One fall day, some years ago, an acquaintance asked me to give the invocation at a scholarship awards banquet hosted by the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. After the dinner and a speech by a college coach, five boys were to receive scholarships based on their academic and athletic prowess. My part, according to the Hall of Fame board member who invited me, was to offer a blessing before the meal. Pretty straightforward and simple. As pastors we have to do things like that from time to time. We may debate within our minds whether to pray according to our own beliefs or to pray a “generic” prayer inclusive of those whose beliefs may differ from ours. We may question the whole idea of praying at a secular event, but mostly we do it because we’re “the pastor.”
Not being one to turn down a free meal catered by an area-renowned barbecue specialist, I agreed to give the invocation. Knowing, generally, the audience, I composed a brief Christian prayer of thankfulness for God’s presence, appreciation for the benefits of high school sports, and a blessing for the food to be served and for those who prepared it. I wrote it all on an index card that fit neatly in my pocket.
Everything went beautifully. If you are a pastor, you know the joy of praying just the right prayer for an occasion. I moved through the serving line hearing words of appreciation from many of the coaches and parents at the banquet. “Nice prayer, Preacher,” always makes us feel good. The food was amazing. The speaker was entertaining. When the time came for the scholarships to be presented, I was proud to live in a state that could produce such high-caliber student athletes.
It was during the presentations when the board chairperson whispered to me, “That was a great invocation. Could you have another prayer at the end?” I nodded my head while thinking, “Oh, crap! I’m out of index cards and I don’t have a pen.” I recalled the advice of a Bible college professor, “A minister of the Gospel should always be ready to pray, preach, or die.” Well, I did have a sermon outline or two in my wallet, and death didn’t seem like such a bad idea right then. I just wasn’t sure about the prayer part. Another general kind of prayer would seem phony. And I didn’t know enough about the honorees to pray specifically for them. So I played the “Quaker card.”
There really isn’t a Quaker card. Okay, I do carry a card signifying that I have ministry gifts that have been recognized by a regional body of Friends, but I don’t actually use it for anything. What I did was fall back on a part of ministry that seems distinctly Quaker, although we don’t own the copyright.
When the scholarships were handed out, and all five boys were duly honored, the board chairperson re-introduced me. I’m sure everyone in the hall was expecting another prayer. It would have been so easy, even though I might have felt a little uncomfortable. A lot of pastors I’ve known would have prayed, said “amen,” and gone home happy. Instead, I told the group that I’d been asked to close the festivities, but I hadn’t been sure how best to do that. Then I remembered the Quaker idea of “holding a person in the Light.” I described it as a way of blessing that person. I said we would all be quiet for a few moments and that I would say the name of each honoree. After each name I would pause, allowing anyone or everyone present to offer their own prayer or blessing or kind thought for that boy. One by one I said the names, paused to enjoy the silent blessings, and concluded with an “Amen.” Afterward, the parents of each of the five boys said nothing could have been more meaningful.
Why did I do that? Where did I come up with the audacity not to pray when everyone expected me to pray? Why could I not have left well enough alone? Because I’m a Friends pastor. Because I believe there is something to the idea that God is present in a gathering like that, and God doesn’t need my eloquence to make it meaningful. In those final banquet moments a whole room full of men and women ministered to five high school football players. I was just there doing what Quakers try to do: get out of the way of the Spirit.
What would you have done?
Was I being weird, or practical? Led by the spirit, or something else entirely?
What do you think? Let’s talk about how we, as pastors or church members or people just interested in spiritual stuff, deal with those little nudges toward something. We Quakers call things like this “leadings.” TV cops call them “hunches” or “gut feelings.”
What do you call them, and how do you handle them?