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Guidelines for Public Prayer
Exposition and Examples
see also City Council Prayers

copyright 1999, 2000, 2006 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS

A version of this essay with photos was published in 
The Interfaith Observer 
2013 October.


How can we honor diversity at moments of public reverence? While it is easy to enjoy friends of many religions in our neighborhoods and workplaces, how can we embrace people of different faiths when we are asked to offer an invocation or blessing at a public event, or when we select someone to offer  such remarks?  Prayers at public gatherings are common. Professional associations, volunteer agencies, service clubs, and legislative bodies often begin an event or meal with public prayer. As membership becomes more diverse, we may need to enlarge our understanding of how to be inclusive and effective.

  A. Why pray in public?
  B. Three ways of offering respect
  C. Guidelines for inclusive prayer
  D. Three types of gatherings
  E. Terms of address (in addition to "God")
  F. Your experience

A. Why pray in public?

      Prayer helps us to identify our motives, our pains, our cravings, and joys. As we come to know ourselves, we are changed beyond selfishness into harmony with those Presences from which we spring and to which we return. Prayer is not a request to shape the future to our desires, but a way for us to offer ourselves to the Larger Process. Martin Luther said that we pray not to instruct God but rather to instruct ourselves. Public prayer requires understanding the group on whose behalf one prays, and finding the words in which all can join in spirit.
     However, in our time, public prayer has been so abused to make political statements and assert the primacy of one faith over others who may not share religious sentiments that the instruction of Jesus becomes a relevant warning against hypocrisy: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray . . . in secret.” [Matthew 6:6]

B. Three ways of offering respect

   We don’t want to offend those of different faiths by offering invocations or blessings that exclude them, but ways of embracing everyone are not always obvious. Here are three methods seem to recognize diversity.

(1)  No prayers
     The first is to eliminate prayers altogether. While no one is offended, neither is anyone blessed.

(2)  Traditional prayers
     Those who pray in the style and tradition of their own faiths provide a personal focus and authenticity to the occasion. But for this to work, the group must understand that the prayer is an idiomatic act of devotion and no one is expected to agree with or fully join in the specific manner or language being used on any particular occasion.
       Over time, organizations using prayers from many traditions gain better understanding of the diverse ways the Infinite can be invoked.
    However, members of the group inviting persons from various backgrounds need to practice the discipline of entering into the spirit of the prayer or meditation regardless of unfamiliar words, a strange language, or even concepts with which the members might personally disagree. Even if our own religious perspective is vastly different, we recognize that prayer is not a test of what we believe but rather an act of good will.
     In Kansas City, representatives of American Indian, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Sufi, Taoist, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, and Zoroastrian traditions are available.

(3)  Inclusive prayers
     While traditional prayers may require the group to stretch, inclusive prayers require the person offering the prayer to stretch, reaching for language large enough to include everyone in the group. Because group members want to join in the prayer and not be spectators of someone else’s prayer, terms specific to any one faith are avoided. The prayer is nonetheless genuine. Its authenticity arises from the confluence of many traditions, not just one.
     Where diversity is desired but not the primary purpose of the group, the inclusive method offers a kind of safety to visitors that does not require knowing about an on-going series of prayers from different traditions.

C. Guidelines for inclusive prayer

    How does one offer an inclusive prayer? Here are some suggestions and observations.
   1. Prayer in a public setting need not advocate personal beliefs. The leader should voice the aspirations of all present. By modeling respect for one another, a leader’s non-sectarian religious utterance can place the particular occasion in the largest spiritual context.
   2. Some situations may allow an inspirational reading instead of a prayer. A poem like “I thank You God for most this amazing” by e. e. cummings may be effective.
   3. Using the word God may exclude Buddhists, atheists, and others. Some consider terms like Lord patriarchal and too culture-bound to evoke a broad understanding of the sacred. Instead, a poetic phrase may satisfy many people. For example, “Spirit of Love” can be meaningful both to a Christian as a way of naming God, and to an atheist as a secular personification.
   4. If this phrase is followed by a brief description, the group can more easily focus on the special dimension of the sacred being addressed. For example, in dedicating a new city hall, I opened with the phrase, “O Spirit of Generations,” followed by “who gives us a heritage of freedom and a city of enormous talent...” For a law school commencement, I began with “Sacred vision of Justice,” followed by “revealed imperfectly in human law...”
   5. A statement of gratitude is always appropriate.
   6. Petitions may follow, but remember Emerson said, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious.”
   7. Some like to close public prayers with “Peace” or “So let it be.”

