May 13, Jesus prays for you

Jesus prays for you

John 17: 6-19

One of the pastor’s unique tasks is to pray for people and to pray with people. Often, upon coming to the end of a pastoral visit, I will ask, “May I pray with you?”

Some people seem relieved that I ask that question – maybe it’s what they really wanted but weren’t sure how to ask for it. Others seem almost a bit put off that I would pose the question that way – almost as if they can’t believe that I would ask permission to take care of what is quite obviously my pastoral responsibility. Some folks are just grateful – for the words, for the touch. Some seem surprised (as if maybe they forgot they were talking to a pastor until that moment). And there are a few who seem mildly uncomfortable, perhaps unsure about just what sort of prayer to expect.

Every once in a while, when the conversation has seemed more business like than anything else, I don’t offer prayer. And that seems okay except that sometimes the person I am with will give me a “look” and I can’t always decide what that look means: Is it that a look of uncertainty (Okay, was I supposed to get a prayer with this visit or not?) or is it a look of disappointment (How come I don’t get a prayer?) or maybe even a look of relief (Well, if he’s not praying for me, things must be okay!)

In any case it is a unique role: being a person who prays with others, and I don’t take it for granted. After all, who else gets to do that? Who else gets to offer to pray with someone, and then to sit with them, often holding their hand, as we cast our lives into the care of God? Who else gets to do that, without it seeming kind of odd or out of place?

I don’t take it for granted and I don’t take it lightly. Those are holy moments; opportunities for something deeper than conversation, closer than friendship. And once the praying begins, role and expectation get overtaken by a sense of grateful privilege.

About six weeks ago I was on the phone with a church member as I was driving in an unfamiliar urban area, trying to find my next exit on an interstate highway. I was using my phone for GPS directions, but when the person called and I put the phone to my ear because the passenger beside me was asleep, and I wanted to keep the conversation a little softer than it would have been on speaker phone, I couldn’t see my little map anymore, although every now and then I could hear faintly the female navigation voice of Google maps trying to intrude on our conversation.

Anyway, as the conversation wound down, the person asked me to pray for them over the phone. And I did – whizzing along the highway, watching the heavy traffic around me, and trying to figure out when my exit was coming up.

I certainly wasn’t driving on auto-pilot, because as I said, I was on a highway in an unfamiliar city and I had to keep my wits about me, but what about the prayer itself?  Was I fully engaged in that? I wondered afterwards: Could I even remember what I had prayed, what I had said, or was my praying on auto-pilot?

At some level, our prayers can never really be on auto-pilot because praying requires an engagement of heart and a focusing of thought and an initiative of spirit. But like anything else, prayer can fall into patterns. And I’m sure that when my mind is occupied with two things at once – like finding the right exit on the interstate along with finding the right word of encouragement or comfort, that my driving gets more active attention, while my praying gets more passive attention.

Maybe that day, I didn’t pray on auto-pilot, but at the very least, I must have switched to my default setting. And so, what exactly is my default prayer? Now that’s an interesting question for me…

Is it a prayer for peace, for unity, for better understanding, for courage in the face of trials, for clarity in our discernment and faithfulness in our decisions? Is my default prayer a prayer for healing and wholeness? A word of gratitude for community? Or gratitude for a new day?

Is it a prayer that seeks to give comfort? Encouragement? Is there always a bit of confession in it? A bit of praise? A bit of petition? Is there asking and offering? Hopefulness and yearning?

I guess another way of saying that is, “What’s the prayer that’s in me – the one that’s deep down, in me – that comes to the surface when my attention is divided and I’m not carefully picking out each word? What is the prayer that I really want to pray? The one from down deep?

In the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is praying for his disciples. His prayer seems to wander around a bit. It’s even a bit confusing in the way it moves forward and then seems to double back on itself. It almost seems like the prayer of someone who is both exhausted and determined at the same time.

At this point in the gospel account, the moment of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas is almost at hand and his arrest is imminent. It would be understandable that he might be a little distracted. He’s on his own unfamiliar highway, with exits coming up one after the other. What’s the prayer that’s in him? The one that surfaces at a time like that?

Well, Jesus prays, but he doesn’t pray for himself – at least not in any direct way. He prays for his disciples. He prays for those who have followed him and learned from him and in the very near future will need to make their own way in the world.

Is it an automatic prayer? One that runs in the regular ruts? I don’t think so. I think it’s a prayer of heartfelt concern in that very particular moment. It’s the prayer of someone who has been in control (or at least felt in control) and now is handing over that control to those who will exercise their power over his life. It’s the prayer of someone who knows that there is evil and temptation in the world, and that safety is not just something to be sought in the face of physical threat, but also in the face of spiritual threat.

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is serious, but it is also a prayer for joy made complete. It is the prayer one might pray for those one loves, a prayer for their courage and clarity and strength and peace. And it is the prayer for truth – that Jesus’ followers would know him and know themselves and therefore know the difference between right and wrong, between good and bad, between giving in to the pressures of the world and living in the strength of God.

And along with everything else, it’s the prayer of someone who is leaving – the prayer that a person prays for those they have taught and lived with and loved, and who will soon be on their own.

