a time of concern. In fact, it occurred to me that in virtually every time of crisis in a public venue, people are asked to pray for those affected by whatever tragic event that may have happened.
While it is a grand thing to know that people are being encouraged to pray in the public arena, I had to wonder – why not pray beforehand? Prayer seems to get a bad rap. It’s almost akin to that cob-web-covered-axe-under-glass in the hall of my high school on which was printed "Break In Case Of Emergency." I say again, I believe prayer in the public arena is a wonderful thing. In each of the recent tragic events our Nation has seen and endured (such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando, and San Bernardino) almost every person who reported on the stories, or was affected by the event asked viewers to pray for the victims and their families. That is the greatest thing – by far – that we can do for such hurting people. But again, why are we so seemingly discouraged from praying in the public sector on other days?
Some would suggest it began in 1962 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale that prohibited prayer in public schools. I think that ruling was the tragic twin to the 1963 SCOTUS decision in Abington School District v. Schempp that removed Bible reading from the public schools. No matter its origins, prayer in the public arena has taken a huge hit. Each time I think of this and am bent toward discouragement, I am reminded of the bumper sticker that read: "As long as there are tests in school – there will be prayer in school."
While this article is not meant to initiate a debate on prayer in public schools, I do find it ironic that the United States Supreme Court has ruled any teacher-led prayer in public school unconstitutional, yet that same court begins its sessions with – yep, you guessed it: prayer. The Supreme Court Marshal makes a public announcement that precedes the entrance of the Justices into the courtroom. The last line of that declaration is "God save the United States and this Honorable Court!" Personally, I think we’d be a lot better Nation if the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were saved (biblically) men and women. But that’s for another article.
Prayer has always been taught, encouraged, and supported by the Bible. After all, prayer is communicating with God.
One of my favorite conversations between Jesus and His disciples is found in John 14. It is here that Jesus reminds these men of the extraordinary power of prayer, offered in His name. "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:12-13). Don’t you think it prudent to pray ("ask in My [Jesus] name") before bad stuff happens, and before we are in desperate need? "How," you may ask, "can we know that bad stuff is going to happen?" Guess what? Bad stuff happens every day. Because we live in a sinfully flawed body on a fatally flawed planet with other sinfully flawed people – bad stuff is bound to happen. Is that depressing? Nope. It just serves to remind me that (as the saying goes) "Life is Weak – Handle with Prayer."
So, I offer this for your consideration. When it comes to prayer, doesn’t it seem wise to pray before bad stuff happens? Who knows, that part where Jesus said, "he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father" just may affect some potential bad stuff. At the very least, I don’t think praying at the beginning of each day would ever cause harm to anyone or anything. As I thought about this subject, my mind drifted back to a poem I heard some time ago. Joseph Malins was a temperance activist who lived around the turn of the 20th century and authored a poem entitled "The Fence or the Ambulance." The intent of the poem was to discourage any drinking to prevent drunkenness. In other words, stop before you start.
Malins’ poem described a town in which existed a cliff that offered beautiful views, but was quite dangerous. Many citizens had met their demise by slipping and plunging to their deaths off this cliff. The people knew something had to be done and there were two possible solutions offered. One suggested the building of a fence at the edge of the cliff. This was rejected for the placing of an ambulance down in the valley.
In pondering the wisdom of beginning each day in prayer (instead of waiting for something bad to happen), consider the final stanza of Mr. Malins’ poem:
"Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling:
‘To rescue the fallen is good, but ‘tis best
To prevent other people from falling.’
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than to deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence ‘round the top of the cliff,
Than an ambulance down in the valley!"
Surely as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ we could be at least as consistent as the U.S. Congress. Did you know they begin each session with prayer? Before you conclude that praying hasn’t done much for them…can you imagine what Congress would be like without prayer?
Fences or ambulances. Our prayer life just might reflect our preference.
John Burleson is the Pastor of Calvary Church of Conway. Email him with questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.