Why a National Day of Prayer?

            Annually, by law, our nation observes a National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May. So, once again, millions of Americans will honor that law by uniting in prayer this Thursday, May 7. As usual, there will not be a single observance somewhere but hundreds of gatherings at different times of the day in every state of the union.

            It would not be unreasonable to ask why such a day is fixed on our calendars. Should we not pray every day for our country? Why did congress pass such a law? Is not prayer more a personal matter that something to be legislated?

A bit of research reveals that even before the colonies declared their independence from England, leaders of the colonists in several states proclaimed a day for prayer and thanksgiving, in the fall, and a day for prayer and fasting in the spring or summer.

With some exceptions, the presidents of our nation have always called upon our citizens to turn to God in prayer, and to do so on certain days of the year. Thomas Jefferson was one of those exceptions. Jefferson did not follow the example of George Washington and John Adams by proclaiming a day of prayer; he felt prayer was a personal matter and that the state should not be involved.

            Harry S. Truman in 1952 signed the bill establishing a National Day of Prayer and requiring each subsequent president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer at a date of his choice. Then, in 1988, Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to the law specifying that the National Day of Prayer would be held on the first Thursday of May each year.

Reagan helped clarify the purpose of the day when he declared, "From General Washington's struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.”

I first participated in a National Day of Prayer observance as a pastor while serving in Pensacola, Florida, in 1989. About a hundred people gathered at noon on the courthouse steps as several pastors and civic leaders offered prayers and invited the people to pray together. I felt inspired by the unusual nature of the occasion; it was first time I had gathered to pray with people of many different religions, different races, rich and poor, influential and ordinary citizens – all fellow Americans.

While Easter and Christmas are Christian observances, the National Day of Prayer is more inclusive, a day designed for “adherents of all great religions” to unite in prayer. When congressional leaders established this event, they expressed the hope that the observance might “one day bring renewed respect for God to all the peoples of the world.

I have fond memories of gathering in front of the courthouse with fellow citizens in Opelika during National Day of Prayer observances. It always felt good to put aside our political, ethnic and religious differences and come together as fellow citizens calling upon God to continue guarding, guiding and blessing America. The feeling is reminiscent of the way the soul is stirred when one sings “God Bless America” with fellow citizens at community events.

The theme of this year’s National Day of Prayer is “Pray God’s Glory Across the Earth.” The phrase is taken from an oft-quoted verse in the Book of Habakkuk – “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Because of the need to stay at home a while longer, many of us will not be able to gather publicly with other citizens on this first Thursday in May. But we can participate by watching one or more observances online or on television. If I were speaking or praying in such a gathering Thursday, I would call attention to the words, “will be filled” in the prophetic words of the prophet. There is no hesitancy, no doubt but absolute confidence that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” Habakkuk is saying the Lord’s goals for the world will happen; his purposes will be fulfilled. God’s will shall not be thwarted!

Then I would go to Jesus, by way of Saint Paul. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, 2:6, Paul uses Habakkuk’s phrase when he writes, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

Here Paul gives us the answer as to how Habakkuk’s prophecy will be fulfilled. It will happen as God’s people help all the people of the earth to become aware that the fullness of God’s glory is found “in the face of Christ.” Christians have a mission – to help people “see” God the Father in the face of our Lord Jesus! In Christ’s own words, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

How may Christians persuade people to believe this? By loving people, all people, those near and far away. People cannot be driven into the Kingdom; they can be loved into it.

How is love expressed? Not so much by words as by actions. Actions to defend the defenseless and provide justice for the poor. Actions that provide food, clothes, shelter and jobs for the poor. Actions that demand equal rights for all citizens regardless of their race. Actions that reveal genuine love and respect for “the least of our brothers and sisters.” Actions by leaders whose laws reflect their agreement with the Prophet Amos that justice needs to “roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”!

The observance of the 2020 National Day of Prayer Thursday will be a good time for Christians to pray that God will hear our prayers, heal our nation and help us make known to all the earth’s people that the awareness of the glory of God has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.

God bless America! + + +