I know you have seen them. Those signs. Those billboards with the messages from God. Like “That ‘Love thy Neighbor’ Thing, I Meant It.” — God.
The one I like best is “We Need To Talk” — God.
Today is a national day to talk to God. That’s why we are gathered here for this 55th observance of the National Day of Prayer, first proclaimed by President Truman on April 17, 1952, and established by Act of Congress in 1988 as the first Thursday in May.
The history of this day is not without controversy.
It was George Washington who in 1789 issued the first presidential proclamation for prayer as he proclaimed a national Day of Thanksgiving, stating: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and to humbly implore his protection and favor . . . “
Jefferson, on the other hand, argued against the action of the Continental Congress when in 1775 they issued a proclamation for a day of prayer “in forming a new nation.” Jefferson believed that while individual religious organizations can and should designate a day of prayer, it was not the role of the government to do so. His concern was an outgrowth of the centuries preceding the American Revolution, when even those who had come to these shores to avoid religious persecution nevertheless in God’s name hanged and expelled the Quakers from Puritan New England. It is the history of state sponsored religion and religious intolerance that seeded the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and caused the repeal of colonial religious laws that compelled church attendance, forbade work on Sunday and criminalized blasphemy.
We do not need to look far in the modern world to see the struggle of religious sects who in God’s name seek to impose their understanding of God’s will on others: the Taliban in Afganistan; the civil war between Shites and Sunis in Iraq. In the western world thousands have been similarly killed and maimed in Northern Ireland simply because of their religious affiliation and millions were exterminated in Nazi Germany simply because they were Jews. Today as we sit here there are Christians being persecuted in parts of Asia and Africa. Christian, Muslim, Jew. We are not much removed in the 21st century from the intolerance of our ancestors.
Even today in our own country our religious convictions fuel political battles over abortion, stem cell research, prayer in schools, displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses and nativity scenes in public parks. There are movements to remove the phrase “In God We Trust” from our coins and the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance.
How then do we approach a National Day of Prayer in the Year 2007. What do we pray for? Do we pray that God’s will be done? And how will we know it to be His will when even in our gathering this morning, were we to discuss specific issues confronting our nation, there would no doubt be divergent views as to what God’s will is.
For many of us prayer is at the center of our relationship with God. We understand it on a personal level. We pray daily, praising His majesty, giving thanks for His many blessings, acknowledging our sinfulness, seeking forgiveness and asking for our needs and for the needs of our families, friends and others. Too often we are more concerned with telling God than with listening to Him. Too frequently it is our will not His be done. But even though our prayer life is flawed and imperfect, our daily praise, supplications and litanies become the very core of our relationship with God.
When we drive past that billboard that says “We Need To Talk,” we know He is right. We do need to talk with God and even more importantly we need to listen to Him.
But how do we as a nation talk to God? How do we as a nation develop a relationship with God? It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them.
I am a Christian. In recent times there has been much discussion about the need for Christians to engage the political process. There has been the development of what is called the “New Christian Right,” defined by the media as a voting bloc of conservative Christians, typified by organizations such as the Christian Coalition, whose leaders espouse the belief that Christians must take control of our national agenda. It is a call to reclaim America for Christ. To act as God’s agents to exercise His dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, schools, government, literature and arts, sports and entertainment, the news media and scientific endeavors. While it is tempting to accept this idea that we need to use the government to restore basic Christian values in our society and make this nation an instrument of God’s will to achieve his dominion here on earth, such a view ignores the fundamental fact that godliness is an attribute of a nation’s people, it can never be and has never been an attribute of the state.
The United States is not a Christian nation, just as it is not a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. It is not a theocracy, but a dynamic democracy, a secular state. Godliness is not an attribute of the United States of America, but hopefully it is an attribute of its people.
Perhaps I can best illustrate my point by referring to my own personal life. I have been your judge for the past twelve years and next week I will retire. It has been my privilege and honor to have served you. I am not a Christian judge. There are no Christian judges in the United States, just as there are no Jewish judges and no Muslim judges. There are Christians, Jews and Muslims who are judges. But we who judge judge not on basis of our religious affiliation but on the basis of the secular laws that govern our city, our state and our country. When I took my oath of office I did not swear to enforce the law as espoused by any Christian church. I took an oath to enforce the laws of the United States and the State of Ohio.
But my relationship with God is at the very heart of all I do and say even though, unfortunately, like you, some of what I have done and said has no doubt disappointed Him. Talking with God has, however, always been a part of my walk with God. Sometimes, I must confess, I haven’t had much insight into what I was saying to Him and He must have thought it was gibberish, and have been amused or even dismayed at my ramblings. Sometimes His responses to my petitions have gone unnoticed by me, sometimes they have been ambiguous at best, occasionally humorous and at other times disappointing. But there are times when I have sensed His presence and direction and He has given me a sense of purpose and confidence.
