Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Prayer at Cranston West

When you come before God, find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.

Matthew 6:6 (The Message)

That verse from the Sermon on the Mount is part of the traditional Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday and it is a good commentary the prayer controversy in Cranston.

Last night the Cranston School Committee voted 4-3 to keep the prayer on the wall of the auditorium of Cranston West High School. Most of the people in the large crowd attending the meeting applauded the decision. They called on Committee members to “do the right thing.” And urged them, “not to ruin our way of life.”

This is the prayer that has been on the wall for almost fifty years:

"Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

The prayer seems harmless enough. But it should come down.

As generic prayers go, it is better than most. And it is a credit to the students who originally wrote it. But it should not be on the wall of the auditorium.

I know this in part because Christopher Young and Karen Russo want it to stay, and believe that everyone who disagrees with them will suffer eternal damnation. I trust Rhode Island’s favorite fun couple to point out the wrong side of almost every issue, though I am touched by their concern (and it is sincere) for saving souls.

For me, this is not primarily about the constitutional issue of separation of Church and State. I will let others argue about that.

This is about how Christians should interact with the world. We should be open and tolerant and accepting of others who do not share our faith. We don’t need the school committee or the town or the state to put a prayer on the wall of the high school. We need prayer in our hearts.

We need to spend time before God. We need to “just be there as simply and honestly as we can manage.” We need to “let the focus shift from us to God.” We need to “begin to sense God’s grace.”

Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago for many years, often commented on the irony of “Christians” who seldom bothered to say grace at home complaining bitterly about the lack of prayer in public schools. Forcing prayer on children and youth in school isn’t about faith; it’s about control and conformity.

Jessica Ahlquist, a sophomore from Cranston West, talked about how she felt that as an atheist she was being discriminated against. She said that it was wrong “for a majority to say that you can take away a minority right.” She said it was un-American.

It’s also un-Christian.

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