The Shepard’s Prayer

By Ross Engel

Perched atop the towering, eighty-three foot tall, Redstone-3, Mercury 7 booster rocket, Astronaut Alan B. Shepard had plenty of time to contemplate and pray before his Freedom 7 capsule was launched into the great unknowns of space. The eyes of every American were glued to a TV set to watch this historic event. On Shephard’s shoulders were the combined hopes of a nation. And as he waited for lift-off and becoming the first American in outer space, he uttered a few words that would later become known as, “The Shepard’s Prayer.”

“Please, dear Lord, don’t let me [foul] up.”

I remember that prayer so well because the first time I heard it, I was a young boy watching the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff.” That movie, chronicling the breaking of the sound barrier and the start of the space program, is in the top tier of my favorite movies, I’ll always watch it if I see it on TV and I’ve worn out my DVD of it. As a kid I didn’t quite know what the word [foul] meant, but I knew that it was bad and guessed that it must have meant that Shepard didn’t want to fail at what he was about to do. I also figured that there was a hint of fear involved in what he was about to do, after all, he was sitting on top of a rocket that was “built by the lowest bidder.” The movie shows many failed attempts at launching a rocket into space with a few comedic moments of rocket after rocket bursting into flame, so Shepard’s prayer always seemed to make sense to me.

“Please, dear Lord, don’t let me [foul] up.”

It seems that such a prayer might be appropriate for occasions beyond being launched into space! Every morning when I enter my study at the church, I am met with a similar prayer. It’s a prayer that is far older than the “Shepard’s Prayer” and certainly doesn’t include any profanity. The prayer hangs on my wall humbly and almost unnoticed. In fact, most people who enter my office don’t give the simple bronze plaque a second look. But I know it’s there. I see the words and pray them daily as I enter my office and especially as I put on my vestments in preparation for worship.

Lord God, you have made me a pastor in your church. You see how unfit I am to undertake this great and difficult office, and if it were not for your help, I would have ruined it all long ago. Therefore, I cry to you for aid. I offer my mouth and my heart to your service. I desire to teach the people. And for myself, I would learn evermore and diligently meditate on Your Word. Use me as Your instrument, but never forsake me, for if I am left alone, I shall easily bring it all to destruction. Amen.

“Please Lord, don’t let me mess this up.”

There is another version of this prayer too. Both go by the same name, “Luther’s Sacristy Prayer.” And I believe it is safe to say that almost every pastor, especially Lutheran ones, is familiar with this prayer and pray it, or some version of it, regularly.

“O Lord God, dear Father in heaven, I am indeed unworthy of the office and ministry in which I am to make known Your glory and to nurture and to serve this congregation. But since You have appointed me to be a pastor and teacher, and the people are in need of the teaching and the instruction, be my helper and let Your holy angels attend me. Then, if You are pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Your glory and not to mine or to the praise of men, grant me, out of Your pure grace and mercy, a right understanding of Your Word and that I may also diligently perform it. O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, shepherd and bishop of our souls, send Your Holy Spirit that he may work with me to will and to do, through Your divine strength according to Your good pleasure. Amen.”

These are prayers of humility. They are prayers that approach the tasks at hand with fear and trembling. For Shepherds of the flock, these prayers reflect an understanding of the magnitude of the work which God has called them to do. They are prayers that begin with the understanding that we will always have something still to learn and that left to our own devices, we can do absolutely nothing. In fact, on our own, we would foul everything up and bring disaster and chaos wherever we went.

A few weeks ago in Sunday morning Bible Study, I mentioned to the class, that before every sermon, I pray a simple prayer. It reflects Luther’s own Sacristy Prayer and adds my own personal touch. It goes something like this:

“Dear Lord, fill me with the Holy Spirit that I may proclaim Your Word to Your people who You have gathered here this day. Fill Your people with the Holy Spirit, that they may hear Your Word and not my own. Though I am so unworthy to call myself pastor or stand before Your people this day, You have called me and sent me to proclaim Your Word of Forgiveness, Life, and Salvation to them. Let these Your people hear that and let them see Jesus! Save me, for I am Yours. Amen.”

That simple prayer refocuses my attention to what God has called pastors to do. It is a humbling prayer that I never forget to pray before I preach. It forces me to get out of the way and point only to Jesus. Any accolades or successes in preaching are not due to the pastor’s efforts or eloquence, but rather, are solely centered on what God is doing through His Word as it is proclaimed to His people.

For us as Christians, and especially for Pastors, we must not begin our love and service to others clothed in the hollow armor of arrogance, it just won’t endure! Rather, we must ever begin with the humble acknowledgement that we bring nothing to the table. In fact, all we bring with us is an anchor that drags everything down. We are beggars with nothing to offer, we must ever trust in God’s strength and loving care.

As I consider the young men who soon will be receiving their first calls into the Lord’s church and my brothers in ministry from coast to coast, I am reminded of the exhortation from 1 Peter 5: “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time..”

Pastoral brothers in Christ, shepherd the flock entrusted to you! Brothers and sisters in Christ, do the tasks that God has given you to do! Know that God is ever at work through His Word, accomplishing His purposes, not yours. If we, who are in Christ, serve with faithfulness to His Word in the vocations we have been given, we cannot foul things up, for God will be faithful, in spite of ourselves! So pray a shepherd’s prayer and trust that God is at work!