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – which is also his prayer for us – sounds notes of yearning, anguish, connection, intimacy, joy, protection, holiness and unity. Jesus wants his followers to know God as he knows God, and to find courage and strength in that.

And in such a moment, it’s the words that matter, right? Jesus forms the words of a prayer for his disciples, and the words he chooses matter. Sure, but it’s not just the words – and what each specific word means. It’s also the spirit of this prayer – and the context and the timing and the intensity and all of the things that speak to the quality and the depth of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples as well as Jesus’ relationship with God. That’s where the depth is. The prayer comes from deep inside him. It’s words and it’s emotion; it’s information and it’s spirit.

So maybe what’s most important in this scripture then is that Jesus brings it all together: from the deepest part of his own soul, he encircles his followers with concern, he names his desires with clarity, and he brings all that in touch with his trust in God.

I talked last week about love having to do with actions and not just feelings, but maybe this week I can make a counterargument to that: that the words of prayer are expressions of love too – this spoken prayer is Jesus loving his disciples, by tucking them into his heart and then handing his heart over to God.

Jesus doesn’t really do anything in this scripture. It’s all talk. But nevertheless, what happens through that talk matters deeply. And that’s because this kind of talk – prayer talk -- changes lives. This kind of talk bridges the gaps. This kind of talk – the talk of prayer -- transforms anxiety into trust, and even changes anticipated grief into new confidence and hope.

I don’t know – maybe this is going the long way around to simply say that prayer matters, that our prayers matter, that Jesus praying for us matters, that us praying in Jesus’ name matters, that every little, momentary, holy encounter with God, where we offer our confessions and speak our praise and ask our questions and share our needs…matters.

When someone prays for you, it matters. And when you pray for them, it matters. Whether you can’t remember a word of it afterwards, or whether you went to your default setting so that you wouldn’t miss the exit, or whether you said only “thank you,” or “help me” or “what now?” as your prayer, it all matters.

Jesus prays for his disciples – and prays for us – because he knows that holding us in such a space, bringing us into his heart and offering his heart into God’s care, matters. It knits together body and soul. It speaks aloud the things we fear and the things we hope. It pushes us forward into whatever is next, forward with strength and courage. And all of that is important. Jesus prays for us in order to remind us to pray for each other, because it matters.

One of the things I miss about my mother is that she often told me that she was praying for me. And it wasn’t a passing statement, a “by the way” thing. I know she quite literally spoke words of concern and yearning on my behalf to God – and she probably did it every day. “You are in my prayers,” she would say, and I knew that was true.

Now, part of the reason I knew it was true was because my mother was a “worrier” and prayer was one of the ways she dispelled her own anxiety, and her children were among the persons she worried about most – their safety, their happiness, their well-being, their relationships.

So, when she said she was praying for me, she might as well have been telling me she was worrying about me! But while I knew that, I also knew that the worry, as disabling as it could sometimes be for her, was rooted, of course, in love. So, when she said, “You’re in my prayers,” or “I’m praying for you,” it was one more way of saying, “I love you – and I have hopes for you, and I am hurting with you, and I want to encourage you, and I am seeking to trust God with your life.”

Look, if you only do one thing differently this coming week, do this: say a prayer for someone you’re concerned about – someone who you suspect or who you know needs strength and peace, someone who needs encouragement, someone who is struggling with temptation or failure, someone who wants to live in the truth, but is teetering on the edge, someone who is feeling like they should belong in the world, but somehow doesn’t, someone who needs watching over, someone who would be humbled and maybe even grateful to know that you are praying for them.

Ideally, you would sit with that person and say the prayer for them in their presence – but even if you can’t pray with them, praying for them counts too.

And while you are at it, pray for yourself: for patience, for courage, for good-heartedness and right actions. Pray for those around you to be healed and restored, but also pray for yourself to be challenged and changed. Jesus is doing the praying, but you do it too.

 

And does it change anything? This praying?

 

Here’s a little story from one of Anne Lamott’s books. She writes,

 

I pray for the change in perception that will let me see bigger and sweeter realities. My friend Mason, who is fifteen and has brain cancer, had a massive bleed eighteen months ago. He was in a coma and then for many months in a deeply silent condition where it seemed to me, but not to his mother, that he was brain-damaged.

One day his mother e-mailed me a video from Mason’s rehab…titled “Mason Singing.” My heart leapt. His brother had filmed him in music therapy, sitting in a wheelchair between his mother and his therapist, who was playing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” At the end of every line, Mason would make a sound that was close to “hands,” and everyone cheered. I inwardly groaned, having imagined something so different, so much better.

Later that morning, I went up alone to my praying place. I called out, “Hello, Mother.” Then I prayed for a glimpse of wisdom.

By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I was amazed that Mason, silent for so long, had sung.

There is singing, and there is singing. Mason is back in school now. (Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, p.97)

Ah – a prayer to see the bigger and sweeter realities! Jesus does it and we do it by placing ourselves in the company of God with trust, openness and hope. Do some of that kind of praying this week, okay?

 

Amen.

 

Benediction:

Be people of prayer this week.

Pray for yourselves. Pray for each other.

Pray for healing, for compassion, for peace.

Pray for the creation. Pray for God’s children.

Pray with Jesus.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

May 13, 2018