On July 23, the NASCAR Nationwide series stopped in Nashville, Tennessee. It was an evening that promised all-you-can-handle-and-some-you-can’t action, the sort of reckless redneckery of screaming engines and burning rubber that has made racing one of the most popular sports in America.
With all it’s modern equipment and cutting-edge technology, NASCAR is nonetheless steeped in tradition. Its roots run all the way back to Prohibition, and its drivers are for the most part good ol’ country boys. And every race begins with a prayer.
That night in Tennessee, the honor of providing the invocation fell on the shoulders of Pastor Joe Nelms, a Nashville local. With heads bowed, hats doffed, and cameras on, Pastor Joe took the microphone and prayed this:
What happened afterwards was the sort of media deluge that could only happen in the age of YouTube and social media. Pastor Joe Nelms became an overnight celebrity. ESPN had a field day. Newspapers, news channels, blogs, radio. All carried the prayer, all had the same question—Why?
Here’s what Pastor Nelms said in one interview:
“I want[ed] to get somebody’s attention, so that’s been our desire every time we’ve been up there, to try to make an impact on the fans and give them something they’ll remember, and maybe they’ll go home on a Friday night or a Saturday night and say, ‘Maybe I ought to get up and go to church in the morning.'”
And really, what better way to do that than to give thanks to mighty machines, GM performance technology, Sunoco racing fuel, Goodyear tires, and his smokin’ hot wife?
Now you’d probably be right in saying I caught wind of this and thought right off that Joe Nelms had just uttered a prayer the likes of which hadn’t been heard since Jesus Himself taught us to ask for our daily bread and to deliver us from evil. And why not? I wouldn’t consider myself a NASCAR guy, though I suspect I fit their target demographic of country-livin’, Levi-wearin’, tobacco-spittin’, jacked-up-Chevy drivin’ men.
But you know what? That’s not how I reacted. That’s not how I reacted at all.
And while I can appreciate the good Reverend’s intentions, I gotta say I was more than a little saddened. I was raised to take prayer sincerely. I close my eyes and bow my head with the knowledge that I am about to utter my feeble voice to the Lord of all creation, the Holy One who made not just me, but the farthest star and the tiniest atom. And more than that, He HEARS me. And more than even THAT, He cares about what I say, knows my words even before I speak them. Even before I think them.
It’s serious business, praying. And while I’m sure you realize God has a sense of humor—have you taken a look around lately?—I’m sure you also realize there is a time and a place. On bended knee is neither.
We live in a time when mockery of God is accepted, even cool. How many times a day do you hear, “Oh my God”? How many times do you get a text that contains OMG? How many times have you heard “Goddammit” on the television lately?
Plenty, I’d imagine, if you’re like me.
But we want to be cool. That’s the thing. We know our task is the Christian walk, but it’s a straight walk, a rigid one, so why not strut a little? Why not? If we dumb down God to make Him more accessible to people, more believable, more Jesus-would-have-a-beer-with-me, then is that such a bad thing?
Sometimes I think yes. It is.
God is not cool. I think we’d do well to remember that. I think we’d do well to keep close the treasured wisdom that He is big and holy and we are small and not. And I think it’s a good guess that what we often mistake as His laughter are really His tears.
Honestly—what did you think of that? Did you chuckle? Laugh? Or did you think something along the lines of, What the heck was that? Because I figure I’m either really, really right on this one, or really, really wrong.