THE COLLECT FORM — This sequence of movements in a prayer comprise the pattern called the collect, pronounced CALL-ikt). This form of prayer originally collected the needs of a congregation. Its five parts can be used to collect the aspirations of any group before Infinite Mystery. Through such prayer, we name our longings and sanctify them by yielding them to the Larger Process. The collect moves (1) by addressing the Infinite in language that fits the occasion, (2) naming attributes especially beheld at the time, (3) yearning in as large a context as possible, (4) closing, and (5) concluding punctuation, such as “Amen,” a way of saying, “I really mean this.” Examples below employ all or part of this pattern.

D. Three types of gatherings

    The role and nature of prayer needs to fit the purpose of the gathering and those who are participating in it.

    1. Civil functions.--  A naturalization ceremony, a graduation at a public university, and a prayer before a legislative body require the greatest care to protect the American tradition of religious liberty, respecting each individual’s conscience. Children should be protected from any situation which might give the appearance of governmental sponsorship of prayer.

2. Social and civic occasions.-- Groups based in neither government nor religion, such as a professional association, a volunteer agency, or a service club, may have customary practices that may need to become more inclusive as membership becomes more diverse.

3. Religious meetings.-- An organization or event that explicitly embraces several faiths has two clear options. (1) It may invite representatives of several traditions to pray in the manner of their own faiths. (2) But if  only one person prays, say, for a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the prayer may either (2a) weave together elements of the several faiths — “We give thanks for teachers in our several traditions, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad” —  or (2b) the prayer may use only those elements common to those faiths — “God, who brings us this day . . . .” If non-theistic Buddhists are added, such an invocation would not be appropriate.

E. Terms of address (in addition to "God")

     Founders of our nation often used expressions such as Providence, Supreme Giver, Great Author of every public and private good, Invisible Hand, benign Parent of the Human Race, Patron of Order, Fountain of Justice, the Almighty, Creator, Supreme Judge, Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe, Heaven, and so forth. It is of interest that the expression "God" does not appear in a presidential inaugural address until 1821, although "Nature's God" appears in the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

 The Infinite can be named many ways, in different situations:   - God   - Infinite Energy   - Spirit of Love  - Source of all   - All-encompassing Spirit   - Spirit of ongoing creation   - Universal Spirit   - Spirit of Ages and Generations   - Creator of this day and of all times and places   - Power of Nature, Power of Self, Power of History   - O True Life   - Way of the Universe   - Thou One which art Many   - Eternal Presences   - Sacred Powers   - Creative Void   - Eternal Spirit of Possibility  - You who are called by many names in many tongues in many lands: God, Sat Nam, Tao, Wakan, Brahman, Adonai, Dharmadhatu, Allah, kami . . . .

F. Your experience

    Please send us your ideas for the ongoing revision of this brochure, and the readings, meditations, and prayers you have found or written for specific occasions so we can add them to our collection to share with those who ask us for ideas.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

US Supreme Court Opinions 
2014 May 5

K Stewart column

NYTimes Editorial


Examples of Public Prayer

1. Kansas House of Representatives 2000 March 23

    This chamber had been politicized by a chaplain who insisted on ending his prayers “in Jesus name” even though non-Christian elected members of the legislature objected. He prayed that Kansas be a “theocracy, not a democracy.” Guest chaplains had used prayer to advance partisan or particular religious causes, such as positions on abortion just before the legislature was to vote on such matters. The atmosphere for genuine prayer was problematic: how both to recognize the situation and to avoid further divisive appeals — within 90 seconds?

Infinite and Ultimate Mystery,
     The Citizens of Kansas call you by many names — God, Yahweh, Wankantaka, Allah, Brahman, Goddess, Sat Nam, Tao, Creative Interchange, Void, Ahura Mazda, Ground of Being — these names and others  planted and transplanted here, in Kansas soil, the great traditions of the world joined, now growing in our own garden.

We are joined as a sunflower is joined with the plains
     while it reaches upward beyond itself.
We are joined as the rivers and streams of Kansas are
     joined as they travel to the oceans of the planet.
We are joined as the eagle is joined with the sky.

So are we joined in this chamber with the citizens on whose behalf we hold offices of trust, and joined with past and future as we live together honoring you as the Eternal Spirit of Service.

You, who from ancient times has joined us in shapes like covenant, compact, and constitution as means by which we may join to co-create a humane, educated, and prosperous society, — You, Spirit of Generations, bless all those here and everywhere serving the public weal in many ways;

On this new day, accept us anew as we join again with the calls to stewardship, liberty, justice, righteousness and love.

2. Thanksgiving Day Grace  1995 November 23
     prepared at the request of The Kansas City Star.

Spirit of Generations,
who gathers us at this Thanksgiving table,
we break bread together at this festive meal.
     The sun and soil have been changed into the bread we eat, and then the bread becomes our bodies.
     So the toil of our forebears  has grown for us the liberty we enjoy,  to become in us the mystery of love.
     May such bread as we share satisfy every hunger.
     May the freedom we cherish be purified among us and reach every land.
     May love grace those at every table, and those who have no table.
     Bless this hour of thanksgiving, and may its harvest be lives of service.

3. Insurance Industry Invocation 1994  November 11
     Fragment from CPCU All-Industry Day prayer

Spirit of Generations who has made us the gift of life,
and given us insight and power to assist others
to manage risks under variable skies  (sunshine and hail),
we gather this day, in a 46-year tradition
to rejoice in friendship and collegial support . . . .
to renew commitment to high principles of service,
to honor the 1994 class of new designees,
to salute one another as distinguished leaders,
to protect the industry and the consumer against
    those who would exploit the public’s need,
to explore new paths of providing security,
to enhance a profession of growing complexity
    and importance, through continuing education, and to uphold high ethical standards from our various roles
in the interconnected network of abundance.
    Thus we pray, to become the best possible stewards of the gift of life. So may it be.

4. Mayor’s UN Day Dinner Invocation 1985 October 24

Who moves the universe into awareness of  itself, united in many bodies,
Who four billion years ago brought the earth into being,
Who four million years ago walked
     in our two-footed ancestors using rocks for tools,
Who four thousand years ago became a law code
    written in stone for human groups,
Who four hundred years ago dispelled
     the flat vision of a flat earth
     with the exploration of the New World,
Who forty years ago this day united nations in the
    quest for world justice, equity, and peace:
we gather this night to give thanks that in the
    darkness of wars, lawlessness, terrorism,
    exploitation and oppression, famine, disease,
    threatened environments, nuclear arsenals, and
    religious strife, the torch of hope lit forty years
    ago still burns;
we give thanks that beyond the torch in the night,
an awareness now is dawning,
an understanding is emerging,
that as individuals and as nations,
we are not separate, but interdependent,
that our brothers’ and sisters’ problems are our own,
that the earth and sky are our father and mother,
that dialog and adjudication can replace force and
we give thanks that even in our failures,
     a world of nations united in name
     makes possible for the world's peoples
     to work to unite it in reality.
Who moves the universe into awareness of itself,
     united in many bodies,
we ask for the joy to enlarge and bequeath this
    unfolding awareness to future generations,
who are your children,

5. Prologue for Judicial Installation 1999 December 10

     Modifying the custom of a prayer at the beginning of the ceremony for the installation of a Magistrate Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, David J Waxse requested remarks that would survey the meaning of law and justice in the religions of the world. How could the five minutes allotted function liturgically as a prayer but not be addressed as a prayer to a Deity, to have a sense of the sacred within the constraints of the secular?

Judge Waxse, other honorable members of the court,
        distinguished civic leaders and guests:
The vision of Justice, revealed imperfectly in human law, has been both a secular and a sacred value nurtured across the ages by religious law-givers and religious law-breakers.
     Hammurabi received his law code from the sun god Shamesh, a theme echoed in the story of Moses receiving the Decalogue on Mt Sinai. Both systems say that the whim of the powerful cannot be law, that law is rooted in something that transcends the instant case.
     In Jewish and Muslim life, the observance of law is in itself an act of faith. These religions make the welfare of the society and disposition of disputes so important that the question of how humans relate to each other becomes an ultimate religious practice, for to damage the community is to break the covenant with the divine.
     The ancient Greeks hypostisized Judgment, Custom, and even Apportionment of Loss as gods on Olympus. In ancient Roman law, the priests, the pontiffs, developed elaborate formal rituals which became the legal procedures of proof.
     In pre-modern Hindu India, it was impossible to distinguish law from religion – one word is used for both. Dharma is a complex notion measuring one’s duty uniquely for each person within a set of social expectations. Just as we demand more of a 25-year old person than a 5-year old, the many distinctions of dharma brought spiritual sensibility to all arenas of life. Even in this late century, it was the lawyer, Mohandas K Gandhi, who (violating British constraints and was jailed) became the most renowned and potent religious figure of the time.
     In Confucian and Taoist China, a violation of li, social convention, upset the basic spiritual balance of the cosmos. The penal system’s purpose was to restore natural equilibrium.
     The Christian West has evolved largely from Roman law, as the Latin terms familiar to you suggest. By late medieval times, the law was imbued with a specifically Christian mission and the idea of Natural Law also grew. Reformers developed new conceptions of law and political theory. English common law, for example, was justified not by theological consistency with Rome but by the fiction of historical ecclesiastical continuity, expressed in the doctrine of precedent.
     The First Amendment to the US Constitution and the notion of secular government are consequences of religious thought that protects the soul from the state – while enhancing the spiritual expectations of justice in the land. Susan B Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr, for example, must be included with Jefferson and Lincoln as levers for the rising spirit of justice.

On this occasion when the bench is so wonderfully renewed, it is fit to rejoice in all that we are heir to, and in the work ahead, to use law not as a tool of privilege but as an instrument of justice, not dividing us for selfish ends, but in allegiance to the common good.
     Now we pause to celebrate a legal system ripened with the meanings of due process, equal protection, and other doctrines of law which give body to the ideals of justice.
     This courthouse becomes not merely a chamber of law but a temple of justice. While working within a secular framework, may each of us, judge, lawyer, and layman, always, everywhere, sense the sacredness of liberty and justice for all.

6. Invocation  941102 Before Election Day, Rotary Club

Spirit of Generations,
who from ancient times has given us shapes like covenant, compact, and constitution
as means by which we may co-create a humane and prosperous society,
we gather our thoughts as citizens of our community, Kansas, and the nation
as we prepare to exercise our vote.
Bless all those willing to serve the public weal;
and as we commit ourselves,
may we support the process by which we choose our leadership,
and participate in many ways in service above self.

7a. Invocation fragment  840611  UMKC Law School Commencement

Sacred vision of Justice:
nurtured across the ages by Hammurabi, Moses, Roman law, the Magna Charta,
    Jefferson, Lincoln, Susan B Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr,
developed through legislation, judicial decision and administrative practice . . . .

7b. Benediction 840611 UMKC Law School Commencement

Sacred vision of Justice,
revealed imperfectly in human law,
accept our joy at new service
promised this day to the common weal
as these graduates seek the privileges and
    responsibilities of their sacred profession,
and accept our gratitude as we are given their joy to share.
May freedom, justice, and peace be with us all.

8. Invocation 960719 Volunteer Center of Johnson County Olympic Torch Awards Dinner

Spirit of Generations, O single Source from which all love and light flows:
When a plane falls from the sky,
or a storm devastates a place,
some who sense their own lives are mingled with
    others find ways to aid those in distress.
And every day, perhaps less dramatically,
    volunteers comfort, connect, teach, and build

    this community, carrying a sacred torch of service.
Private and remote regions as well as public and
    well-known arenas receive this light,
gathering our community together to shine more brightly.
As the Olympic idea of excellence has been
    carried through the ages to us by those who,
    through generations, have given our lives meaning,
so our task is to carry, and to sponsor, and to pass
    on to others the living touch of service,
    unhesitant and bright.You have sanctified even the routine and the
    ordinary with the love that tends toward your sheen.
Those we honor tonight have lighted sometimes
    dark and difficult paths for others.
We give thanks for their example which invites
    us to renew ourselves as carriers of your
    eternal and universal light.
So let it be.

9. KCUR's "Under the Clock" program with Mayor Emanuel Cleaver

    Another clergyman and Vern Barnet were invited to discuss public prayer. Vern expressed disappointment in the Benediction at the 2001 Bush Inauguration --  "We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ. Let all who agree say 'Amen.'" He regarded it as exclusive, not inclusive. Vern's colleague defended the prayer, despite objections particularly from Jews, by saying it was impossible to pray without offending someone. Mayor Cleaver asked Vern to give a prayer, which appears below. Vern's opponent then admitted  that he "wasn't the least bit offended by [the] prayer."

Spirit of Generations,
who has given us many faiths
through which your Infinite Nature may be discerned,
thank you for the blessings of liberty and free conscience celebrated in this land.
As we  here today bring our tiny truths to the discussion of public issues,
may we offer them as contributions to one another, not as weapons,
as we rejoice that we need not think alike to love alike.
We pray this in the multiple names
which arouse in the citizens of this nation
the awe of the holy, the sense of community, and the impulse to service.
So may it be.

10. MAYORS PRAYER BREAKFAST, Kansas City, MO with Mayor Kay Barnes
2002 February 15

Infinite and Ultimate Mystery,
     We citizens of the Heartland call you by many names —
 God, Yahweh, Wankantaka, Allah, Brahman, Goddess, Sat Nam, Tao,
 Creative Interchange, Void, Ahura Mazda, Ground of Being, Power of Nature —
all these names and more, planted and transplanted here, in this rich soil,
the great traditions of the world joined, now growing into our own garden.

We are joined as a sunflower is joined with the plains
     while it reaches upward beyond itself.
We are joined as our fountains and streams and rivers are
     joined as they travel to the oceans of the planet.
We are joined as the eagle is joined with the sky.
We are joined through history, and September 11, and the ice storm,
    as the breaths of our being are joined with the winds of the world.

So are we joined at this breakfast, and joined people to people,
through we have different faces, different faiths, and different tasks,
a multiplicity through which we celebrate your limitless nature
as you guide us on the long journey toward freedom and justice.

From business, labor, and government we come
 to inspire in each other deeper understandings of morality,
as we especially honor those whose courage makes our community safer and more secure,
and our youth whose examples of service give us the promise of the future.

You from ancient times have joined us in shapes
 like covenant, compact, charter, and constitution
as means by which we may join to co-create a humane and prosperous society.

As the sun and the soil and the work of many hands have joined to bring us breakfast,
so we pray: Join us now more closely with you,
that the fountains of our hearts may refresh
 the meaning of our work, the joys of citizenship, and the pleasures of personhood —
separate in the mystery of infinite diversity,
yet joined together in the majesty and simplicity of love.

So may it be.

11. PRAYER FOR PEACE at an interfaith observance nine months after 9/11

To mark the nine months that have passed since Sept. 11, members of several faiths gathered to pray together silently and then as led by Sister Ruth Stuckel, Anand Bhattacharyya, Doug Alpert, Syed Hasan and Charangit Hundal in words from each of their traditions. The event closed with this  ``interfaith prayer.''

   As Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others, we pray: Infinite Spirit of Compassion, help us these nine months after the shock of a day of terror to remember those of all faiths who have suffered--and those who seek the relief of suffering and injustice_and the repair of the world.
   We come from many religions and have ties to many nations. We abhor the use of our faiths to justify violence and oppression--or the heritage of any land to launch hatred against others.
   We come as members of the Kansas City region who care about our relations with each other. From different traditions, we grieve together a common loss and work towards better understanding of our kinship.
   We come as citizens also of a planetary community, intimately involved with all peoples, who affect us and whom we affect often in ways we have yet to realize.
   We recognize many disconnected sorrows in these nine months, and we place the events of our focus in this larger human story, in which we pray to discover in compassion the meaning of your spirit as we join in renewal.
   Enlarge our sympathies, deepen our understanding, strengthen our courage and hope, here in our own neighborhoods, and as a model for others everywhere.
   We all pray in the name of peace, salaam, shalom, shantih, waheguru.

11. INVOCATION at Overland Park Rotary Club before a program on the Arts
Featuring the Kansas City Metropolitan Performing Arts Center,
Offered by David Adkins, October 27, 2003

Before the invocation today I wanted to acknowledge our Hindu friends who are observing Divali and our Muslim friends who are observing the holy month of Ramadan.These observances remind us of the many seasons of our faiths. Would you please join me in prayer?

Master of all Creation:
   It has been said that our eyes are the windows of our souls.
   If so, surely it must be that the arts are the windows of a civilization's soul.
   Today we pause to give thanks for all the arts mean to us.
   Through the painter's brush, the sculptor's clay, the dancer's leap, the director's baton we are given a glimpse of the sacred and the opportunity to experience what it is to be human.
   Thank you for color and light, sound and shape and motion, which when cultivated by your given talent enriches our existence through art.
   Art is such a powerful catalyst for us to explore and discover and wonder at the mysteries of the human condition and to better understand another person's point of view.
   We also pause to give thanks for those whose vision and philanthropy allow the arts to flourish and be shared with all in our community,
   and for freedom of thought and expression which allows us to pursue artistic expression without fear of censorship.
   May each of us be clay in your hands, a symphony sweet to your ears and always a portrait which reflects your love for us.
   Thank you for the arts-just one of the many ways our faith is sustained by your revelation of the sacred in our everyday lives.

12. INVOCATION for the first annual AWARDS LUNCHEON
for the Center for Spirit at Work, Oct 16, 2009, Westin Crown Center
The phrasing acknowledges the award receipients.

Infinite spirit,
Spirit at work in the life of our beloved Bud Fiedler,
we gather to celebrate his vision
of creating the city of God on earth,
including his founding
of the Center for Spirit at Work.

Centered in his memory
we celebrate those whose own work
has been shaped by Spirit --
honoring the environment,
building for human life and all life,
bringing beauty from the earth
for joy and comfort in ordinary and special occasions,
transporting goods with integrity,
guiding persons and companies into mutual benefit
and the benefit of those they serve.

Spirit at Work in our community and in our hearts,
We are refreshed and renewed with one another,
Joined together
as a sunflower is joined with the plains,
as the rivers are joined,
traveling to the oceans of the planet,
joined as the eagle is one with the sky.

So, Infinite Spirit,
we are joined in a covenant with each other
to welcome you into the workplace
for plenteous providence for all,
for health and wholesomeness,
for ethics and values and sensitivity and integrity,
and for the joy you offer us all,
so magnificently centered in our beloved Monsignor.

Infinite spirit,
Bless us now with a moment of awe
For all that has been given us,
for which we give thanks --
and show our gratitude
in renewed service,
refreshing the soul of the city
and the breath of the planet
in the cosmic story we may behold.



Copyright 2002, 2009, by Vern Barnet, Kansas City, MO