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Great Falls and the Great Prayer Controversy
Please turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 13-14.
13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
[ The following summary of the events at Great Falls was derived mostly from the US Court Appeals decision found at http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/032069.P.pdf]
I titled this sermon, “In his Name.” Perhaps a better title would be “Great Fall and the Great Prayer Controversy.” Great Falls SC is a little town in Chester County with a population of slightly over 2,000. In the past, it was known mostly for its fishing and hunting, but for the last five years Great Falls have been enmeshed in controversy.
Darla Kaye Wynne, a citizen of Great Falls, is a self-proclaimed witch. That is, she is a follower of the Wiccan faith (which is a recently invented New Age version of witchcraft). Darla Wynne regularly attended Great Falls Town Council meetings, and at a Council meeting in late 2000, she objected to the Town Council’s practice of referring to Jesus Christ in its prayers. Mayor Starnes responded to the effect that : “This is the way we’ve always done things, and we’re not going to change.”
Prior to the next Council meeting in February 2001, Council Member Barbara Hilton posted a message on the Town’s website, urging the town’s citizens to call council members with opinions on this subject. Subsequently, several Christian ministers wrote letters on behalf of their church members expressing support for continuance of a Christian prayer at Council meetings. Numerous citizens signed a petition urging the Council to "not stop praying to our God in heaven." At the February meeting, ministers and others presented letters and petitions to the Town Council. That meeting was packed out. Usually Great Falls town meetings have only half a dozen spectators. At that meeting, about a hundred citizens showed up.
On August 20, 2001, Wynne filed suit. The complaint alleged that the Town Council’s consistent practice of including a "Christian prayer ritual" violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Wynne sought an injunction ordering the Council to "cease and desist forthwith from holding any Christian prayers."
On July 11, 2003, there was a trial, which Wynne eventually won. The court permanently enjoined the Town Council "from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Town Council meetings."
Since then the town council with the overwhelming support of the citizens of Great Falls has appealed the case. They have lost every appeal. In July 2004, a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower judge's decision against the town and said that the town of Great Falls should pay Wynne’s legal expenses to the tune of about $70,000. That is quite a chunk of money for a town that small. The Supreme Court has refused to hear the case so that is where it stands now.
The ruling by the Federal Fourth Judicial Circuit effects not just Great Falls but several Southern states, including South Carolina. The ACLU recently sent letters to cities in Oconee and Anderson counties threatening lawsuits unless those cities stop using the name of Jesus in prayers before meetings.
Jesus is Lord
Now none of this is surprising. Given the way the Supreme Court has been ruling for the last 20 or 30 years, everyone who is familiar with this issue expected this outcome. The town of Great Falls was ill-advised to spend so much time and money on what was a lost cause from day one. But realize that as it stands now, after the decision by the federal court, it is illegal in South Carolina to offer Christian prayers at any city, county, or state meeting.
This includes prayers that do not specifically state the name of Jesus but are identified with Christianity. For example, the Lord’s Prayer does not use the name of Jesus, but it is universally recognized as the prayer of Jesus; It is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples; therefore, it also is prohibited.
Now, I do not know what the York city council, the county council, or the school board, are going to do about this. I suppose that they have been advised by attorneys about the legal ramifications of this case. I certainly do not see any point in following the example of Great Falls. That is over, that is done with.
But the question that arises is this: Given these kinds of prohibitions on prayer at public meetings, can a Christian pray at such meetings at all? This is a question that effects you. If you are present a public meeting, and they ask you to pray, but they say, “We don’t want you mentioning Jesus in any way, shape, or form. You can pray, just don’t bring up that name.” What do you say?
I would have to say, Thanks but no thanks. I could not pray under such circumstances. I would rather have a moment of silence in which we each pray the way we want. Anything would be better than offering some kind of watered-down, politically correct, pitiful excuse for a prayer.
Part of the problem is that non-Christians do not understand how Christian feel about Jesus. For some time, I have been hearing from people who study the condition of the church that the greatest mission field right now is not in Africa, not in Asia. It is in the United States. Most Americans have a poor understanding of what church is about.
The church is about Jesus. Christianity is about Jesus. The earliest Christian creed is three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is lord of life and death.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that one question I am frequently asked as a minister is: “What happens to me when I die?” If you have believed on Jesus, when you die, you go where Jesus is. You go immediately to heaven. When we die, we are not put into a grave. All that we bury is the empty husk. Our soul goes on to be with Jesus in the New Jerusalem.
That is for believers in Jesus. Nonbelievers do not go to the New Jerusalem. They don’t to go there, because that is where Jesus is and they don’t want to be where Jesus is. They go to the other place, they go to hell, by their own choice.
But Believers enjoy life in Christ, forever. I John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” John asks, How can you be sure that you have eternal life? His answer is: Believe in the name.
