From my thousands of hours spent in church, I have sat through more prayers than most (non-clergy) people my age, so I have some ideas on what makes an effective entreaty.
A good prayer is short. It gets to the point. In fact, Jesus left an example for Christians with a prayer that is shocking in its simplicity. It starts with a salutation and moves straight to requests for food, forgiveness and deliverance. As has been pointed out by others, Jesus never mentions himself in the prayer, though repeating his name — often — is a habit employed by certain members of Christian tribes.
Depending on what pew you're warming, you can also hear within a prayer long, self-styled definitions of God — which always strikes me as superfluous. Doesn't God already know who She is?
So far, I've written three paragraphs, and I bet I've offended someone already. It happens. In his inauguration speech, President Barack Obama mentioned that we are a nation of many religions, and nonbelievers, too — and I bet someone somewhere got their ecclesiastical bowels in an uproar over that, too.
On some topics, you're going to do the wrong thing no matter your direction.
Who knows this better than our new president? Much furor erupted when Obama chose the Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Obama is friends with Warren, who read the galley proof of his "The Audacity of Hope." Warren, himself the author of the blockbuster "A Purpose Driven Life," supported Proposition 8 in his home state of California, which rescinded marital rights for same-sex couples. Warren says he loves homosexuals, but he does not support marriage for those people he loves. (Meanwhile, Obama's choice of civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who, like Obama, supports same-sex civil unions, not marriage, raised nary a feather, though in his prayer he asked for a time when "white will embrace what is right," and that offended a few terribly precious white people.)
In response to criticism about Warren, Obama said he will listen to everyone — including people with whom he disagrees. As an olive branch to people who protested Warren's place at the podium, the Obama team asked the Right Rev. Eugene Robinson, New Hampshire's openly gay Episcopal bishop, to deliver a prayer at Sunday's welcoming concert — called, ironically, "We Are One."
It was a nice gesture, but the prayer was not included in the exclusive HBO telecast of the event. Obama's people took the blame for that, and the broadcast was shown in its entirety on Inauguration Day on big TVs set up on the National Mall. You can watch the whole thing, with Robinson, at www.hbo.com.
The prayer is worth listening to. Robinson asks God to bless this nation with anger — the kind that moves us to action. The prayer also asks for practical things, like privacy and family time for the Obamas.
I'm sick of rifts. We need every voice — the conservatives with whom I agree on absolutely nothing, the liberals who have lapped even me in their politics. And that means listening to all the prayers — Robinson's and Hartford Seminary's Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who prayed at Wednesday's inaugural service at the National Cathedral. There she was, about an hour into the service, saying, "May we be a people at peace among ourselves, and a blessing to other nations. We pray to you, oh, God, saying, 'Keep this nation under your care.'"
We need to hear them all, and isn't that the point of this new era? We all join hands and move into the future? It's what got the man elected, and it's way too early to stop.