On March 29, 2022, I was invited by Senator John Thune to be the guest chaplain for the U.S. Senate, and to open the day’s proceedings in prayer. Such an occasion is an honor and a privilege. It also requires some sustained thought about what exactly to say. I thought it might help others called to minister in the public square if I reflected briefly about what I prayed, and why.
The Senate chaplain, Dr. Barry Black, kindly sent along some instructions for the opening prayer. Here are the parameters I was given:
- 60-90 seconds
- Prayer must be scripted and submitted in advance for the Congressional Record
- Written prayer should fit on a 4.25 x 5.5 inch sheet of paper
- Free to pray within your own faith tradition, according to conscience
- Prayer should not contain personal political views, sectarian controversies, or any personal opinions regarding foreign policy
In public events like this, I find it wise to hew closely to tradition. So I opened up the Book of Common Prayer to explore what resources it might give for a public prayer in a congressional or governmental setting. And that’s when I realized: almost all of the church’s public prayers are meant to be prayed aloud in public worship. They assume a room full of people who share a common faith and are offering shared petitions.
But that’s not the setting of the U.S. Senate. Christian charity in this context requires honoring the diversity of people in the room. I should not presume to speak for everyone present. Rather, the occasion requires that I address God, as one who worships him, on behalf of the Senators and their staffers, without assuming a shared faith – even as Daniel did in Babylon (Daniel 2:17-31).
So I wrote the following prayer:
Every one of us in this chamber now – whether Senator, staffer, or civilian – is first of all a human being, made in Your image. And so we pray: give us grace to acknowledge our limitations, admit our faults, and affirm our fellow human beings, despite our many differences. Let us always remember that to You, and You alone, we must give account.
Those who serve in this chamber have been given a noble and weighty responsibility: to seek and serve the common good of these United States. And so, as they attend to the work before them this day, grant them the wisdom of Solomon; the courage of Esther; the patience of Jeremiah; and the humility of Mary. May they be guided by Your providence, and strengthened by Your common grace, to fulfill Your purposes for this nation. Through Jesus Christ our Lord: Amen.
[Full disclosure, lest you think these words just flowed from the pen: I spent the better part of 4 hours thinking and praying and editing and refining.]
Here are my background thoughts on the specific words and themes I chose to use:
Almighty God / through Jesus Christ our Lord: Simple & traditional. The language of Christian liturgy that would be familiar to most anyone who’s ever attended a church. Honors God as Almighty and Christ as Lord in a way that’s basic and fitting for the occasion.
Every one of us in this chamber: the Senate floor includes not just Senators, but staff members and stenographers and interns and pages. I wanted to honor everyone in the room, relativizing differences of power and emphasizing our shared humanity.
is first of all a human being, made in Your image. The imago Dei is the most foundational aspect of anthropology and the starting point for all the Bible’s teaching about ethics and public policy. The first thing about us is our human-ness; and that fact can point a way through our political and social divides. Before we are Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, powerful or ordinary, we are human.
And so we pray: give us grace to acknowledge our limitations, admit our faults, and affirm our fellow human beings, despite our many differences. Our shared humanity means we have limitations and faults. And we need grace to admit that. But when we do, it opens the way to affirm our fellow human beings. We are not competitors in a high-stakes, zero-sum political game; we are human beings who do have the capacity to appreciate one another despite our differences.
Let us always remember that to You, and You alone, we must give account. Especially in places of power and influence, we must always remember that there is a God who is a higher authority, and before whose eyes all our work takes place. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13; see also Matthew 12:36, Romans 14:12, 1 Peter 4:5). Some of those present, no doubt, don’t think they will actually give account to God; which is why it’s appropriate for me to ask God, by his grace, to remind us of this fact. For on the day we all stand before him to give account for our lives, pleading ignorance won’t be an option.
Those who serve in this chamber have been given a noble and weighty responsibility: to seek and serve the common good of these United States. As I thought about the moment, I was overwhelmed with both the nobility and the weight of the office our Senators hold. Their decisions reverberate throughout the world and affect every American life. Serving the American people well requires setting aside self-interest and working for the common good. It requires give-and-take; it requires debate and discussion; it requires conviction and compromise. Naming both the nobility and the weight of the office reminds those present of the seriousness and significance of their vocation.
And so, as they attend to the work before them this day, grant them the wisdom of Solomon; the courage of Esther; the patience of Jeremiah; and the humility of Mary. The best public-square prayers are full of biblical imagery, calling forth the great heroes and high points of Scripture. I chose to explicitly name four characters (two men and two women), from four genres of Scripture (wisdom, OT narrative, prophecy, and NT gospel), who display three of the four classical virtues (wisdom/prudence, courage/fortitude, patience/temperance) – plus humility, which is greatly needed in places of power. By naming Esther, Jeremiah, and Mary, I also pay honor to the Jewish and Catholic traditions.
May they be guided by Your providence, and strengthened by Your common grace, to fulfill Your purposes for this nation. The classic Protestant doctrines of providence and common grace come into play here, as I acknowledge that national leaders are agents of God’s providence and beneficiaries of his common grace, whether they acknowledge Christ as Lord or not. Would I like to see widespread Christian revival in our nation? Yes. Would I like to see each Senator come to personal saving faith in Jesus Christ? Yes. But as a Christian and an American, my hope is not in spiritual renewal nor in Damascus-road conversions (though I pray for both). My hope is in a sovereign God who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11), guides history according to his sovereign purpose (Acts 17:26-28), and to whom will ultimately flow the honor of all the nations (Isaiah 60:3; Psalm 110; Revelation 21:26).
I don’t imagine these thoughts are necessarily new or novel, and I suspect those who serve in these kinds of spaces more regularly will have much to add. These are just the reflections of an ordinary pastor trying to serve well in a not-so-ordinary moment.