Invocation: the act or process of petitioning for help or support; specifically, often capitalized : a prayer of entreaty (as at the beginning of a service of worship)
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
After a quick introduction, almost every military ceremony officially begins with the National Anthem (plus the anthem of the host nation when stationed overseas), followed immediately by an invocation or prayer, usually offered by a chaplain.
“Let us pray.”
Though we gather, often in the same uniforms, adhering to the same standards, sworn to the same commitment of service to the same nation, these three well-intentioned words can sometimes create a divide when we should be united in celebration.
The religious will bow their heads in reverence, and no doubt a good many people with no particular faith will go along with what they deem a harmless gesture. However, more and more, there are a group of servicemembers who hold no faith or spiritual belief and find themselves staring ahead, waiting for the actual content of the ceremony to begin. They stand in silence, ignoring what feels like a strong nudge of “official” religion… perhaps making furtive eye contact with and recognizing like-minded individuals.
When the purpose of a ceremony is to honor an individual, such as retirement from military service, that person has a huge say in how their event will take place… including whether or not to begin with an invocation. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a few ceremonies begin without one. Some people feel no need for a religious gesture, and that’s understandable. After all…
What would a non-believer “pray” for?
Religion or no, we have a shared humanity–a connection of experience and interdependence. By definition, no one gathers by themselves. Honoring and celebrating achievements is best done by others, not oneself.
With all the bustle and distraction of modern life, an invocation doesn’t have to be a call to worship or a prayer for help from the Divine. Instead, it can be a means of reminding all present of the meaning behind the moment, the sense of community within our diversity, the shared purpose represented by the proceedings.
Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of delivering an invocation for the retirement of a dear colleague and friend. As a believer, prayer seems pretty normal… but I haven’t offered a non-religious invocation before, nor do I recall ever hearing one given.
Figuring out what to say without suggesting that everyone bow their heads or close their eyes took a few moments, but when I thought of my friend and his impact on our unit, the words flowed freely.
Even so, I offer a modified version here that can be easily adapted to a retirement ceremony:
(UNIT or ORGANIZATION) family and friends, let us pause for reflection.
On this momentous occasion, in this beautiful location, we gather to honor the service, dedication, and bond of friendship we share with (RANK NAME).
We take this moment to reflect with gratitude on our time spent with (NAME) – for a constant smile that softened the frustrations of difficult days, for a wise voice that offered rational perspective to challenging issues we faced, for a bright light of joy in spite of the myriad stresses and struggles to which aircrew life is prone. (1)
We take this time to honor (NAME’S) sacrifices and steadfast devotion, and we celebrate the impact of his career on so many present and distant in our community. We draw inspiration from his example spurring us toward better action and deeper passion for excellence in our own service, in all the varied capacities to which we are called.
We rejoice at the blessing of companionship we’ve enjoyed, and cheer as (RANK NAME) now crosses this finish line. It turns out that things will, in fact, ease up. (2)
As he moves forward to a much more relaxed pace – probably set to a Jimmy Buffett tune (3) – we express our shared hope that he and (NAME OF SPOUSE / PARTNER) will enjoy the rewards and satisfaction so deserved for all their effort to advance the cause of the Air Force, and his contributions to the grand endeavor of manned reconnaissance. (4)
Family and friends, thank you for sharing this moment.
Naturally, you’ll have to change pronouns and such. (Seriously though… people forget this all the time in drafts for awards and citations.)
1 – Be specific about a few qualities for which the individual is known and appreciated. We’re a flying unit with dynamic needs and a demanding schedule, so my friend’s great personality helped ease that stress.
2 – Make the speech personal to the organization as well. Our unit has an old joke from the Vietnam War era, where someone in charge promised that “Things will ease up.” Now we’re working harder than ever.
3 – My friend is a huge Jimmy Buffett fan, and I totally see his retirement plan as a lounge chair on a beach with a margarita in hand. This invocation is about connection; personal touches and laughs will help.
4 – Capture the broad overview of what the individual has done. It should feel like breaking the tape at the Boston Marathon.