Don’t just say the name. The name of Jesus is not some kind of magical formula that we can say like “Abracadabra,” and, presto, we are saved. But if we believe in Jesus so that Jesus is the heart and center of our life we can be sure that we are indeed saved from death and the devil. Thus, our fate after death hinges on Jesus.
More than that. Jesus is with us now to help us to live now. Last Sabbath, we celebrated World-Wide Communion Sabbath, and I was talking about how Teilhard de Chardin found Christ not only in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but in everything around us. Christ is the blazing spirit that molds every living thing. Christ is found in the heart of the world as the innermost depth of everything..
Christ empowers our lives every day. He loves us and cares for us. Christ makes all things possible, whereas to live without Christ makes everything impossible.
Praying in the Name
That is what Jesus means to a believer, and it is obvious then that Jesus is the motivating power of all prayer. Christ taught his disciples by word and deed to be much in prayer. In John 16:23 we have a promise about our prayers, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you.” Jesus says, I am telling you the truth, you can depend on this: Your prayers will be answered. Specifically he says, whatever petitions you bring to the Father “in my name” will be answered. He said the same thing in Chapter 14:13, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” and again 14:14: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
That is as great a promise as you will find anywhere. Prayers in the name are answered. But what does it mean to pray in the name of Christ?
It means that we come to God through Christ. We depend entirely on Jesus for any kind of relationship with God. To ask in Christ’s name means that we are centered on Christ so that he is the focus of our lives and we want what he wants. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Thy will be done.” If we pray in Christ’s name, the implication of all our prayers is “Thy will be done.”
People sometimes ask me something like this, they say, “I know that it is trivial, and maybe trifling, but can I pray about, and then they will mention some particular concern. I had a lady ask me once if it was all right to pray for her cats.
On Wednesday night at Bible Study, we were talking about school lunches. When I was in High School, we did not have any choices as to lunch menu. You went down the line with your tray, and they put what was being served on the tray, and you ate it or went hungry. I remember one day when we had liver. I was sitting at the table with some friends, and I don’t know how the subject came up but prayer was mentioned, and one of my friends immediately said, “Can I pray that we will never have liver again?”
Now I suspect he was not serious but that raises a good question. Can we pray for anything, no matter how small or trivial? Yes. You can pray for whatever concerns you. It might seem unimportant to someone else; that does not matter. If it is important to you, you can pray about it.
But understand that when you pray in the name of Jesus, you are praying, “thy will be done.” I look at prayer as if I am a writer and God is the editor. I can “write” anything I want in prayer. That is the great privilege of prayer, I can pray for anything, but I assume that God is going to edit my prayers in whatever way he wants. God is going to do what he wants with my prayers. Thus, I can pray confidently knowing that God is going to give the best answer to my prayer, even if the answer is not what I want or expect. That is praying in the name.
Praying in the name is never just adding on a few words at the end of a prayer. It is a thing of the heart, not of the spoken word. Every Christian prayer does not have to end with the words “in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” I certainly do not pray that way. The Lord knows my heart. The Lord knows that I only pray in and through the name even if I don’t spell it out every time.
To tell you the truth here, I would not be all wrought up about this issue, if the court had not said that I could not do it. I hear prayers all the time, and if a person does not say, “in that name,” I am not offended because if that person is a Christian, she is still praying in that name whether she uses those specific words or not. Our prayer life arises out of our life in Christ. That is the point. But when the court says you cannot pray in that name, that is offensive to a Christian.
Now I can try to justify the court. The court did not want anyone to be offended by having to listen to Christian prayers. The court apparently does not mind offending Christians, but as I said earlier, I do not think the court even realizes that its action is offensive. At Great Falls, the court seemed to say to Christians, “You can change your prayers a little bit, and you can still pray. Just drop this name, and everybody will be happy.”
But we cannot. That is the whole point of Christianity. Jesus is the whole point of Christianity. If you take Jesus out, we have no religion. We have no contact with God, we have unable to pray at all.
My original question was: Can a Christian pray when the name is prohibited. No. We have no prayers without Jesus.
So what are we going to do about this situation? Legally, there may be nothing we can do. I would not look to the courts for any help on this matter. Jesus said, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Christian prayer is probably not something that we can render unto Caesar. The US government does not want our prayers.
This is just one more manifestation of the government’s hostility to Christianity. We need to drop the rhetoric about this being a Christian nation. The government itself denies that. We live in a nation that is officially opposed to the name of Christ.
So what do we do? We pray where we can. We can still pray in church or at home, in our cars, in many other places. Maybe the real lesson of the Great Falls Prayer Controversy is to teach us to appreciate the opportunities we still have for prayer, for real prayer, for prayer in the name. Seize those opportunities. Continue to pray in that name. amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/21/05