How to give a ceremonial prayer in a pluralistic setting
First of all, understand the context. If the event is purely secular (non-religious) or is an interfaith gathering, it may be best to use a more generic prayer format rather than a prayer-style and vocabulary which not everyone can relate to. As much as some believers are concerned about compromising their position, remember that a ceremony as a whole belongs to all those who participate. Imagine what it would be like to attend an event which was very important to you and someone from another faith group was asked to pray. If that person gave a prayer which seemed exclusive or was spoken in a manner which was difficult to follow, you might very well feel as though your experience was diminished.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to be who you are. If you have been invited to pray, then do your best to represent your tradition or faith community well. Make sure that you speak to God on behalf of the entire group in the very best way you can.
Ask God for what is appropriate, given the occasion, and then simply stop. A rambling or repetitious prayer soon becomes offensive. Be very careful to abide by whatever time restraints have been put upon you.
In your prayer, avoid the temptation to assume control of the event simply because you believe that you have an insight into religious truth which others do not. Most people can spot this kind of attitude within seconds.
Make sure you pray in a voice that is slow and loud enough to be heard by everyone present. On the other hand most people dislike a preachy or ranting tone in prayer.
Praying in Jesus’ name can be done even in an interfaith gathering. I have found that as long as I say, “I pray in Jesus’ name” without presuming to speak for everyone, (We pray in Jesus’ name) most folks are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand there is nothing necessarily compromising in ending a prayer with a simple “Amen” (It is actually biblical).
Finally, be genuine. Far better than simply mouthing eloquent words, aim at true communication with God. There is nothing wrong with writing out your prayer beforehand. This will prevent saying something silly or unclear. If you read your prayer, put your heart and mind into the words you are saying. Remember, you are asking God’s blessing on the gathering in some way. That alone is enough to take the assignment very seriously.
Here is a sample of an invocation I gave at a secular graduation for one of the institutions where is serve as an adjunct instructor:
“God in heaven—It is our privilege to invite you here as the guest of honor on this __________________ (occasion). It is our request that you would bless this graduating class, but more than that– and of first importance– we desire that you would be here with us this evening (morning, afternoon).
Among other things, O God, you are the Creator of the human mind, which you modeled in some fashion after your own great mind. Though we acknowledge that your thoughts are infinitely higher and more profound than ours, we glory in the notion that we may, on our own level, think some of your thoughts after you in this place. Thank you for the precious gifts of knowledge and discovery.
I ask on behalf of those gathered here that you would indeed bless each of these graduates. Give them the grace to make a difference for the good wherever they may find themselves in the years ahead.
- For those who will pursue further education, grant not only the knowledge they will need in their chosen fields, but also wisdom to apply that knowledge to life as it really is.
- For those who will be going directly into the workforce, give a sense of what is right and good and appropriate in the often-confusing issues they will face.
- For those in military service, may they draw courage and strength from you. May they serve our country and all of humanity with integrity and honor.
- For all of these graduates and the families of which they are a part, we ask that they may make a significant contribution to the general welfare of society. May they especially be a blessing to those whose lives they personally touch.
And now, may you be pleased with what is done here this evening (morning, afternoon). Thank you for your presence.
It is in the name above all others that I pray, Amen.”
I hope this has been helpful. Michael Bogart