Praying in the Public Square

By Michael A. Bigelow

“Air Force discourages public prayer.”1

“Navy chaplain conducts hunger strike outside White House to pray in Jesus’ name.”2

“Military Culture War: Armed services debate prayer in Jesus’ name.”3

Over the past two years, a debate has raged throughout the military services about evangelicals claiming they were pressured to make their prayers more inclusive. Some chaplains allege they have faced retribution for praying “in Jesus’ name.” In the name of pluralism, they insist their own religious rights were trampled.

The controversy has wider impact than the military. It shapes the debate about the place of prayer in the public square. Civilian pastors are just as apt to give invocations at banquets and organizations. How we handle such invitations impacts the way we are perceived as Christ’s ambassadors and affects our ministry.

Let me make several points clear. First, I am convinced that Jesus is God’s Son, the Bible is God’s Word, and that Christ is the only hope for a lost world. Second, I don’t represent official Navy or Department of Defense policy, but come as one engaged in the debate. Third, I don’t question the faith or motives of those who pray in Jesus’ name. For me, the question is not, “Do I have the right to pray according to my tradition?” but “How can I best gain an acceptable hearing for God?”

While Acts does not deal with prayer, it indicates much about preaching styles. In Acts 13, Paul preaches to the Jews using biblical quotes, illustrations, and allusions from the Torah, but when addressing the crowd at Mars Hill in Acts 17, he speaks differently. Paul employed the logic, rhetoric, and poetry familiar to the Athenians. Paul’s style varied according to the occasion and audience.

Several Factors

“Civic religion” can either provide ammunition for faith’s critics or can touch people’s spirits. As a Navy chaplain, my access to people is broader than my civilian counterparts. I see Marines and sailors in their workspaces, spend nights on maneuvers in the field, and deploy to sea for long stretches at a time. I counsel and encourage them whether they attend my services or not. I am their shepherd and for many, a visible messenger of God, often in places where God’s presence seems most absent. So when I am asked to pray at a public ceremony, I weigh several factors.

First, public prayer is hard work, a work that must be done before I step to the podium. What is the occasion? What can prayer meaningfully address in this unit’s life? I research the situation and build it into my prayer. The words used should address the situation.

I struggle with choosing the right words to use. Most ceremonial prayers are short, yet when properly prepared, they have sweeping effects on the listeners. So I come with God-given words of love and grace to the community, mindful that while I have a role to perform, I am also not the main event. Having prayerfully prepared, and trusting the Spirit of God to move, I believe lives can be touched and windows of opportunity can be opened.

I always begin with the introduction, “I invite you to join with me in prayer.” Gathered are all kinds of people: devout, fallen, Christian, and non-Christian (Hindu, Moslem, Jewish, or Wicca). Some are seeking, some are hurting, and some are angry. My goal is to invite each on a spiritual journey. If I speak truth with love, then after the ceremony I have the opportunity and credibility to talk with people. In this moment, the door of evangelism is often wide open. I trust God can use my imperfect words to accomplish his perfect will.

I don’t close my public prayers in Jesus’ name. I will often say “in your holy name, we pray, Amen.” So whether someone has prayed to Jesus, Allah, or Elohim, I know first to whom I have prayed. Showing respect to my listeners, allowing them to come to their own conclusions and to pray as they are accustomed, I pray they will see Christ in me, and realize that a Christian can genuinely respect them.

Biblical Themes

While I do not close my prayers in Jesus’ name, I often use familiar themes straight from the Bible. One evening at sea, we plowed through a storm complete with 25-30-foot seas and 40-plus knot winds. Everyone was inside the ship as waves crashed over the bow and spray hit the pilothouse windows 60 feet up!

As I prayed for the crew over the ship’s speakers, I asked God who “commands the seas to be still and the winds to cease and they obey” to be mindful of us.

Whether people recognize it or not, I consistently pull prayers straight from Psalms, Proverbs, and the Gospels. I make references to culturally known biblical events and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

When Billy Graham helped lead the nation through its grief at the National Cathedral shortly after the September 11 tragedy4, he was criticized by some for talking very specifically about his Christian faith in a national and pubic forum. Such criticism was inappropriate. Graham was but one of several clergy who appeared in the pulpit that day. Various faiths, including Muslim and Jewish voices, were also present. For him to be disloyal to his convictions and faith would have been absurd.

In most public prayers, though, it is usually just the voice of a singular minister or chaplain. One can still be faithful to his or her calling and yet do so in a way that blesses the event, the people present, and gives glory to God.

Touching Lives

Two public prayers I have spoken stand out in my mind. The first was on Election Day 2000 while deployed on the USS Ashland in the Mediterranean Sea. I tried to put into words the hopes of our crew who’d already mailed their absentee ballots:

O Sovereign God, Ruler over all the nations, today as we have gone about our tasks, as we have conducted our UNREP (Underway Replenishment) and our briefings, as we have gone about our jobs, our thoughts have turned to our country. Right now the polling places have opened and people will exercise one of the great freedoms we hold dear—the right to vote.

So we pray, O Lord, not so much for a candidate or a political party, but for our country. We pray that the men and women we choose would be people of honor and dignity, those that would hate corruption and injustice, those that would be servant leaders of the people who elect them. We pray they would have wisdom in their deliberations, guidance in their choices, compassion for those who need their help.

Be with our country today, O God, as we continue our grand experiment in democracy and freedom. In you we trust, Amen.”

When I finished, the captain burst through the hatch, and before all on the bridge, shouted, “Chaplain! Awesome prayer!”

The second occasion occurred in Naples, Italy, in celebration of the Navy’s Nurse Corps anniversary. At the appropriate time, I asked all gathered to form a circle, hands clasped and outstretched toward the center, and we prayed for a blessing of the hands:

O Most Loving and Holy God, the One who made the lame to walk and the blind to see, we ask that you look with favor on the hands held out today.

We have hands that are old and have seen both the joy and tragedy of life. May these hands always retain the hope and promise as when they started out in their medical journey.

We have hands that are young. May these hands never become jaundiced and bitter through their work but remember the healing they bring.

We have hands that have been bloodied and scarred. May these hands know that life is in the blood, and that through you, scars are healed.

We have hands that have held newborns. May these hands know the wonder of life anew.

We have hands that have held the dying. May these hands realize that providing compassionate care during a person’s final moments is one of the greatest gifts one can offer.

Bless, O God, the hands that hold, that give care, that provide compassion. Give grace and mercy to those that provide the shoulder to cry on, a heart that aches with their patients but yet will not break, and the soul that rejoices in life and healing. May the hands, the hearts, and the spirits be ever before you. May they always receive healing, as they heal others, as you yourself heal us. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.

When I finished my prayer and looked up, many had tears streaming down their cheeks. God used these words to describe their mission and their hopes, and it touched all of them. Afterwards, many nurses came up to me, asking for a copy of the prayer, stating that for them, those two minutes were the highlight of the entire ceremony.

Public prayer need not be divisive. Gently, humbly, and spiritually done, it has the power to lift people’s souls, bring them into the glory of God’s presence, and illuminate the love of Jesus.


1Headline in USA Today, August 25, 2005.

2Headline in Stars and Stripes, December 22, 2005.

3Headline in Christianity Today, April 2006.

4Billy Graham’s message at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, National Cathedral, September 14, 2001.

Lt. Michael A. Bigelow is a chaplain with the United States Navy, currently stationed in Naples, Italy.

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