When I was young, I was great at praying. I would talk to God while I was flying my spaceship…I mean, riding my bike around the farm. I would talk to God while I was climbing the rocky ridges and steep cliffs of Mount Everest…I mean small apple tree in our yard. I was even told that I was once heard praying, of all places, while on the toilet. It did not matter where I was, at home or at school, standing or lying; I was talking to God. The mention of praying at school reminds me of the truth: that prayer will never leave our public schools as long as tests remain. You know how that pre-test prayer goes:
“Lord, even though I didn’t study, and Lord, even though I copied half of the answers to my math problems from the back of the book, and Lord, even though I stared at my eraser for 45 minutes straight rather than doing my homework the other night, please…please let me do good on this test so that my parent don’t yell at me. Because, you, O Lord, would never want disruption in my family. So, for the sake of peace in my family…heck, for the sake of peace in the world, let me do good on this test.”
I was a great talker to God. I was great at praying. I would share whatever was on my mind. I would share whatever concern arose, as soon as it arose. I truly believed that Jesus was right there, standing next to me, ready to hear my prayer. And, Jesus was.
And, then it stopped. Somewhere between my freshman years of high school and college, the praying slowly tapered off and disappeared. This fact occurred to me as I sat at a church function one Sunday afternoon, and was paralyzed when the pastor asked me out of the blue to pray for the group. How many of you would be paralyzed right now if you were asked the same? How does that gift of prayer get lost?
I am actually not certain, but I do have an idea. You see, I never understood all of that talking to God as prayer. Prayers, I thought, were well crafted narrative pieces that professionals, the pastor, spoke in an official capacity. What I did? Well, I never really thought about what I did as prayer. That was just talking.
Not only did I think that I had no clue how to pray, I also feared that I may pray the wrong thing in prayer. Now, I obviously did not have a problem with saying all the wrong things to God in a conversation about upcoming tests. But, to selfishly ask God to help me on a doomed test in an official "prayer" I feared would be quite…well…wrong. What if I prayed the wrong thing?
Then, of course, there is that whole "everyone is listening to me" component of public prayer, which really should not matter because everyone else is just glad that they were not the ones called upon to pray in public. Most people are happy with anything you say because they are not the ones doing it. That is the truth.
All of these doubts about prayer culminated in one climactic episode in which I stood alone, as a pastor in training, in the room of a woman on a ventilator who had no brain function, who would exist, but not actually live, for another 14 years. While I stood, staring at her, I asked, “What’s the point?” and I simply walked away.
I did have enough courage to share this new payer low with my pastoral supervisor, a calm, sweater vested nun, who said, “Why didn’t you just pray that then?”
“Pray what I asked?”
“Why didn’t you just say to God, ‘What’s the point?’ That sounds like a fine thing to ask Jesus. It seems that only Jesus would know how to address that situation appropriately.”
That was the turning point on prayer for me. It was at that moment that I thought back to my childhood and realized that I have known how to pray all along. Just talk to God. And, over the years it has come back, little by little. And, with that coming back I find encouragement along the way. Like this prayer from Jesus found in John 17. I find lots of encouragement in it.
Number one, it is the most rambling, repetitive prayer in the existence of prayers. I am not saying that there is not anything important in there. There is lots of important stuff in there, but the form of the prayer is horrible. Thank you Jesus for praying this horribly rambling prayer. Really, I mean it, thank you. It means a lot to someone who prays terribly.
Number two, I find encouragement in the fact that Jesus does know what to pray for. He prays that all find their life in God and that all may be one with God, and one with each other. In other words, he prays his great commandment, that we love God and love one another. This is a theologically sound prayer. He prays it exactly the right way.
How exactly do I, someone who prays for selfish things, find comfort in this? Simple, I know Jesus walks beside me, and will pray the correct prayer for me, even though my own falls desperately short. So, when I pray, “Lord,…insert name here…really hurt me, so show me some justice that may they feel the roasting fires of a low, low place on their toes very soon,” I know that Jesus will take that prayer and transform it. Jesus will pray something more like, “Father, your child is hurt, give him the gift of forgiveness that…insert name…and he may come together again and be one in peace as we are one in peace.”
We do not pray the correct prayers. None of us pray the correct prayers. But, that is of no matter. Jesus prays the ones that should have come from our lips. As a result, we may not get the result that we wanted from our own prayer, but we will get the correct one because of Jesus. It is OK to pray a terrible prayer, because it will be transformed. Feel free to just pray whatever is on your heart and mind.
There is one child whose meal payers I just love. “Lord, thank you for the food, and for my friends here, and that there won’t be any aliens who come and kill us, Amen.” That, my dear friends, is the perfect prayer. After-all, who wants to be killed by aliens! It is free from constraint. It is honest. It is a conversation. If only our prayers as adults could be so honest.
For those of us who struggle to pray with such freedom, why not try something? Why not let Jesus pray for us, as he does in John 17? Why not take time right now to mention one thing that you want Jesus to pray about? Is what you desire to pray about right or wrong? It does not matter. Let Jesus pray the right prayer for you. Take a moment right now to simply mention to Jesus one thing that you want Jesus to hold up for you in prayer today.