When You Haven’t Got a Prayer (you really do)

John 17:6-19

“Prayer for many is like a foreign land,” said Robert McAfee Brown.  “When we go there, we go as tourists.  Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place.  Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.”

If you’ve ever felt even a little bit uncomfortable or awkward about praying, if you’ve ever felt like a “tourist in a foreign land” when you pray,  here in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, is an example of Jesus praying for his disciples that should make us all a lot more comfortable about our own prayer life.  Jesus is clearly praying from the heart here.  He knows the end is near.  There is a lot to say and not much time left to say it.  He prays for protection for these friends who have been his travel companions and students for three years and are heading into more difficulty than they can begin to imagine.  He prays for their unity.  That has to be comforting for them.  There is comfort here for us, too, especially as his request for protection and unity for his followers travels down through the ages to include us here and now.  But there is something else in this prayer that should make us more at ease in our own prayers.

Jesus rambles.  I mean no disrespect or sacrilege when I say that.  In this prayer, Jesus rambles.  We could, of course, ascribe that rambling to the writer of the Gospel.  But we can’t deny it.  In this wonderful, passionate, heartfelt prayer for the unity and protection of his disciples, Jesus rambles.  A bit.

I, for one, find that very comforting.  Because I ramble in my prayers.  Often.   I talk to God a lot, and it’s a rare blue day when I come into the conversation with all my thoughts completely organized.  I know people who do, but that’s just not my personality type.  

Over the years of my ministry I’ve been asked a number of times to teach a class or workshop on prayer.   I confess it always catches me by surprise.  Part of me wants to say, “How do you not know how to pray?”  But I realized years ago that a lot of people think there is a proper method for praying and they suspect they’re not doing it right.  Or they think that if they learn some secret formula for prayer they have a better chance of their prayers being answered the way they want them answered.  

Here’s the thing.  Prayer is not that complicated.   There really aren’t any secrets.

“Prayer is simply a two-way conversation with God.”  Billy Graham said that.  And since God doesn’t talk all that much, that means that you can simply share your thoughts with God.  That’s prayer.  You don’t have to kneel or fold your hands—although if it helps you pray to do that, then by all means do so.  

If you’re the kind of person who likes more structure than that, you can try the ACTS model for prayer.  A-C-T-S.  A for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S-for supplication.  Start by telling God all the wonderful things you’re seeing and experiencing and how much you love God for filling the world with such wonders.  When’s the last time you said, “I love you” to God?  You might be surprise at how much that simple act can change you.  So, Adoration.  Then do some introspection and Confess your mistakes and shortcomings.  You don’t have to beat yourself up.  Just acknowledge them.  Follow that by Thanking God for all the ways you’ve been blessed, all the ways you’ve been protected and cared for, for the food on your table, for, well, everything that makes your life livable.  “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, that will be enough,” said Meister Eckhart.  After you’ve said “thank you,” then you can ask for things.  That’s the time for Supplication. Unless it’s an emergency, of course.  If something is bleeding or broken—and that includes your heart—you can lead with supplication.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.  ACTS.  The nice thing about this model is that it keeps you from leaping right into your conversation with God with your requests.  It keeps us from treating God like Santa Claus or a celestial vending machine.

The point of prayer, after all, is not to get things from God or keep giving God your wish list. Remember, Jesus told us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matthew 6:8)  The real point of prayer is to develop and deepen your relationship with God.  “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God,”  said St. Theresa of Avila.  Henri Nouwen said, “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.” “What if,” asked Richard Rohr, “what if instead of prayer, we used the word communing?  When you’re communing with someone, it isn’t long before you’re loving them.”

As for doing it right…there are as many ways to pray as there are people praying.  “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.  So singing is an option.  So is dancing.  You can pray while walking.  You can pray while exercising.  Saint Ignatius said, “Bodily exercise, when it is well ordered, is also prayer and pleasing to our Lord.”  So there you go!  Pray while you’re at the gym!  

Back before I lost most of my hearing I used to lose myself  in improvising on my guitar and I would offer that time to God as a kind of prayer.  Kelsey Grammer said, “Prayer is when you talk to God.  Meditation is when you’re listening.  Playing the piano allows you to do both at the same time.”  I think most musicians have had that kind of experience.  There are times in music when you experience a  holy presence that goes beyond words.  You can experience that even when you’re just listening if you really immerse yourself in the music.

“The Glory of God is the human being fully alive;” said Saint Irenaeus, “the life of a human being is the vision of God.”  So if you’re singing or you’re dancing or riffing on your bagpipes, let that flow to the perichoresis of the ever-dancing Holy Trinity as a communion of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.  Let that activity speak for your heart and don’t worry about impressing God with churchy-sounding words and phrases.  “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words,” said Gandhi, “than words without heart.”  “The fewer the words, the better the prayer,” said  Martin Luther.

And don’t worry about whether you should address God as Father, or Jesus, or Spirit, or Lord.  It’s all one to the Three-in-One.  When you speak to one of them you speak to all three. 

Prayer is a powerful way to center yourself in difficult times.  Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the artist and sculptor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for organizing and leading the opposition to Argentina’s military dictatorship said, “For me it is essential to have the inner peace and serenity of prayer in order to listen to the silence of God, which speaks to us, in our personal life and the history of our times, of the power of love.”  Such an extraordinary thing—to find through prayer the strength and resolve to love in the face of brutal opposition.  “Prayer,” said Myles Monroe, “is our invitation to God to intervene in the affairs of the world.”   “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement,” said Gandhi.  “Properly understood and properly applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”  “To clasp the hands in prayer,” said Karl Barth, “is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Prayer is a powerful tool for difficult times, and we tend to turn to it automatically in times of crisis. But we shouldn’t wait for a crisis to turn to God.  As I said at the beginning, the main purpose of prayer is to deepen and strengthen our relationship with God.  “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals,” wrote C.S. Lewis.  “And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”  

That, in the end, is what prayer is all about:  letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And letting our lives flow more deeply into the life of God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.