"prayer," Image by Cocoabiscuit via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Back in February, I was the presenter at a woman’s retreat, my fourth year in a row with a group of women from this particular church. The retreat is held at the same place each year, a lovely location on a lake outside of Milwaukee. Always a different topic. But always the same fellowship, friendship, and love. I have come to count on these women. This year, perhaps I counted on them more than ever.
There are a lot of changes in my life these days, one being transitioning my oldest son from life at home to life after high school. Should he go to college? Does he want to go to college? A community college and then transfer? Take a gap year? Where would he be admitted? The retreat was a safe and familiar place to share my concerns, my worries, the impending grief and change, both for me and for my son. These feelings were rather consuming that weekend and very much on the surface, if you know what I mean. And they all sensed it as much as tried to hide it.
There’s always a craft project available on Saturday afternoon. I never participate. Not because I don’t want to -- I am not very crafty, and yet I love doing crafts when someone has it all planned out for me -- but usually I am grading, writing, answering email, or napping. This year, the craft was to make a bookmark, laminated, with a bible verse. As we were all leaving for home, one of the women gave me a bookmark she had made for me. This was the verse she chose…
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Are you kidding me? It was the very verse I needed to hear. It was the very verse I needed to take with me. It was the verse I needed more than ever.
Not even days after the retreat, holding that verse close to my heart, my son was accepted to a college. And then another one. And then another one. No matter what, if he chose to do so, there would be someplace for him to go.
This prayer, this pastoral care, when I least expected it and most needed it, is what I re-experience when I read these words again from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples.
When we pray, Dear Working Preachers, I wonder if we stop and think how people feel when we pray for them. I know they expect it. And I know you do as well -- it’s your job. But stop and think about how it feels.
Philippians 4:6 was prayed for me. I heard it. Over and over again. And trusted in its giver and in the words themselves more than I trusted in my own prayers for my son -- and for me. There are those times when we can’t find the words to pray for ourselves, to pray on our own, even to pray for those we love the most. Maybe we are tired. Maybe we just don’t know where to start. Maybe we think our issues are minimal compared to others. Or maybe, we don’t have to have an excuse. We just can’t do it.
And then you get a bookmark, that you place in last page of the book you are reading before you fall asleep, before you have to move on to the next task -- and you hear those words being prayed for you, on behalf of you. And your heart is a little less troubled.
I think this is what it feels like to overhear Jesus praying for you.
That upper room was filled with pain and abandonment. With betrayal and loss. With unsettled hearts and fearful souls. And Jesus ends it all with a prayer for his disciples. The section before this portion of the prayer is Jesus’ prayer for himself. The verses after our pericope are prayers for those yet to come into the fold. But this segment is for his disciples.
It’s easy to lift Jesus’ prayer out of its context, easy to compare it to the other gospels, or to generalize it in such a way that waters down the weight of its impact or reduces it to wise words on petitions or instructions on prayer. This is not the Lord’s Prayer. This is not Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. This is not only a personal prayer or privatized piety. After betrayal and predicted denial, after concerned questions and foretold rejection, the disciples do not need another lesson, another miracle, another example. They need exactly what Jesus does, because Jesus knows -- for Jesus to pray for them.
Dear Working Preachers, when you pray for others, over a bedside, an in-home visit, in a hospital waiting room, don’t underestimate what it feels like for that person to hear it, to experience it. And likewise, when your people want to pray for you, take them up on the offer. I know I’ve said this a hundred times, but have you ever thought about what it might feel like, sound like, to overhear Jesus praying for you? I suspect we are the first to forget, the first to deny, the first to pass off the prayers offered us, the prayers prayed for us, the prayers even Jesus wants to pray on behalf of us and for us.
But maybe this week, when such prayers come along, let them happen. It’s not that you deserve it. It’s not that you’ve earned it. It’s not that you will ask for it. It’s that perhaps someone sensed you needed it. And maybe you do. And that is so okay.