- The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton
The Gift of Prayer
When I was in my early twenties I was a hospital chaplain intern for a summer. As Hospital chaplains we would visit all the new patients in the hospital and walk into their rooms and get to know them and pray with them and just be a support during their stay. I don’t know what I was expecting from my experience as a chaplain for the summer. But there was one thing I did not expect and that was my fear of prayer. No lie.
For the first month or so of the program I really struggled with asking people if they wanted me to pray with them. It may sound crazy since I was a seminarian at the time and now I’m priest. Prayer should have been the easy part. I love to pray. But there is something so vulnerable about praying with someone. We share an intimate and vulnerable and even broken side of ourselves in the words of our prayers not with just God but those sitting beside us.
For me at the time, asking someone I’ve have been talking with for five minutes if they want to pray felt awkward and intrusive. When we pray there is a feeling of vulnerability that causes us to trust and to open up our hearts to God’s will. For some reason I was just super nervous about it.
So, I shared this with one of my colleagues in the program and he suggested that I join him when he visits one of his patients.
I found myself in the oncology unit sitting at the bedside of man in his early forties who was dying of cancer. And despite his prognosis he had the biggest smile on his face and the room was filled with a sense of joy and laughter as my colleague and the man joked about the hospital food and he shared stories about his kids. I just sat back and enjoyed the light-heartedness in a place that carried a lot of pain.
It was nearing the end of the visit when my colleague asked the man if he wanted him to pray for him. Immediately, the man’s mood became very somber and sad. Once he said yes my colleague began to pray.
As I sat there with my head bowed and my eyes closed, I listened intently to the prayer. He prayed thanking God for the opportunity for all of us to be together, he prayed for the man’s health and for his treatment, he prayed for his doctors and nurses that they continued to give him good care, he prayed for the man’s children that they would be able to have some more time with him and that when he left them they would know that he loved them. All things that I had expected him to name and pray for.
But then there was pause and I thought that he was done so I opened my eyes. I noticed that my colleague reached out to hold the man’s hand and continued on. He prayed for the man’s burdened heart--that God would take away the guilt and shame that he carried with him from his time as the leader of the Latin Kings gang in the nearby town. He prayed that the man would allow himself to be forgiven. That he would know that he was a beloved child of God despite what he had done and his years in prison for those crimes he committed. He prayed that he would see God in his heavenly kingdom and know true peace.
When he said Amen and I opened my eyes once again and as I looked up at the man still holding my colleagues’ hand fiercely, there were tears streaming down his face and that joy-filled smile had returned and he quietly said thank you.
It was one of the most grace-filled moments of my life.
After that visit I not once feared asking any patients if they wanted me to pray with them. It was a humbling realization for me that I was letting my fear of being awkward or being uncomfortable get in the way of experiencing the holiness of prayer in community. As Jesus said when two or more are gathered, I am in the midst of the them, and in that oncology unit there he was—in the words of hope, forgiveness, truth and love—Jesus was right there.
That is the power of prayer people talk about it. Power is not just about the outcome of our prayers being fulfilled but rather the power of the holy spirit that moves us to action to engage those things that we need to lift up to God in prayer.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of making prayer a means of asking God for what we want and expecting him to be this “cosmic vending machine” answering all our prayers when we want him to. But prayer is the way we communicate with God not just by words but through our hearts. Our hearts that have to be opened to what God may call us to do.
Opening our hearts demands us to surrender our wants and needs to God’s will. And even though God’s will may be perfect it may not always feel that way to us. But ultimately, Prayer is communication that requires the mind, body and soul to let go of it’s need to control and fix, and surrendering itself to God’s action through us.
“Where Prayer is not only a means of asking God to act, it is also a means of asking God to give us opportunities to act.” Opportunities to engage and encounter the joys and pains that make up who we are. For that man it was colleague naming and giving permission to let go and allow prayer to move him to forgiveness and peace.
And it was this experience that I realized as Christians one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is prayer. It’s also a great privilege and gift that people are giving us when they allow themselves the opportunity to surrender and become vulnerable to the ways the Holy Spirit moves them and the ones praying for them.
Moving them to action in their own lives and encouraging it for others. Prayer is a gift because it’s powerful, relational, and transformative.
We see this today in the Gospel. Jesus prays for his disciples.
It’s the night before he died. And he has gathered with them for his final meal. The disciples are completely unaware that Jesus is leaving them despite his warnings and metaphors and parables and all the good stuff we have read throughout Lent. They probably heard Jesus pray more times then they could count. Praying for those he encountered in his ministry.
But it is what we hear today that could be considered a first for them. Jesus prays for his disciples. Not just with them but for them. Besides his request for them to remember him in the Holy Meal of Communion, one of Jesus’ final gifts to his disciples before he dies is praying on their behalf.
As their teacher and ultimately their dear friend, he asks God to protect them, to let them have joy in their faith, and to be made new in the truth of his resurrection. He’s praying for things that they did not even understand they would come to need. Jesus asks God for these things because he loved his friends. The Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland, Bishop Chilton says “love is conscious attention.” When those who care about us know what we need even when we don’t--that’s love. Because they are paying attention to our needs and that is what Jesus does today when he prays for the disciples.
He prays for them because he loves them. Because he knows that the most powerful and life-giving and life-changing thing he could model for them before he leaves--is showing them that prayer is essential to having a relationship with God and one another in order to be a follower of Christ. That in communicating with God through prayer is the most valuable and precious gift we have been given. So when we pray for people--it’s not something that Jesus intended to be taken lightly but rather considered it a Holy moment when we choose to encounter God on behalf of ourselves and others. A moment of vulnerability and surrendering to be changed.
That is why Prayer is not only a means of asking God to act, it is also a means of asking God to give us opportunities to act. A call to action. But as of late, telling someone you are in my thoughts and prayers has not held the same power and promise between people. It has unfortunately been used as a perfunctory sentence with no action taken. This is due to the continuation of violent acts and it’s assumed that no action is taken.
The importance of prayer has almost been considered cheapened by the use of this phrase because people feel that thoughts and prayers are not enough that action is what is needed. That’s true. Action is what is needed for things to change and for good to progress. And thoughts and prayers are not enough if we don’t think about people or pray for them like we said we would.
Prayer then is not an excuse to not do something but rather when we pray we take on the responsibility that we will be called to action when we open our hearts to God’s will.
There are those that feel that prayer is not enough but that’s not God’s descriptor. For God, prayer is the ultimate way we can connect and show our love to our creator by asking God to move us to do his work in the world. And by sharing the hardest and most painful parts of ourselves so that we open ourselves up to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
Because for God prayer is a form of action. “Prayer is not only a means of asking God to act, it is also a means of asking God to give us opportunities to act. Prayer is the first step, but it is not the final step. We pray as we move into action” (Pastor Dave Gass).
So, we can’t take prayer lightly.
We can’t say you’re in my thoughts and prayers if we don’t mean it. If you don’t take the time to ask God on their behalf that his presence be known to them then we are not living into the gift and responsibility we have been given.
Because prayer is a great gift that we share with one another. It pulls us to into relationships of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation and love. Allowing us the opportunities to not be passive in this life but to take action. And what does this action look like for you? For me it was letting go of my assumptions and seeing prayer in a new way. For that man it was continuing to heal his heart and make peace with himself.
May the Holy Spirit move us to think about the ways we can pray for others and they can pray for us--so that the power of prayer with it’s beauty and vulnerability and grace allows us to actively engage the world we live in and share the love of Christ with others. Amen.