I struggle to pray. Not that I can’t get myself to pray, but I guess my head is so crammed with what prayer should be that I trip over what I’m “supposed” to say, whether I’m alone or with others. And as a seminarian, it has already started:
“Oh hey, Brad, can you offer a little prayer for us before we get started?”
I’m honored—I really am. I think there’s a dangerous tendency for pastors to get too cynical about these things. Maybe it can be annoying to pray at any sort of function all the time, but if it’s cynicism that ultimately guides the prayer, then why are we praying at all?
Still, a hundred thoughts race through my head when I’m asked this kind of question. Not the least of those thoughts is one triggered by Eugene Peterson in his book Working the Angles: prayer is not a “little” thing we use to kick-off events or preface ribbon cuttings. The theology behind the idea of prayer “kicking things off” isn’t all that poor. God should be at the beginning of what we do. But it becomes a problem when the only time we pray is at the start of something. It decentralizes prayer, which in reality is an act and way of living that should define the shape of Christian life.
So that thought runs through my head. Here are a few more:
What should I say?
How can I make this prayer genuine without throwing on a pastoral facade?
Who in the room will judge my “ability” to be a pastor by this prayer?
Who in the room will judge my Christian-ness by this prayer?
How can I pray as Brad and as pastor?
You’re not even a pastor yet, stop pretending you are!
Why am I worrying so much about this?
Prayer is simply conversation with God—let it be that!
Is prayer simply conversation with God?
And so on.
All this, of course, in the split second between the question and my ceremonious response: “Of course. Let us pray.”
(One quick interlude: who says “let us” in normal conversation? I mean, if you and a friend were hanging out and they said something like, “Let us go to dinner,” you would probably punch them in the face.)
Next, I pray, regardless of the thoughts running through my head. Usually I address the prayer to God (good start!), stumble over a few thank yous and pleases, and finish with amen. Pretty standard, and actually not too far off from a historic prayer form. But my point is this: however uncomfortable the moment might be, I pray—we all pray—which is more than can be said for me too much of the time.
Maybe it’s moments like these that can move prayer back to the center of all we are. And too, I take comfort in another piece of Peterson wisdom. Remembering it makes prayer much less intimidating: we do not have the first word. Our prayers, even those that begin meetings or lunches, are not our own mustered-up, valiant moves toward God. Our prayers are responses to the grace that has sought us out. If, then, we mumble through something that isn’t very spectacular or verbose, that grace is still there and still ours in Christ.
So let us (ha!) pray boldly.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.