I know it might be a strange thing for me to say, but…prayer does not come naturally for me.
I can remember in high school, each night I would lay in bed and look through a Lutheran prayer book that I received at Confirmation. I would read any prayer that seemed to apply to anyone in my life at that point.
A prayer for the sick. Ahh yes, yes, Grandma was ill this past week, I’ll pray that prayer. A prayer for those traveling. My aunt is heading back to Chicago today. I’ll pray that prayer for her. A prayer for those…And so on and so on. I was so glad to have that book of prayers because it gave me words when I had no words to say.
Sometimes I still feel the same way. Without words to say. I lay my head on my pillow at night and I think, “Where do I begin? What do I even say? Does it even make any difference?”
In Annie Dillard’s book, Holy the Firm, she writes about a time when she was living in a little cabin in Puget Sound. Every Sunday she would make her way to a little church down the road in the fur trees. On a good Sunday, there’d be about twenty or so people there. Every Sunday, the pastor would pray the prayer out of the prayer book. Every Sunday. Every Sunday, the prayer from the prayer book. One Sunday, Annie says, he was leading us in the prayers of the people from the prayer book. He was praying for peace in the world and wisdom for the leaders and healing for the nations and forgiveness for the sinful, when suddenly he stopped in the middle of the prayer and blurted out, “God, we bring you these same prayers every week!” Then, startled, he went back and started reading the prayer again. Annie Dillard said, “Because of this, I like him very much.”
I suspect at that moment that minister named a truth that everyone else in the small congregation felt from time to time. God, we bring you these same prayers every week. Every week.
Sometimes, it’s hard to pray. Where do we begin? Lord, we bring you these same prayers every week. When we struggle to pray, I think it is because questions start to creep in, disrupting our prayers. All kinds of questions.
Sometimes when we start to pray, practical questions sneak in. Is there a God? Is there a God who hears? Is there a god who answers?
Other time ethical questions become the intruder. If my grandfather is living with torturous pain and can hardly move his body on his own. When all signs point to the fact he needs to die…is it alright to pray for death?
And sometimes, it is theological questions that hijack our prayers. If I pray for my sick child and they don’t get better does that mean that God didn’t hear my prayer. Or, if I pray for my sick child and they do get better, does that mean God would not have healed her without my prayer? (Tom Long)
Prayer does not come naturally for me. Sometimes…sometimes, it is just too hard to pray. I just don’t have the words to pray.
You may not have caught it, because it is easily missed, but Jesus, in our Gospel lesson,…is praying. He’s gathered around the table with his disciples. It’s the last supper. They’ve broken bread together. He’s gotten down on his knees and washed their feet. He’s given his farewell speech to his beloved friends and now…Jesus is praying.
Jesus is not just praying to God. He is praying to God on behalf of his disciples. He is praying for them.
Have you ever had someone pray for you? Have you ever had someone stop you in the middle of your conversation and say, “Can I pray for you right now?”
A pastor friend of mine has started getting into the habit of asking people, “How can I pray for you?” She asked that question to a congregation member, and do you know what the man did? He laughed. “How can you pray for me? Well, are you serious?” We do that sometimes when we are uncomfortable. We laugh. But then he stopped laughing and said reflectively, “Well…I don’t know.” You could hear it in his voice. It was like no one had ever asked to pray for him on his behalf before.
We aren’t use to someone praying for us. In fact, we might even laugh the idea off at first. But if we can get past that initial discomfort…it can be a great gift. And that is what Jesus does with his disciples. He prays for them.
But the thing is, it is a confusing prayer. You can’t quite figure out what it is that Jesus is saying. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, Jesus says. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.” I mean, c’mon Jesus, what’s the point. What are you saying? If we can’t even understand it when you pray…then what’s the point?
When the mother of Terry Fretheim, Old Testament professor up at Luther Seminary, was close to death, she said to her son, “Terry, I have prayed for you every single day of my life.” A couple of weeks later, he shared that story with his class of seminary students. After class that day, a middle-aged woman came up to Terry and said, “Professor Fretheim, I would like to pick up where your mother left off. Know that I will pray for you…every single day.” Years later, telling that story to my seminary class, Fretheim said, “Ever since then, I have always felt held up by the prayers of someone else.” And you know what I realized. Everyday this woman prays for him and he has no idea what she is praying about. And yet it continues to lift him up knowing someone out here is praying for him. He doesn’t know what she is praying for, but it doesn’t really matter does it? All that matters is that it is on his behalf.
Back in 2009, I spent three weeks in Los Angeles for a Spanish Immersion class through seminary. For those three weeks, fellow seminarians and I lived and breathed Spanish language and Latino culture. Now at the same time, Lauren was in Geneva, Switzerland, also for a seminary class. We were literally half a world apart for three weeks. As you can imagine, it was hard to stay connected. Every day, I drove to class with the same two guys, Tom and Olaf. Now Olaf was a large 300 pound intimidating German man. When he order coffee at Starbucks, it was like a drill sergeant giving commands on the front lines of war. Despite this, he was a soft hearted and deeply loving man. One day, in the car, I was lamenting about how hard it was to be so far away and disconnected from Lauren. When we arrived at the church where our class was being held, Olaf got of the car, and in his booming German voice said, “Well, let’s go pray about this.” I know I was a seminarian and all, committed to this whole pastor thing. In fact being trained to pray for others but the moment Olaf wanted to pray for me, I was uncomfortable. Olaf marched Tom and I into the chapel, stopped in front of the altar, and reach out his hands. And there, with hands clasped, Olaf and Tom prayed for Lauren and me. And you know what? I felt lighter that day. I felt like something greater than me was holding me up that day. And truth be told, I can’t even remember the words that Olaf said that day. But it doesn’t really matter. All I know is that when I least expected it, someone else prayed for me on my behalf.
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is confusing. It’s hard to understand. You don’t know what he’s saying. But you know…maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that he is praying for them. On their behalf. And here is the best part…he isn’t just praying for them. He is praying for you and me too. It’s right there at the beginning of our text. “Lord, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
Sometimes, it can be hard to pray. Sometimes the words just aren’t there. Sometimes the questions are too haunting. But when you don’t know how or what to say. When the words just aren’t there… know this. Jesus will come to you. Maybe in a 300 pound German man, or maybe in a former student, or maybe in the prayers of a community…Jesus will come and pray for you on your behalf. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we understand Jesus’ prayer for us. Maybe all that matters is that he prayed. And continues to pray for us. When you don’t have the words to pray. When you are not even sure you believe in prayer, there is someone out there praying on your behalf. And it is the greatest prayer of them all. The creator of prayer, the hearer of all prayers, Jesus Christ himself. And Jesus said, “Lord, I ask you not only on behalf of my disciples, but also on behalf of those who will come to believe through them.” AMEN