Writer condemns public supplication

Don’t expect Martin Zender to be in the shade of a tree beside some city hall on Thursday

For a National Day of Prayer observance.

"The National Day of Prayer is a national disgrace," he said. Moreover, he said, it is "scripturally incorrect."

"Jesus condemned public prayer," he said. "He said, ‘Go into your room, shut your door and pray to your father privately,’ (Matthew 6:6). National Day of Prayer directly contradicts Christ’s command."

Zender, a former Catholic and author of "How to Quit Church Without Quitting God: 7 Good Reasons to Escape the Box," raises a variety of issues surrounding the National Day of Prayer.

"I think most people roll their eyes at it," he said. "I think the evangelicals are the ones who are really gung-ho for this, and they are trying to get the average person into it and excited about it."

An iconoclastic critic of organized religion, Zender said public prayer runs counter to "the most powerful prayer in the Bible: Thy will — not my will — be done," referring to Matthew 6:10

"The people are clamoring, ‘God bless America,’ and you see that on every church sign since 9/11, and it especially comes into play with the National Day of Prayer because that is basically what we are doing. We are begging God to bless America in a way that we think would be in our best interest."

Instead, the "God Bless America" words should be replaced by those he found on one bumper sticker, "America, Bless God," he said.

"Man, that was so good. It stopped me in my tracks," he said. "Finally, the priorities are straight."

While National Day of Prayer organizers "can sugarcoat it" and say "we just want to get people talking to God again," the reality is "we want another day of comfort and blessings in the good old U.S.A."

"The entire premise of the National Day of Prayer is that God responds to numbers and that he doesn’t know what he should do unless we tell him — loudly and repeatedly," Zender said. "Rather than man needing help from God, National Day of Prayer assumes that God needs help from man."

Zender, 42, who gave up a postal career in 1993 to go into full-time religious writing, said the national observance is being orchestrated by the Focus on the Family ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., founded by the Rev. James Dobson. His wife, Shirley, is national chairman this year.

"National Day of Prayer doesn’t work," Zender said. "Shirley Dobson has lamented in ‘Focus on the Family’ (magazine), ‘We (the United States) are known as No. 1 in violent crime, No. 1 in divorce, No. 1 in teen pregnancies in the western world, No. 1 in voluntary abortions, No. 1 in illegal drug use, and No. 1 among industrial nations in illiteracy.’ " Zender calls that a "strange situation for a nation praying like crazy."

"Jesus himself spoke about not praying like the nations, using many words and repetitions and all that," Zender said. "I get the feeling from Colorado Springs that the more millions of people we get together on this, the more we rattle God’s chains and we get him to do something. I think that is very detrimental to people’s conception of God."

But the Arizona coordinator of National Day of Prayer discounts Zender’s reasoning.

"While I think personal prayer is extremely important, gathering together to pray collectively is also extremely important," said Louise Davis of Glendale, noting how the first Continental Congress, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and others called for national prayer in the darkest hours of American history.

"Sometimes national days of prayer have been held because of national emergencies," Davis said, "and people have really focused all together in prayer. When there is a focused effort and endeavor by a large group of people, God has historically moved to turn the tide of events over a nation."

She quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

At age 20, Zender launched his own spiritual quest to know God and left the "institutional assembly" of the Catholic Church.

"I came to see organized religion as a box," and the National Day of Prayer is one way it is manifested, he said.

The prominent participation of political leaders in it "makes me really suspect," he said. "Whenever you see religion and politics holding hands, we’ve got trouble."

"I believe Jesus Christ is my savior — I am just not a member of his fan club," he often tells people.

"People are really fed up with formality," he said. "Since 9-11, people are not getting answers to their deepest questions in their institutions."

He points to the rush of people to houses of worship after the terrorist attacks, but a month later, worship attendance had returned to pre-attack levels.

"I think people are more disillusioned than ever because they thought the church was ‘going to give me answers to my deepest questions,’ " said Zender, who sees a growing grass-roots movement of people distrusting organized religion.

"Those people need to see that they can worship Jesus Christ outside the institution. . . . The institution does not have the answers. It is full of hypocrisy."

He said his favorite saying is, "Believe in God, no matter what the clergy say."

— Spiritual Life editor Lawn Griffiths can be reached by e-mail at
lgriffiths@aztrib.com or by calling (480) 898-6522.