There was, for example, the time when I had been approached to run for judge. I was hesitant, in part because I could earn more money in my private practice than I could as a judge; in part because I had never participated in the political process, other than to vote, and I was reluctant to do so. I stalled. I said I would think it over. My family and I were leaving for a vacation at Yellowstone National Park, driving out West towing a camper. I said I would give my decision when I got back.
The first night’s stop was in Iowa. We were settled in our campsite when in the site next to us a pickup with Washington license plates, towing a fifth wheel, pulled in. Because I had gone to law school at the University of Washington and had practice law Washington State for ten years before coming back to Ohio, I went over and introduced myself. I was surprised to find that the man was a retired judge before whom I had practiced in Washington.
As he sat by his campfire that night I went over to talk to him about what had been troubling me and had been the subject of my prayer life for the past couple of weeks — whether I should run for judge.
I am not one who is comfortable talking about angels, that is, God’s messengers, but I suspect this man was just that. He and his wife were there that night, traveling back to Washington from Illinois. They had been on a cross country trip the month before when their adult daughter became ill in Seattle. They stored their camper in a friend’s barn in Illinois and flew home to be with her. She recovered, but meanwhile a tornado had destroyed the barn and their camper. They had come back to Illinois to take care of the insurance claim, purchase a new camper and were on the first night out on their trip back to Chehalis, Washington. One could say it was just coincidental that we were both in that campground that night, but he was exactly the person I needed to talk to.
We talked long into the night, until the embers of the fire were burned down and our families had long since gone to bed. The next morning all the turmoil of the past two weeks, debating in my mind the pros and cons of running for judge, was resolved. I knew I would run for judge and I felt God had called me to do that.
I don’t think I could have had the conversations I had with God those two weeks or discerned His answer there in Iowa that night had I not had a practice of talking with Him and occasionally listening to what He had to say.
I didn’t win the election in 1994 because God favored me over my opponent. On the other hand, if I had not talked with God and listened to Him, I would not have been a candidate. I never prayed that I would win the election, but I constantly asked for guidance and did my best to discern His will as it is revealed in the Bible and in the lives of the people, like the judge from Washington, whom God uses to touch my life.
In these past twelve years I have not asked God to tell me specifically what I should do in the thousands of cases that have come before the court. In making those decisions I must be guided by the laws of Ohio, whether God or I like them or not. I have frequently prayed for His blessing on the parties whose cases I decide because I know what turmoil their lives are in; I pray for wisdom to make good choices within the parameters that the law allows; I pray for the ability to discern when to be merciful and when to be tough. I recognize that my judgments are temporal and that only God’s judgments are eternal. I am grateful that He is inclined to be more merciful than I have been.
My office as judge is not a godly office, but in some small way I have strived to exercise my authority in a godly way by being prayerful and thoughtful, and struggling to discern His will. I wish I could say it is easy; that I have always been confident of what He would have me do; that my decisions have been the correct ones. But I can’t. God doesn’t ask us to be perfect; He asks us to try. He created us with a mind to think and a heart to love. He expects us to do both when we make choices in this secular world in which we live.
And so it is with our nation. We are not a godly nation, but we can strive to be godly people. A people who talk to God, but more importantly listen to Him. We will not live here on earth long enough to know in this life whether we have been a godly people, whether our choices are His choices. Certainly, in the contentious issues that confront our times godly men and women will be on different sides, both praying to the same God, both trying to discern His answer. This has been true in all generations.
One hundred forty two years ago this country was engaged in a divisive struggle that polarized the people; in a struggle where brother fought against brother in a war in which more Americans died than in any other. The crisis confronting this country then makes the debate today about Iraq, stem cell research and all the other issues that crowd our national agenda pale by comparison.
The year before Lincoln had written a letter in which he declared, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” And yet as ardent a foe of slavery as he was, in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln, confronting the paradox that has plagued nations and churches from the beginning of time when two different sides on an issue believe their position to be the embodiment of God’s will, spoke with wisdom and compassion. He said:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged, The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
So it will be with us. We who read the same Bible, who pray to the same God, who are equally sincere in discerning His will, will be on different sides of the issues of the day. Pray not that your side will prevail, but pray for wisdom, discernment and understanding; give thanks to God who has given us this good land; ask for forgiveness and be willing to forgive others; and judge not that you be not judged.
Yes, we the people of this nation need, as the sign says, to talk to God. How we talk to Him or more importantly, our willingness to listen to Him, will either make us instruments of His will or camouflage our own will in the guise of the divine. We as a people need to pray for guidance; we do not need to pray for the success of our conflicting points of view. We need to remember how temporal our judgments are and leave to God the judgments which are eternal. It is, after all, He who will in the end determine whether we have been a godly people.