Prayer & Mystery
I’ve wanted for a while to write an occasional series of posts on prayer. Why? Because, frankly, I don’t understand prayer. I know I’m supposed to do it. And I do. But that doesn’t mean I understand it. I don’t understand, for instance, how it works. I’m not always sure what I’m supposed to do, either. And I definitely can’t quite figure out the part about “answered” prayer.
Maybe you’ve felt that way, too. Maybe there’s a lot about prayer that you don’t understand, but you still do it. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe prayer is too big to simply understand, too important for us to be able to define simply or once and for all. Maybe at its heart, prayer is a mystery.
Mystery, not simply an unknown, like a puzzle. Puzzles, and many other kinds of other unknowns, beg to be solved, to be figured out. But mystery is bigger than that. It’s not that mystery is completely unknown, but that it’s ultimately elusive – you can know some things about mystery, but you can’t finally pin it down. In fact, “knowing” doesn’t seem like quite the right category when you’re talking about mystery. Because mystery defies knowing. But mystery also and simultaneously invites experiencing.
Think of the most important relationships in your life. A child or sibling, partner or spouse, best friend or close colleague – you know some things, even a lot of things, about this person. Yet who that person really is remains something of a mystery – there is still more to know, more to discover. But beyond what you know and don’t know there’s still an actual person right there, a person you can experience, love and be loved by. You don’t need to know everything about the person to experience him or her. In fact, when you think about it, you realize this not-knowing-but-still-experiencing is part of the delight of mystery. There is always more to experience, more to learn, more to be surprised by.
And maybe prayer is like that. In fact, I’m pretty sure prayer is like that.
Which is why I’m writing: to try to think some things through about prayer, not in the hope that I’ll one day figure it all out, but so that I can experience it more fully. And I invite you to come along for the ride, to share you own sense of what prayer is and how we’re to do it and, perhaps most importantly, your own experiences of prayer.
As I mentioned, I’ve wanted to write on prayer for a while, but I think what kick-started me to get going is the gospel reading appointed in the lectionary for this Sunday. It’s from the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, a section named “the High Priestly Prayer.” And that seems like a good place to start. After all, if Jesus is praying – and, boy, in this chapter Jesus prays for a long time – then maybe we should pay attention. We’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, but there’s a way in which this passage is the other Lord’s Prayer, where we actually see and hear Jesus pray.
So what is Jesus’ prayer like? Well, first let’s note that it’s takes place on Thursday night, the evening before Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. And so Jesus has been talking – for three chapters! – with his disciples about what it will be like for them after he leaves. He’s preparing them for life and ministry without him. And then he prays for them.
Let’s start, though, with what he doesn’t pray for. Interestingly, he doesn’t pray that it will get easier. He knows it won’t. He doesn’t pray that the disciples will escape the challenges, struggles, or even persecutions that Jesus knows they will face. And he doesn’t pray that they will defeat all their enemies and create a Christian government or society. He doesn’t pray for any of this.
So what does he pray for? He prays for them to hang in there. And for them to hang in there together. He asks that God would strengthen them, care for them, protect them, and keep them together. In fact, Jesus asks that they would be one, one fellowship, one family, not just modeling the “oneness” of Jesus and the Father but actually living into it, participating in it, making it real and in this way sharing in Jesus’ joy.
So right up front, I find it really interesting that Jesus is incredibly realistic in this prayer. He knows it will be hard for his companions, he knows it will be difficult, he knows that the dominant spirit of the world – the spirit that we do not have enough, are not enough, that we are competitors with each other for scarce resources – will often be threatened by, even hate, the message and spirit of Jesus’ vision of abundant life where we not only have enough but are told that we are enough – that is, that God loves us just as we are. And so he prays not for an escape from all that, but for perseverance to deal with it.
And maybe that’s a good enough place to start. When we pray, we’re invited to be realistic, to be honest, to share what is hard in our lives. And to ask for help. To ask God to hold onto us, to help us not just survive but to flourish. And to do it together. To be in relationship with each other, supporting each other, celebrating with each other, bearing each other’s burdens and hopes, disappointments and dreams.
So being honest, praying for help, praying that we hang in there, sensing as we do that we are participating in the divine communion that Jesus enjoys with the Father and that he invites us into, even now, even here. That’s not all we might say about prayer, but it’s a start.
PS: If you’re interested, if written a little more about this passage in relation to preaching and offered a suggestion for involving people in the sermon in my weekly column at Working Preacher.