By Dale Beaver
Special to NNSracing.com
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Dale Beaver is the former Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain serving the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, now on staff at Christian Fellowship Church in Evansville, Ind.)
I've received a lot of questions about the Nashville Superspeedway invocation that was televised over the weekend. In the movie Talladega Nights, the prayer given by Will Ferrell's character before a family meal was very similar to the invocation given by the local pastor there in Nashville.
Particularly troubling to some folks was the time he spent mentioning the sponsors and referencing "his smokin' hot wife." Cameras broke away from him long enough to capture some in the racing community snickering with enjoyment.
A look at Twitter this morning, as well as other news sources, showed the polarizing effect of this event on those in and out of the motorsports community. A long-time acquaintance of mine, motorsports columnist Bob Pockrass, expressed his thoughts about the prayer as simply "bizarre." So what's the big deal?
Let me first share with you that my singular purpose for this article is to talk about prayer, not to sit in judgement upon this pastor. I have no reason to doubt that he is a faithful servant, sincere in his relationship with God. I have felt the pressure, and made my own gaffes, when asked to lead others in prayer.
On one hand, when you stand to pray in front of your local gathering of family and friends, it does not feel quite as nerve-wrenching as when you're standing in front of thousands, under an open sky, with a time-limit and TV cameras breathing down on you. It's a bit daunting to say the least.
And on the other hand, it is an opportunity to do something memorable - famous, even if it is a short-lived fame caused by controversy. I'm not applauding that as a reason to do it, but I confess that I know the temptation.
What are the positives about what happened this weekend? Two things come to mind.
Simply - we're all talking about prayer. Prayer is our communion with God, our conversation with the Creator whereby we listen as much as (if not much less than) we speak. Prayer is that place where we say: "You are God and I am not. I need you."
Some of us may have been reminded by this unorthodox pre-race offering that we need to be praying about the things going on in our own routine, even apparently mundane, lives. God desires relationship with us, and that just feels right.
Second, prayer needs to be real and transparent - alive. If anything, perhaps, this prayer reminded us of the daily disconnection we believe exists between God and man. The audacity of this invocation was entertaining, but also engaging.
We are all asking, maybe for the first time: "Can I talk to God like that? If so, what have I been missing? How do I normally approach God in prayer?"
In Luke 11:1, those who were following Jesus were obviously asking the same questions. We hear their urgency: "Lord, teach us to pray." In verses 2-4 (also in Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus gives them a model for prayer. This is not merely a prayer to be memorized. It is not some magical incantation that goes with a wand. It is a very basic approach to God. It is not a model that demands we go word-for-word like a formula, but a process where we can consider our approach to a holy, loving and merciful God for the purpose of conversation.
Lest we be afraid of controversy in prayer, right away Jesus scandalously addresses God as "Father." To us, it's no big deal. To those who heard him pray this way, it had to be uncomfortable. The terrible and holy God of Israel as"Father"?
Describing God this way, Jesus places us in a comfortable environment for conversation with God. Is that possible? The "Great Intimidator" is also "Dad." Jesus says that God is first and foremost "Father."
I don't know what kind of relationship you had with your father, but Jesus is offering us a relationship with a perfect father. The kind of dad who loves us in spite of ourselves, but also will not permit self-destructive behavior and disobedience. A perfect father balances acceptance and correction.
For God to be only one and not the other would make the title "Father" disingenuous. He's the kind of father that wants us to come over and visit, and yet asks "When was the last time you changed your oil?" He's not referring to the lube in your car, but the condition of your soul.
Everything else in this model prayer of Jesus flows from that initial approach. Give us, because we need. Forgive us, because we have been wrong and done wrongly. Help us forgive others, because it impossible to do this without help. Protect us, because the temptations to live opposed to God are strong. Deliver us, because we wander into places that trap us with intent to harm. Come, because we so desire the world to be made right.
This is the approach we should take with every prayer. Before we take our first step into the presence of our Creator, I submit that this model prayer should be considered. I am not here to ascertain the motives which move any person to prayer.
Was the Nashville pre-race prayer for entertainment purposes,or just unique? As many maintained today, the Nashville prayer was entertaining and irritating at the same time. As we look at the model Jesus sets before us, prayer can be controversial to some, and therefore irritating.
We could ask: "Would this guy pray like this by himself?" Certainly a transparent heart is called for when we talk to the God who knows our hearts better than we do.
But what about in leading others in prayer, which (like it or not) is what we do when we take a microphone and pray in front of people? We use inclusive language that is both personal and corporate. That kind of prayer best not be boring but engaging, and it dare not be merely entertaining. Therein lies the tension for those who pray an invocation. In Luke 20:47, Jesus strongly rebukes those who pray just to be noticed.
As a race-car driver considers his approach to every turn, we must surely consider our approach to God before we pray. God's desire is that we come to him, but we must conclude that as we do so, even as coming to our father, we address him with great confidence and unique respect. In every culture (even the racing sub-culture) there is a line between relevance and farce which, in prayer, just does not fit.