Maybe it was 2005; I’m not quite sure. I was leading a campus ministry at the University of South Carolina affectionately called The Shack. South Carolina was a hot sticky place dipped in sweet tea and football, and it was delicious. One rare tradition the university maintained was opening their football games in prayer to a crowd of 80,000+ screaming fans. Those chosen to perform this task were members of the Carolina Chaplains, of which I was one. In fact, this particular year I happened to be the Chair.
Each of us were placed on a roster to perform the opening prayer within a limited time of 36 seconds. And it was a pretty posh gig when your weekend came up. I received a pass to the press box surrounded by every sports media outlet you can imagine, head honchos in the athletic department, as well as a catered lunch. The view was spectacular; essentially it was how you see a game on television with a complete bird’s eye panoramic view of the entire field and full comprehension of every play as it happened.
The announcements over the PA system started as fans were still settling in, and the announcer soon introduced me. A sudden hush came over the entire stadium. Yes, 80,000 people in one place became creepy-silent. This was the South, mind you. When someone mentions “prayer” you better shut up, put down your beer, stand up, and take off your hat. And so I took to the mic. Not sure what I said the first 33 seconds, but it was the last 3 seconds that caused some problems. I ended my prayer with, “God, I just pray we don’t kill one another out here—amen.” The national anthem immediately followed. As I left the booth the entire press box was on their feet with their hands over their hearts. I approached my wife, who was silently glaring at me with her lips pursed and her head shaking. “What?” I wondered. The National Anthem finished, and suddenly the Athletic Director turned around in front of me and whispered to his buddy, “Who the hell is in charge of the Chaplains anyway?” Uh oh. The answer to his question would be me. But, I think it was a good idea if I kept silent since he didn’t know who the heck I was.
When I entered back into the stands I was thronged by several people who told me that was the most awesomely honest prayer they’ve ever heard at a Gamecocks game. The attention got me a bit nervous, because if there was that much positive response, there would be plenty of negative backlash as well. So, I just sat back and waited for it to come back to bite me. Suffice it to say, I was brought up on a Monday morning talk radio show which asked listeners if the prayer was inappropriate or refreshing. I didn’t hear about the show until after the fact, but apparently several strongly opinionated phone calls came in both praising it and condemning it. I didn’t like where this was going. Throughout that week I received several emails from friends, students and acquaintances cheering me on about the prayer; their own friends were even buzzing about it. I think it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to fan mail. I knew what was coming.
Within days of the game I was informed by the Athletic Department that my name would never appear on the opening prayer roster again. I was banned, and it was hilarious.
I was banned (which is short for “banished”) because I essentially went off-script. I uttered a prayer that was unexpected and unusual, and was a bit too casual for some to stomach. It was just a silly football game prayer. But it certainly shows how going off-script makes a lot of good religious folks pretty nervous. It’s disruptive to their notion of God and spiritual practice. I can only imagine how uncomfortable the religious majority got when they heard some disruptive notions coming from the mouth of a homeless carpenter’s son. Jesus calling God “daddy” during a public prayer seemed pretty inappropriate, I’m sure. Jesus comparing spiritual celebrities to masked actors was an honest slap in the face to them. Saying the condition of the heart is more urgent than the outer appearance of righteousness was pretty disturbing to a culture that, more or less, lived their faith out only on the surface. Jesus calling for the forgiveness of his executors, while he was expected to curse them, was very unexpected. Jesus was way off-script.
Maybe we all feel pressured to simply follow a script, whether it be how we are expected to practice, the theological details we are expected to subscribe to, or the stances we are expected to take on difficult issues. But, there is little risk in simply following a script and defaulting to the powers that be. I believe that going off-script is an effort to be genuine; to shake off the falsehood. It is an effort to bravely engage with what is actually happening around us. But, be warned, you may be banned from a catered lunch in a press box for the rest of your life.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Ken Lund