National Day of Prayer 2011: Let Us Pray... and Act

Millions of Americans will gather today in hotel ballrooms and on town squares, in church buildings and on campus lawns, for National Day of Prayer. Millions of other Americans will, no doubt, look on this public religious act with some suspicion. Is National Day of Prayer a religious cover for Tea Party conservatives? Are those who gather resisting a democracy that welcomes and protects the practice of diverse faith traditions?

As an evangelical Christian, I confess that my fellow Americans have good reason to be suspicious. Though evangelicals have often argued fervently for the separation of church and state, we have also blurred the dividing line when access to political power served our agenda (and our pocketbooks). Even when our churches have tried to serve as the "conscience of the state" that Dr. Martin Luther King challenged us to be, our concern has been too narrowly focused on issues of private morality, overlooking the problems of systemic injustice that King himself so boldly challenged. If we are going to pray in public, evangelical Christians must begin with a prayer of confession. We have shouted the Gospel with our mouths more than we have showed the world good news with our lives.

But our confession cannot be that we have over-stepped the boundary between private faith and the public square. The problem is not that Christians have been too public with our prayer. What we must confess is that we have done too little to become the answer to the prayers we pray. So often, when faced with the problems of our world, we have asked, "God why don't you do something?" without realizing that God might be saying, "I did do something. I made you."

When prayed by followers of Jesus, "God bless America" cannot be a divine endorsement of a political agenda or an excuse for inaction, as if we were asking God to bless others so we don't have to. When we pray for God to bless anyone, we are challenged to see that we might be the hands of that blessing, for God has no hands but ours. When we pray "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done," we commit our whole lives to caring for the least among us -- the unborn and the undocumented. If Christians are praying with Jesus, we cannot stop praying and acting until we see the restoration of all that is broken in our lives, and in our streets: broken political systems and broken families, polluted ecosystems and shattered lives.

So rather than argue that National Day of Prayer is a dangerous vestige of the religious right, I say let's re-imagine it. Let's call Christians (and everyone else) to prayer. But let us also challenge ourselves to become the answer to our prayers. When we pray for the hungry, let's remember to feed them. When we pray for the unborn, let's welcome single mothers and adopt abandoned children. When we give thanks for creation, let's plant a garden and buy local. When we remember the poor, let's re-invest our money in micro-lending programs. When we pray for peace, let's beat our swords into plowshares and turn military budgets into programs of social uplift. When we pray for an end to crime, let's visit those in prison. When we pray for lost souls, let's be gracious to the souls who've done us wrong.

The good news is that we have a new prayer movement in America today. Dozens of churches and neighborhood-based new monastic communities have worked together with a team of liturgy experts over the past decade to craft a new resource for praying and singing together, remembering the great tradition of folks from St. Francis and St. Theresa to Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, who have shown us what it means to become the answer to our prayers. Every day, tens of thousands of North Americans are now gathering in small groups to plot goodness in their local communities and listen carefully for God's guidance about how best to love our neighbors and our enemies. These groups will be praying today, as always. More importantly, they're committed to becoming the answer to the prayers they pray.

None of us can do everything, but everyone can do something. To begin to act on our prayers with any seriousness is to remember why we pray in the first place -- because anything worth doing is beyond our power to do alone. We cry out to God because we know we need help. But we have a God who does not want to change the world without us -- a God who chooses to work in and through us. So let us pray, and let us act.