A number of years ago, I was part of a Toastmasters group here in London, Ontario. I learned a lot of valuable skills—most importantly, how to speak in public (and realizing that, yes, anybody can do it if they’re willing to work at it). But one of the things that always made me uncomfortable was opening the meeting with a word of prayer.
This isn’t because I hate prayer or anything like that (clearly, I don’t). But Toastmasters is a non-religious group, welcoming members from every conceivable background. So they always want to be as inclusive and non-judgmental as possible with their meetings (which, to be fair, is something admirable). And if you were going to pray at the opening, it was to be open—kind of like recognizing the “god of your understanding” of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But I couldn’t do it.
Sometimes when I’d open a meeting, because I was a bit more of a rabble rouser than I am now (maybe), I’d open with an inspirational line that would surprise people. Like Proverbs 12:1, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but one who hates correction is stupid “(HCSB). And then I would take my seat.
Because I’m a jerk.
But if I were going to pray, it would be a real prayer. It had to be. Because I don’t pray to a generic, nondescript god. I can’t pray like a Unitarian. I pray to the triune God—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I pray to Jesus, not the Jesus of our own understanding, but the one through whom and for whom all things were made. And if I’m not praying to this God—the true God—then I’m just performing some sort of bizarre civic function.
But prayer is anything but. When Christians pray, we don’t pray generically as though God didn’t really exist. We pray because we know—or, rather, are known by—the maker of the heavens and the earth. We pray because we are part of his family. So when we pray “in Jesus’ name,” it’s helpful to remember that this isn’t some sort of silly tag-on. It is not, as Russell Moore points out in Onward, the same as including “the word ‘just’ before every request or to ‘lead, guide, and direct us’ or ‘bless the gift and the giver.'” It isn’t mere religious language because we “recognize that ‘there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5). We can come before God only because we share the Spirit of Christ through whom we cry ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15)” (176 [ARC]).
Though many people—including people in my old Toastmasters group—offer inspirational words to an unknown God, this should not be said of us. We can speak to the God we do know, in recognition of the one who gives us access to God—and we can make what (or rather him who is) unknown known in the process.