Lately, I've received e-mails from readers who ask: "Is it true that chaplains can't use 'Jesus' in their prayers?"
The question is inspired by a chain e-mail that warns of the dire situation preventing chaplains from using Jesus' name in public prayers. The e-mail blames the ACLU and urges recipients to forward the warning to 1,000 people.
Before you break your finger punching the forward button 1,000 times, you should know the e-mail isn't exactly true. Big surprise.
Chaplains can employ the name of Jesus in all of their prayers -- with one exception. Public prayer voiced at mandatory military assemblies must have a generic tone and omit the name of all deities.
Years ago, I said a prayer at a mandatory military formation. An hour later, my base commander called saying he was concerned because he thought he heard me mention Jesus in my official prayer.
If you find my commander's call troubling, then you likely count yourself among Evangelical Christians who see Jesus' promise in John 14:13 as a scriptural requirement to conclude all prayers with, "In Jesus name, amen."
Praying without Jesus, you might argue, is like asking a Jew to pray without a Kippah or a Muslim to pray without facing Mecca. These things are simply against the rules.
However, since a military commander leads people from all of these faiths -- as well as those who express no faith -- he rightly wants his chaplains to be considerate of all in attendance.
This might prompt you to ask: "If prayers have to be so watered down, why bother to pray at all?"
Because the prayers at mandatory events are based on military tradition, not religious teachings.
For instance, when I was stationed at Cape Canaveral, my public prayers at the launch briefings were for good weather, safety and the success of each shuttle or rocket launch. These generic prayers were worded with consideration for my captive audience.
The prayer was scheduled to conclude the briefing so crewmembers had the option of excusing themselves. We did it this way because the First Amendment guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.
If this still seems confusing, allow me one further example.
If I attended a mandatory event at Hill Air Force Base in the heart of Mormon country and heard quotations from the Book of Mormon, I likely would take offense. I'd be offended at the unspoken assumption that every audience member was a Mormon.
Gratefully, the chaplains I know never have been offended by this guideline because it allows us to freely share our faith privately as well as inside our chapel building. It's a building supplied by tax dollars because the First Amendment supports our right to worship worldwide, not just in the local church.
We live within this self-limiting guideline because it means we go places our civilian counterparts never could go. We visit people in top secret workplaces, in the hospitals, in the prisons and sometimes we even go to war with them.
These are the issues my commander had in mind when he called.
Tactfully, I suggested he misheard what I said. My prayer had concluded with the generic, "In your name, I pray, amen." As an Evangelical, I was referring to Jesus, but the words were designed to let the listener fill in the name that fit their own beliefs.
Does this sound too much like a semantic game? Maybe. But it's a rule I'm happy to follow in exchange for the privilege of ministering to our service members, wherever they are deployed.
PS: Please forward this column to 1,000 people. I could use the readers.
Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username "chaplain," or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.