Most Americans seem to be a bit confused, and some even embarrassed, when they see prayers in public. As for our family, we always pray before meals, a life-long habit in private and in public, to thank the Lord for all His blessings. I don’t feel embarrassed at all; and I live in a free country, which professes freedom of faith choices. And, contrary to what some might think, I have noticed that there are still a number of occasions where public prayer seems to be well received.
On US national TV, the excellent drama series Blue Bloods routinely shows the New York police family at the center of the story having dinner around the table. Dinner is always preceded by the family praying together (“saying grace”), initiated by the family head, the Police Commissioner of New York City. And the story often even revolves around their common faith and faith struggles, depicted quite realistically.
At the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, a top hospital in the USA, I was initially surprised that major medical staff business meetings began with a traditional prayer from the chaplain, the pastor of the Hospital. And then I discovered that there were seven Hospital chaplains. In cases of spiritual needs for families, it was common to call on chaplains to come and pray with the family.
Few actually know that our hospital is technically an Episcopal hospital, and has a strong Episcopal history and tradition. And we often forget that in US history, many or even most hospitals were begun by Christian churches, so we really should not be surprised when faith and prayer come up in hospitals. But we are surprised, since most people have somehow repressed that piece of information.
At our Children’s Hospital there is a beautiful national award-winning chapel for prayers, which staff and families can use. Families can also sign in publicly when they use it, so we know that the facility is quite effectively used. Furthermore, the chapel is specifically set up for three major religions, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish, all treated respectfully.
This is quite a surprise to visitors from overseas, especially from so-called atheistic countries, to see that accommodation is seriously made for spiritual and faith issues. During my active years at the hospital, I particularly liked to bring foreign visitors to the chapel, where they would take many pictures of this “novelty”. One of the visiting hospital administrators from an atheistic background country even suggested that they could build a similar chapel or something like that back home!
In reality, most US hospitals retain the tradition of chapels for personal prayers and small religious services. When people visit hospitals, most just take it for granted to expect strong traditions of compassionate and excellent health care, but they might forget that these also clearly derive from their strong Christian roots and values. These values, together with prayers for the sick, were not only the founding principles of US hospitals, even the first hospitals in most countries in the world were set up initially by Christian groups. In turn they were clearly inspired by the extensive eye-witness records of Jesus the compassionate and excellent Healer thousands of years earlier.
Our Children’s Hospital is considered one of the top two or three children’s hospitals in the country, especially for cutting-edge research. We host Grand Rounds weekly, a clinical meeting where most faculty physicians and trainees attend as part of the training program of physicians from all over the world, and which is included on the hospital’s website. I remember well a Grand Rounds formal presentation on the role of prayer and faith in the lives of patients. It was practical and informative, a good reminder of the holistic approach, including spirituality that we should have in best medical and health care.
The Western modern hesitation regarding public prayers is actually in stark contrast to most other countries, in which prayer is usually practiced openly by common people and government. In Islamic countries, for example, the call to prayers to God is heard publicly and loudly five times a day. In addition to personal prayers before and after meals!
When the call to prayers is made, commonly people stop their cars right in the middle of the road, to come out of their cars and pray on a prayer mat that they have been carrying. All traffic stops, and the whole city can grind to a halt. And at medical conferences I have attended in Islamic countries, or countries with a significant Islamic population, specific break times are clearly set aside by the organizers, for Islamic prayers of the attendees.
My wife and I were on a tour bus in Germany. While the bus was on an expressway, an Islamic Pakistani man on the bus stood up and requested the driver to stop. The bus driver asked why, and the man explained that this was the time of prayer, and it was necessary to stop the bus. The driver stopped the bus by the side of the expressway, the gentleman rolled out his prayer rug, laid it by the side of the bus, and completed his prayers. He then returned, with no fuss, to a bus full of tourists who seemed impressed I think by his show of faith.
I have been pleasantly surprised by responses from Islamic friends when I asked at meals whether we could pray together. It has always been a clear yes. For Jewish friends, Catholics, Protestants, basically for anyone that I have asked. Even Communist Party leaders in China when we sat down for meals on a one to one basis. Maybe the problem about awkwardness with public prayers in the USA is that many people are skeptical and suspect that US believers don’t seem serious about their faith. It’s plausible that people might actually respect believers when we seriously follow our faith publicly.
One day a scholar from China who had joined me numerous times in public prayers, especially before meals, introduced me to an Islamic doctor from the Middle East. She felt we were both serious about faith issues and should get together. Indeed, the Islamic doctor and I had a great chat, including about the role of public prayers. After the chat, he confided to the China scholar that I was likely a “secret believer” in Islam! The word “Islam” does mean submission to God, of course. And one indicator of submission is indeed public prayers.
Over the years I have attended many banquets in China. Often the gathering included several tables of scholars who had been to Cincinnati. I have been impressed that some doctor might stand up at the beginning of the evening before the dinner, and officially request that “Uncle Reggie, would you like to give the Grace?”
我后来在中国参加了很多的宴会。通常这些聚会有几桌来过辛辛那提的学者们。让我非常印象深刻的是一些医生在晚宴开始之前会站起来，正式地要求“Uncle Reggie ，你可以带我们祷告吗？”
This at first was a great surprise to me, especially when the president, or other leaders of the hospital were attending. I imagined that, in deference to Uncle Reggie, they felt that they should ask for my blessing upon the dinner. After all, they had witnessed it often in Cincinnati. This blessing happened particularly if I was the guest of honor. It shouldn’t hurt to be blessed by the official guest, I suppose. Actually, it all seemed “quite natural”, but since I could not peek, I could only imagine all the leaders bowing their heads at Grace!
这个请求一开始让我很惊讶，特别是当院长，或是其他医院领导参加的时候。我猜是，因着顺从Uncle Reggie 他们感到他们应该在饭前寻求我的祝福。毕竟，他们在辛辛那提已经见证了很多次。这个祝福特别是在我作为一位特邀嘉宾的时候会发生。我假设，被官方嘉宾祝福没有坏处吧。确实，一切都看起来“很正常”，但是因为我不能偷看，我只能想象领导们在祷告时有低头！
It turns out that, in reality, we can literally pray at all kinds of times. It really depends on how seriously we take the issue, since the Lord is always available! For example, someone might mention a problem to me to remember in prayers, and I might normally say, “I’ll remember to pray about that.” But when I go home, I might forget, which is pretty sad. So the best thing I have discovered I could do is to stop right then and there, and say, “Can we pray about it now?”
It could be in the middle of the street, at the door of the church, in the parking lot, or somewhere we might not normally think of stopping and praying, but actually why not? When I do that, of course I have no problem about later forgetting to pray on this request.
I would be communicating clearly that I’m serious, and we get to pray to God together directly and immediately. Which also becomes a great testimony and encouragement to the person being prayed for, myself, and probably others who might witness this. Bring back the power, efficiency and immediacy of prayer!
“May your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” is part of the most wonderful prayer in the world, and by our prayers, we help bring Heaven right down to earth, right away. A prayer that 2 billion people in the world should know by heart, in any language.