How I Pray at Military Ceremonies

I offer a lot of public invocations. Here are some brief, practical thoughts on how I approach the task.

Introducing the Prayer. I say why I am offering an invocation and gently invite people to participate in their own way. The introduction recognizes that a time of prayer is important on this occasion for many people, but not for all, and it gives the listeners freedom to adapt my words for their own use as they see fit. A couple of examples.

“We are rejoicing today with John and Kathy Jones as John is promoted to Colonel. I invite you to take these moments to give thanks in your own way, in your own heart, as I offer this invocation.”

“Retirement is a momentous occasion is every person’s life. As we gather to honor Sally Smith on her retirement, I invite you to take a few moments for your own prayer or reflection as I offer this invocation.”

Praying in the First Person Singular. When I am directly addressing the deity, I try to speak in the first person singular or in the imperative. In other words, I say “I” instead of “we”, or I completely leave off the pronoun. In a government ceremony, I cannot assume that everyone prays as I do. It would be inaccurate to put my words in their mouths. Since I can only speak for myself, I don’t ordinarily say “we ask” or “we pray” or other words that presume to speak for others. I only use the word “we” to describe the obvious sentiments of the assembled group. A couple of examples:

“O Lord, I pray to you for all who are grieving. We’re all feeling the pain of Sam’s death. I ask you to comfort all who mourn, especially Sam’s family and close friends. Let the love that brings them sorrow today also bring healing to their souls.”

“God, I ask you to bless this food we’re about to share. We’re all happy to have a day out of the office at the company picnic. Keep us safe and use this time to refresh our spirits.”

Remembering the Setting. I work in a religiously diverse setting. The people for whom I pray at ceremonies have not come together primarily for a religious purpose or so that they can follow my religious leadership. Therefore, I pray differently at a civil ceremony than I do when I am leading worship in church on Sunday mornings. Every word of my ceremonial invocation should flow from my own religious commitments, but I should also consider the nature of the occasion and the character of the assembly.

Helping Others Pray. Even though I cannot speak for other people in my prayer, I hope that the words I pray will help others pray as well. That’s the main reason for having a public prayer: so that the people in the audience who need or want prayer on this occasion can draw upon the prayer that is offered. When I compose my prayer, then, I am going to choose words and images that not only are meaningful to me, but words that I hope will also be meaningful to a religiously diverse audience. Even for those who don’t pray, I want my words to serve as an occasion for reflection. No prayer will perfectly suit everyone, but I want the largest number of people possible to resonate in some way with my words.

Writing it Down. Writing my prayers in advance helps me think through what I really want to say and keeps me focused during the delivery. For me, the writing of an invocation is time of prayer in its own right. As I write, I think about the people involved and consider the meaning of the occasion. If I craft my prayer well, I will collect the hopes, fears and challenges of this occasion into a single, brief expression of our common life, so that those listening can exercise their own faith commitments at this solemn moment.

Staying Positive. I try to bring people together in my invocations, focusing them on the meaning of the event, lifting them up and encouraging them.

Keeping it Short and Simple. I keep my invocations under one minute in length and I try to avoid flowery language.

Blessing the World. I see public invocations as prayers of blessing, in accordance with the intent of passages such as Jeremiah 29:7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-2. In a small way, they fulfill God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” I offer these prayers as a member of the Christ’s priestly kingdom, in union with my great High Priest on high. Even if someone else might hear my words and think no more than, “That’s a nice sentiment,” for me they are real prayer, offered to the God who made himself known in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose name I now bear and to whom I now belong.

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