Americans are addicted to second guessing. Did Mark Richt make the wrong call at the Alabama-Georgia game? Should Mitt Romney have run a different election campaign? Should we have better protected the Benghazi Embassy? There’s no topic immune from second guessing, including public prayer. I refer to the invocation offered prior to President Obama’s inauguration last Monday.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was heavily criticized in some quarters because she only included the word God one time and omitted (on purpose? accidentally?) the phrase “under God” when citing the pledge of allegiance to the flag in the prayer.
I watched on television as Ms. Evers-Williams offered that invocation and, as one who has offered and heard many prayers, had a different take. My impression was that this layperson had little experience in public prayer.
There are many ways to pray, but most prayers begin by clearly addressing the deity. (“Dear God, O Almighty and Loving Parent, Our Lord,” etc.) This opening phrase signals that the words that follow are indeed a prayer. I watched the faces of President Obama and others on the inaugural platform that day and it was obvious that the attendees didn’t know whether Ms Evers-Williams had launched into prayer or was still just talking. Was Ms. Evers-Williams delivering preliminary remarks or praying? Nobody wants to have eyes open — especially on camera — if prayer is being offered. Conversely, nobody wants to look like a fool with eyes closed and head bowed if the prayer hasn’t begun. In this case they couldn’t tell! Quibble about how many times she invoked God’s name, but behind that, at least from the standpoint of a trained clergyperson, is that her words hardly fit the traditional form of prayer.
My guess is that those who invited her were embarrassed to some extent by the rambling nature and vague form of her invocation. They may have cleared her words in advance, but just like Clint Eastwood’s rambling monologue, once she stepped to the rostrum she was on her own. It was clear the listeners had no idea when — or even if — her prayer began.
Now out of fairness let me second guess some of the clergy inauguration prayers, too.
The pastors were more formulaic and more verbose. The risk of asking a clergyperson to pray is that we can cite 15 bazillion topics. I listened to a pastor pray in the Capitol Rotunda. It was supposed to be a prayer over the meal but the man ranged far and wide. The form of the prayer was correct, the sentiment orthodox. But what this person failed to grasp was that the organizers needed a brief, prayer for the food, those who prepared it, and the occasion. By the time he’d amenned the soup was cold, the wine warm and the crowd impatient.
That’s my second guessing. Now it’s your turn. That’s called letters to the editor or emails to the columnist.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.