We will be marking the National Day of Prayer with a service in front of City Hall today in the city of Norwich. I am proud to be a part of such a tradition. I got involved back in 2002. This observance goes back to the earliest days of our country.
On January 1, 1795 President George Washington wrote:
It is in an especial manner our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God, and to implore Him to continue to confirm the blessings we experienced. Deeply penetrated with this sentiment, I, George Washington, President of the United States, do recommend to all religious societies and denominations, and to all persons whomsoever within the United States, to set apart and observe Thursday, the 19th day of February next, as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, and on that day to meet together and render sincere and hearty thanks to the great Ruler of nations for the manifold and signal mercies which distinguish our lot as a nation…
On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer to be declared by each succeeding president at an appropriate date chosen by that president. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to that law that provides that the National Day of Prayer shall be held on the first Thursday of May. Hence, today is the date designated for the 2009 National Day of Prayer.
I love the fact that our leaders recognize the importance of prayer. It speaks to the heart and soul of a nation. What bothers me is that some people, and even church leaders, are ignoring this call to prayer because they have let others define what it is to pray. Even our President has decided not to have a Prayer service at the White House. I understand his reasoning. Prayer is a political hot potato. The President has simply urged all Americans to pray privately.
Public prayer is important though. I also believe that it demands a degree of tolerance and acceptance to make it happen. Rev .Wendall Griffin, pastor and law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law, recently decried the National Day of Prayer because he believes has been taken over by the religious right, the conservative evangelical church. He paints it as being exclusive and demeaning to those who aren't of like mind. He suggests that it is a tool to recruit more evangelicals. It is obvious that Rev. Griffin hasn't been to the services I have been to over the years.
The truth is that people like Rev. Griffin and even the President of the United States have a great opportunity to influence the leadership of those setting up these observances. They can set the tone and agenda for their own services and give people a look at what it means to be prayerful and inclusive. They can open the door to many who have been left out of that invitation to prayer. Instead they look like the child who took his ball and went home because he or she didn't like who showed up to play the game.
The truth is that prayer is both personal and public. It is true that we should not push our view on other in polite society, but why can't we set the stage for a more inclusive community that can pray together? I believe if we are ever going to solve the major problems we have in this country, our efforts need to being with prayer. Believe me, once you have prayed with someone, you will never look at them the same way again. When prayer is framed in the proper context, prayer unites and bids. It gives a common purpose. It connects up vertically and horizontally.
So if you haven't been part of an observance of the National Day of Prayer, get involved. Even if it makes you uncomfortable this year, make it a point to be one of the volunteers to shape next year's celebration. You may be the light that will lead others to a more powerful and inclusive Day of prayer as we begin the next decade of this century.
President Barack Obama signs the proclamation marking the National Day of Prayer in the Oval Office of the White House May 7, 2009. Looking on is Joshua DuBois, Director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza