My friend asked one question after I accepted his invitation to give the opening prayer at the City Council meeting: “Do you have to pray in the name of Jesus?”
I was stunned.
I’m a pastor—a Christian pastor—and he asked if I would consider not praying in Jesus’ name, but rather, “in the name of ‘The Risen Lamb’ instead, like another pastor had once done.”
“No,” I replied. “There is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we must be saved: the name of Jesus!”
He explained that it had been eight years since this particular city had anyone regularly give the invocation at a council meeting. “A pastor prayed in the name of Jesus and they got over 500 phone calls. They are just afraid of being sued.”
“Then I will not do the invocation..”
“I want you to do it, but it might be the last time they allow someone to pray,” he cautioned.
I took my chances.
I was greeted by a very friendly City Clerk in the foyer of the council chambers who gave me some pre-prayer advice and an instruction sheet on how to give the invocation. “We ask that the prayer be non-sectarian.”
“I’m sorry; I can’t do that,” I replied. “I will be praying in the name of Jesus.”
“That’s okay, but we’ll probably not be able to ask you back. We don’t want people to sue the Mayor.”
I sat down in the back and read the rules for invocation-giving.
“On behalf of the Mayor, thank-you for agreeing to give the invocation at our City Council meeting. He has asked that your invocation be as inclusive as possible to reflect the diversity of the community.”
Then it gave the court case, Rubin v. City of Burbank, in which “the court held that city council meetings may not begin with sectarian prayer. In determining what constituted sectarian prayer, the court looked to the concluding sentence of the challenged invocation, which was this: ‘We are grateful Heavenly Father for all thou has poured out on us and we express our gratitude and our love in the name of Jesus Christ.’
“The judicial ruling is… binding on all public agencies in the State of California. Sectarian prayers are not permitted.”
Now what do I do? Sitting in the back row, I pondered my dilemma. The council chamber was beginning to fill up with people, including a civics class from a local high school. Hoo boy. Did anyone prepare them for this…an illegal prayer in the name of Jesus?
I got up from my seat, conscience-stricken. I had to ask the City Clerk if it was still okay to pray my “Jesus prayer” after reading the rules. If she told me that I couldn’t do it, then I would graciously bow out of my commitment due to “creative differences.”
“It’s okay,” she said calmly. “We’ll just put your name on the bottom of the prayer-person list from now on.”
The bottom of the list? How degrading. Now that’s persecution. But wait, this is America!
She then made an intriguing comment, “There is still freedom of speech…” Ah—the wink. It wasn’t a literal wink, but a subtle acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of the State’s ruling.
I walked to the front row and sat down. Councilmen and women assembled and took their seats on the dais. Whisperings. Knowing smiles. Head nods. They were talking about me! They are talking about me! I averted their searing glances.
Important-looking men with thick binders and leather briefcases made themselves comfortable in the rows beside me. I caught one of them looking in my direction. There he is! The scofflaw who is going to defy the high court and pray in the forbidden name!
The Mayor arrived. Everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. “One nation under God” was still in there.
The Mayor then announced, “Pastor Steve Sanchez will now give the invocation.” No applause. No trumpets. No ambient sound at all except a heart beating wildly in somebody’s chest, somewhere in the room. It still was not too late to change the prayer just a little.
In my mind I rehearsed some alternatives: “In the name of you know who.” “In the name of the name that everyone knows.” “In the name of… of… of…
I spoke a simple, self-conscious prayer of blessing, concluding it with “In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
There were no sirens. No hushed screams from the back. No one fainted. I didn’t notice much of anything because I was walking way too quickly up the side aisle to get out the door.
Now a marked man, my name was forever on the bottom of the list. I would never pray aloud in this town again. Banished.
But for one brief, glorious moment, everyone heard the name of their Unknown God…
… maybe for the last time.
A year later I had another opportunity to give an invocation. I employed a strategy that was very legal. Click here to read it.