Someone once said that “as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school.”
These days it is sometimes a rather delicate and precarious dance interpreting matters of separation of church and state, or more specifically, prayer in school. With a flood of commencement exercises unfolding in auditoriums, gymnasiums and even the occasional football field, invitations and directives are being handed out to various presenters who will be taking center stage on platforms and podiums.
At least a couple decades ago, I was offered the invitation to bring the benediction at a graduation ceremony for a local high school. Memory doesn’t serve me all that well as to the specifics, particularly if I was selected by a school administrator or by some members of the student body. As a relatively new resident in town and a member of the local clergy, I felt it prudent to be cautious with regard to my remarks so as not to offend any who might gather for the tassel toss and the mortar board fling.
Few details and restrictions were forthcoming regarding what to or not to say. I pondered whether or not to give a bit of a homily or sermon. I considered the possible trouble I might make by the mention of the name of God or Jesus in my remarks. Would a basic prayer be in or out of the question? Is there any prayer that is basic? Should I keep things toned down or even “watered down” so as not to afford the possibility of creating any angst? Perhaps I should keep it “spiritual” but not “religious,” but I wasn’t exactly sure how to dissect the two.
My decision could have ramifications for me or for any who might come after me.
I am, more so these days, well aware of the fact that whatever I might end up saying, there are chaplains in government called upon to regularly offer intercession for our elected officials.
Perhaps I was making more of an issue than I needed to, but I wanted to appropriately honor their request of me.
As it turned out, I couldn’t keep that earlier thought out of my head, “as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school.”
With that thought in mind, I contacted the school office and asked if I could receive a printout list of the names of all the graduates, which they were glad to provide. The timing was such that I received the list just over a month before the graduation ceremonies were to take place in the high school gymnasium.
You may find this strange, but what I did for the 30 days prior to the Sunday afternoon exercises was to pray for each of the graduates by name every day. Fortunately it wasn’t the size of my graduating class back when I was in high school. That Chicago suburb spit out diplomas for more than 700 students, whereas this rural high school had less than 200 graduates.
By name I prayed daily for them, for their parents and for their futures. For 30 days I asked God to help them finish strong, to inspire them to be the best they could be in whatever direction or endeavor they were headed. I sought God’s wisdom for them to make good and right decisions in their future academic pursuits. I gave thanks to God for each of them, for the family that surrounded and helped nurture and guide them. I prayed for the faith of each, that their reliance would not be limited to their own abilities but would find cause and reason to trust in the God who I believed was the creator of the universe and the Savior of the world.
I lifted up their names and their lives to God and asked for inspiration for each graduate, to challenge each one and to reveal the plans and purpose for each of them.
Those were 30 very special days for me. Never a drudgery, I looked forward to naming each name and praying for each life, each faith and each future.
When the time came for me to address the gathered masses seated attentively and anxiously, I had little concern for what was listed by my name in the program. Fact is, I can’t even remember if I had been called upon for an invocation, benediction, address, opening remarks, prayer, sermon or reflection. I worried not as to whether I might run the risk of violating some written or unwritten rule regarding prayer in school.
No, I simply stepped to the podium and began my few moments behind the microphone with these brief words, “As long as there are tests, I was once told, there will be prayer in school. I’m not going to offer prayers for all you graduates right now. Why, you might ask? Well, the reason is because I’ve been praying for each of you by name every day for the past month. What I will do, if you will permit me, is to share with you some of what I’ve been praying for you these last days leading up to this momentous occasion, your high school graduation.” From there I succinctly recounted for them my month-long litany of intercessions and thanksgivings.
I am both confident and hopeful those commencement prayers are still being answered 20 years later.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org