A little framed picture hangs to the right of the door exiting my study which leads into the sanctuary of the church. Most people leaving through that door probably never even notice it, but I do. Though it is small, behind the glass is a simple and eloquent prayer. I’ve had it hanging on the wall of my study ever since I’ve had a study. I’ve read the words printed there so often that I have them memorized and simply looking at the dark mahogany frame causes me to recite them like some sort of strange Pavlovian reaction. It’s a prayer written by Luther, a prayer written for people like me. The first line reads:
“O Lord God, dear Father in heaven. I am indeed, unworthy of the office and ministry in which I am to make known Thy glory and to nurture and to serve this congregation.”
I don’t really shudder when I speak those words; I say them in a very honest and matter-of-fact manner. My unworthiness to make known the glory of God and nurture and serve a congregation as a pastor is not difficult to discern. I know too well what it is to put my hand to the plow and get to work, only to be caught looking back over my shoulder and being disappointed in what I have accomplished. I get bored and frustrated and pissed off with the labor that I’ve been called to do. I get moody and worn out and fed up and wonder if this is really what I’m supposed to be doing.
But the prayer doesn’t end there. If it did not only would it be a waste of a frame and wall space, but it would be the most obvious of all prayers. Ministers or the Word are unworthy – not much of a news flash! So the prayer continues:
“But since Thou has appointed me to be a pastor and teacher, and the people are in need of the teachings and the instructions, O be Thou my helper and let Thy holy angels attend me.”
Now, at this point I begin to speak with more boldness. It’s as if you are saying to God, “Look I know I’m unworthy but You called me to do this anyway and the people need what I’m supposed to give them, so it’s up to you to make this whole mess work!” Sure this is a confession of inability, but it is also a confession that to do the work of preaching and teaching God has to be involved. In fact, these words expect God to do just that: to be the helper of the preacher, to send the angels to attend to his work, to produce fruit from his broken and confused life.
Such words help the unworthy minster get up the courage one more time to do what he has been called to do. Such words lead us through the doors of our protected study to the exposed reality of the sanctuary where we are to fulfill our vocation. But this wonderful little prayer offers hope even then:
“Then if Thou art pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Thy glory and not to mine of to the praise of men, grant me, out of Thy pure grace and mercy a right understanding of Thy Word and that I may also, diligently perform it.”
This is the part that causes me to pause and reflect on what it is I’m doing. The weight and severity of the whole endeavor pile up at this point. Despite the fact that I am unworthy, despite my doubt and insecurities at this moment in time, I am an instrument to be used by God for the handing on of His gifts. This work is not for my glory, it is not to hear the praises of my fellow man, it is not for accolades and fame and fortune, but for the glory of God alone.
As an unworthy minister who has failed at so many aspects of this calling, this part of the prayer gives focus and resolve. I have not been the faithful leader and equipper of the saints I could have been. I have stumbled and failed time and again. I have lingered too long on one hobby horse after another. But here I am reminded again of what is the heart of the office and ministry to which I’ve been called – the performance of the Word.
What is needed, then, is a faithful and correct understanding of the Word. What is petitioned for is a proper distinction of Law and Gospel, a faithful handling of the Word, and a desire and ability to actually perform that Word – to do it to others, to kill and make alive.
And so the unworthy minister walks purposefully from his study into the sanctuary, with the lingering words of the prayer filling his heart and mind:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Thou Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, send Thy Holy Spirit that He may work with me, yea, that He may work in me to will and to do through Thy divine strength according to Thy good pleasure. Amen”
Amen, indeed. I don’t know why the great Shepherd and Bishop of our souls hides in the words and work of unworthy ministers, but He does. It is truly an incredible image of the mercy of God to behold the brokenness of His ministers.