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Jul 31, 2011

Relevant Prayer or Abomination to God?

Last week for the first time, I was embarrassed to be a NASCAR fan. No, not because I’ve spent more than twenty years watching a bunch of good ‘ol boys drive stock cars in circles every weekend. I was embarrassed because of the flippant irreverence of a pre-race prayer given on national TV by a Baptist pastor. This was the invocation delivered by Pastor Joe Nelms before the NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Nashville on July 23.

So first of all, so as not to be a hypocrite, let me acknowledge that I have a worldly sense of humor, am often irreverent myself, and watch plenty of TV shows and movies that many of my Christian friends would probably not approve of. I’ve certainly watched the movie Talladega Nights several times, which was clearly the inspiration for this pastor’s light hearted prayer. And I’ll even admit to laughing during the scene with Ricky Bobby’s irreverent family dinner prayer.

 The difference is, the movie was clearly a piece of comedy, not a real prayer offered by a real pastor before millions of spectators and TV viewers. The movie was written to openly mock the self-centered and carnal attitudes of so many athletes who conveniently thank God for their victories and their material rewards (but never the trials of their defeats). They selfishly call on the name of God to invoke his blessing but think nothing of sincerely glorifying the Lord, asking for forgiveness, or calling others to repentance. Anyone watching Talladega Nights understood this listening to Will Ferrell’s ridiculous prayer or the ensuing demand of his materialistic wife to “do this grace good so that God will let us win tonight!”

"We just thank you for all the races I've won and the $21.2 million dollars. Whoo!"

So why was I so disturbed by a similar public prayer before a NASCAR race? Because the man who delivered the prayer was an actual Christian pastor and the invocation was supposed to be an actual, sincere prayer to the real and true God of Heaven. In my opinion, this prayer was a mockery for the sake of being relevant and funny, but in the end only grieved God and God’s people who understand the power, purpose, and practice of real biblical prayer.

Perhaps already anticipating the objections he was likely to receive, Pastor Nelms began his prayer with a statement that God told us “in all things give thanks.” I’m assuming that he was referring to Ephesians 5:20 which encourages us in “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But if you read that verse in the context of the entire chapter of Ephesians 5, you will fail to find license to mock God and thank him flippantly for frivolous, worldly things simply for the sake of entertainment or to pander to the crowd. In fact, Ephesian 5:3-4 even warns against “foolish talking” and “jesting” so that “it not be once named among you, as becometh saints.”

I’ve always been proud of how NASCAR, even in this day of forced religious “tolerance”, still opens each television broadcast before every race with the national anthem and a public prayer, even ended most times “in Christ’s name” or “in the name of Jesus" (but never with the ridiculous Boogity Boogity Boogity thrown in).  I’ve always found this especially appropriate for an event where the competitors can be seriously injured and even killed at any point throughout the day. I’ve seen at least a dozen drivers and crew men killed or permanently injured in NASCAR races just since I’ve been a fan. So praying for the safety of the drivers, pit crews, and even the spectators would be an appropriate request to submit to the all-powerful and merciful God.

But wouldn’t you have to do this in reverence in order for God to honor this request? Hebrews 5:7 tells us that Jesus himself offered such prayers to his Father but notice why his prayers were heard. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”

God is an all-consuming fire. He is Holy Holy Holy, exalted in heaven before all of his creation. And he is not to be mocked or approached without the utmost of reverence. Prayer is a form of worship. Prayer is humbly approaching God’s throne with praise, confession, and petition. Prayer, especially a public prayer offered by one of God’s own ministers, should be offered with this in mind.

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28

“Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” Leviticus 10:3

“God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him.” Psalm 89:7
Please Pastor Nelms, if NASCAR gives you another chance to lead millions in prayer, remember that the true believers in the audience, those humbly bowing their heads in reverent prayer, don’t care about things as petty as Dodges and Toyotas, which brand of gas their drivers are using, and certainly not your “smoking hot wife” when they are coming into the Lord’s presence before a race. And remember for the sake of all those unbelievers in the same audience, your job is not to make people laugh and be relevant, it is to point the lost to the true Savior and to glorify and honor your holy God. If not, remember the warning in Galations 6:7, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

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