I had just boarded the late afternoon train from Paddington Station headed west to Bristol. Commuters were jostling for places, bags were being stashed, and those of us who managed to find seats were settling down with a book or a sandwich for the journey, when suddenly a voice came over the intercom. It was a sweet-sounding, melodious accent of an Indian man. “Welcome,” he said, “to the InterCity 125 service from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads. This is your train operator speaking.”
No one paid much attention; every journey from Paddington begins with the courteous reminder of which train you’re on, and how long the journey would take. But then the driver continued: “As we begin our journey together, I would like to ask all of you to bow your heads with me and join in a word of prayer.” There followed a very nice extemporaneous prayer by a man who was clearly a sincere and joyful born-again Christian.
My fellow travelers were bemused, befuddled, aghast, and amused. It got conversation going among the normally reticent Englishmen, and the atmosphere in the carriage lifted for a few moments from the usual weary commuter boredom. It was as if a bird had entered the room where a party was taking place — everyone is delighted, but no one is quite sure what to do about it.
Public prayer, which used to be so much taken for granted, has now become an oddity in our shared life. But it was not so long ago that everyone’s school day began with prayer. Prayers were offered at the beginning of public meetings, sports events, and civic celebrations. Grace was returned at the beginning of banquets, and pastors were invited to offer the invocation at public school graduations.
“What was the good of it?” one might ask. Surely they were mere formalities — formal words by a priest or pastor that did not mean much to anyone. Isn’t it better that such traditions have died out? Surely it wasn’t right to foist religion on everyone.
Then there is the multicultural question: We really mustn’t have Christian prayers lest we offend the Muslims, the Jews, or whomever else. When there are formal prayers, we must make sure that we pray to all the gods so none of their devotees will be hurt. If we invite Pastor Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration, then we must make sure we also invite Bishop Gene Robinson to pray to “the god of our many understandings.” It is all too complicated and troublesome, so in the end we bow to the bullying of atheists who insist that all public prayers be banned.
The believer will say that prayer does something. He believes God answers prayer. He thinks God will give him and his people many blessings because of prayer. But let us play devil’s advocate for a moment and put aside the idea that prayer actually affects any supernatural transaction. Let us say that prayer does not actually accomplish anything in the spiritual realm. Then what is the good of it? Is it worth anything at all?
There is actually much practical power in public prayer. The public prayer confirms an underlying shared belief system that binds society together. “But we are not all Christians!” the skeptic will cry. Perhaps not, but all who are believers believe in God and believe in prayer, and any public prayer will at least bind theists together in a shared worldview — the one that includes the Almighty in some form or other. It is true that the atheists will be excluded, but will they care that much? If they think prayer is just meaningless chatter, why do they make such a fuss? Surely they ought to smile and humor us believers, as one does an idiot child.
Secondly, public prayer has a soothing and calming effect. On the train that day in London, people’s hearts were lifted for a moment. You could see it on their rubicund English faces. Prayer shifts our attention — even if we are unwilling — to another realm. We are forced (unless we are totally calloused brutes) to stop for just a tic and observe a moment’s silence — a moment when our world may expand, our hearts might be widened, our perception opened up, and the door to the other world cracked, even if only a tiny bit and for a brief moment in time. Surely any activity that shifts our focus away from ourselves, even for a few seconds, is a worthy thing?
Thirdly, public prayer has a beneficial effect on public morality. For that moment, even the unbeliever might stop to consider that his life has a larger dimension and that he may be a player on a more cosmic stage than he thought; and if this is so, it might just prompt a better and nobler sentiment within him.
The beneficial moral effect of public prayer was illustrated by a comment I received on my blog recently. I had written on the moral and social decay in modern Britain, and an Englishman responded,
When I began in banking almost 40 years ago, the head of our Investment Banking division each morning gathered his staff together and began the day with a prayer! This division was responsible for investing the bank’s money. The prayer was not that they would make a “killing” or rack up great profits for the bank. Rather it was that they would properly care for the bank’s assets and discharge their duties responsibly.
This man, like the train driver leaving Paddington, was not a national leader offering the invocation at a civic event, but an ordinary layman with a simple faith who took his responsibilities seriously. He was courageous enough to lead his people in prayer and had enough faith to believe that what he was doing was worthwhile. Indeed, it was worthwhile: Putting aside the question of whether or not his prayer influenced the Almighty, the prayers influenced the people in the investment department. At the beginning of each day, they were reminded of the moral dimension to their seemingly inconsequential jobs as bank clerks. Their superior leading them in prayer helped them to keep the filthy lucre they were dealing with in a proportionate place. If every Wall Street firm and every investment bank did the same every morning, would we now be in financial meltdown? I doubt it.
A fourth practical benefit of public prayer is that it grants to all those who participate a new kind of dignity. The bankers who prayed with their division chief were thought worthy to pray with. The chief took them seriously. Furthermore, their jobs also had a new dimension of seriousness and dignity. They mattered, and their jobs mattered — not only to their boss in business boss, but also to the Big Boss.
Think how society would change if every business started the day with prayer. What if the workers at Starbucks or Burger King or the local factory started their shift by praying with the boss? What if they prayed for each of their customers? What if they prayed for each other? Think of the benefits to the whole of society: We cannot stay angry long at a colleague with whom we have prayed. We cannot cheat for long a boss with whom we have prayed. We cannot provide poor customer service for a person for whom we have prayed.
I am not for one moment suggesting that the only benefits to prayer are the practical benefits in the public square. Prayer is much more. When we pray, heaven opens. God’s goodness comes to earth.
Nevertheless, there is a practical power to public prayer, and those of us who have the chance, by virtue of our position, should dare to pray more openly and with those who are part of our world. Whenever I have had the chance and the courage to say, “Let us pray together,” I have never had anyone refuse. Embarrassment there may be, shuffling of feet and awkward bowing of heads with the odd giggle or two, but never objections and never refusal. Afterward I have only ever been thanked.
We shouldn’t take for granted the practical power of public prayer. Let’s stand up a bit more often, open our hearts and our mouths, and risk a little embarrassment — and, like that sweet man on the London train, say, “Let us all pause for a moment and have a word of prayer.”