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Kent Bernhardt: The Christmas prayer

Studies tell us that the greatest fear known to most Americans is – (Drum Roll) – Public Speaking.

That’s ahead of cockroaches, zombies, and being trapped in an elevator with an Amway salesman.

We don’t like to speak in front of large groups or even small groups for that matter. We manage one-on-one conversations best, and most of even find those uncomfortable unless we know the person well.

Someone told me back in high school that the best cure for the fear of public speaking was to imagine your audience naked. That would magically instill you with confidence and give you total command of your audience. I found it didn’t work.

As soon as I spotted the naked girl I was hoping to ask to the homecoming dance, I forgot was I was supposed to be talking about. It was particularly uncomfortable when I preached my first sermon, so I never recommend the Buff Method of Public Speaking.

I think, however, there is a greater fear than public speaking, and that’s public praying.

There’s nothing quite as unsettling as the moment of panic felt when suddenly and without notice being asked to deliver a congregational prayer. Or even a family dinner blessing.

I can usually navigate them with ease, but I’m older and wiser now. I’ve learned a thing or two about just letting the words come to you instead of frantically searching for them like a set of lost car keys.

I attended the Reformed church in my small community as a child, but in my early twenties I often frequented First Baptist Church on Sunday evenings. I needed a spiritual booster shot, and I had grown a few deep friendships with the staff there.

It was their custom to farm out the closing prayer each week, and I assumed as a visitor I would be immune to selection. Who knew what I would say, and the pastor would surely be unwilling to take the chance.

Well, you know what they say about assuming.

On the Sunday evening before Christmas, a deep panic shot through my entire being as I heard the pastor say “And now, we’re going to ask a young man who has visited with us regularly for some time now to deliver our special Christmas closing prayer.”

I was hoping he meant another young man who had been visiting for some time but I knew better, especially when he went to the trouble to mention my name.

I stepped to the front of the sanctuary. Like a pop quiz in History class, there was no time to prepare. I was the one who felt naked this time. Worship experience and a mild amount of public speaking talent would be the only tools at my disposal.

As I asked the faithful to bow their heads, I wanted to explain this was my first attempt at public prayer, and ask them to pray for the trembling, sweaty man who stood before them.

“Dear Lord, guide this unworthy servant as he attempts to avoid embarrassing and possibly even soiling himself.”

My words began to flow, not like honey, but more like a soda fountain with too much carbonation. There were bursts of inspiration followed by a string of meaningless thee’s and thou’s connected to no thought whatsoever.

“Thou art the true giver of thine abundances and thy gracious goodness is thine alone….”

What was I saying?

I heard words coming out of my mouth that made absolutely no sense, and as I attempted to pray for an open and giving heart during the Christmas season, my mind was filled with a picture of a trap door that would open under me and deliver me to my car in the church parking lot.

I limped to the end of my oration and immediately resolved this would never happen again.

I knew in my heart being asked to lead other worshipers in prayer was an honor and something I should be prepared for next time. And I was, when it happened again just before Easter.

To this day, I try to be prepared for such a moment – not through rehearsal – but through simply letting my mouth verbalize what’s already in my heart. It’s easier that way, and works most of the time.

So as we approach this Christmas season, let us all remember that “Thou art the true giver of thine abundances, and thy gracious goodness is thine alone….”


Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

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