“Lord Teach Us To Pray: For Me and For You”
April 2, 2023
John 17:1-2, 20-26
There were no walls, the better to let some breeze blow through, and by the time the bell summoned everyone to evening prayer, you could finally feel a hint of coolness in the humid, tropical air.
It didn’t hurt that this chapel was on the 7th floor, high above the stuffy streets below, but you could still hear the sounds of engines revving, children yelling, the occasional rooster crowing. But up there you felt a little removed from all the noise – the chapel provided an oasis right in the bustle of the city.
This was St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Sadly, that building was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake, but if I close my eyes I can still picture that chapel in my head. The red tile floor, the beautiful murals painted on the wall, a circle of chairs, each occupied by one of the orphaned boys who called that place home. The younger boys slumped over and about to fall asleep. The older boys wide awake.
Weeks before our arrival, we had each been assigned one of the boys as a prayer partner and they had been praying for us as we prepared to visit them in Haiti. I met my prayer partner for the first time in that Chapel and each night he would pray for me by name. All the boys did – at one point during the evening devotion, they would all begin to pray at the same time in Creole so it was hard to know what they were saying, but you could make out the names: Jarrett, Alison, Patrick, Meg.
My prayer partner was Jackie. When you’ve been praying for somebody and they have been praying for you, you naturally take a special interest in getting to know one another. Jackie and I tried our best to communicate through his “pretty good English” and my abysmal attempts at Creole.
I noticed that the younger boys would laugh when they heard my name. Jackie told me: “It’s because your name means ‘Thigh’ in Creole.”
Jackie tried to teach me how to drum and to dance – emphasis on try. He was one of the best dancers in the whole house so it was hard to keep pace. In the end we bonded over simpler things…like…who could do the most push-ups. Jackie was a great prayer partner to me.
Ten days later I went home and resumed my life in the US, but a few years later I returned to Haiti, returned to St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, and I found myself sitting in that chapel once more at evening prayer.
Same cool breeze, same sounds in the streets, same evening devotion, same simultaneous prayers in Creole…but what struck me is that all the boys began reciting a list of names – and tucked in there amidst a whole host of other people I could hear it “Jarrett, Alison, Patrick, Meg.”
I don’t know if you caught it but earlier I said that Jackie was a great prayer partner to me – past tense. I had placed time boundaries on our relationship as prayer partners, but not Jackie. With all the challenges of being a young man in Haiti, Jackie had still prayed for me every day for years. It was a humbling realization.
Our reading today comes from the Gospel of John, the 17th chapter. Some context: The way John tells the story – the Palm Parade happened way back in chapter 12. From there, the disciples gather with Jesus for the Last Supper. Jesus washes their feet and then dismisses Judas to go and betray him.
And then for the next FOUR chapters, Jesus teaches the disciples in what is called the Farewell Discourse. He’s preparing them for life without him. The Farewell discourse concludes in chapter 17 when Jesus prays for his disciples. Listen:
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…
‘…I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
He didn’t look like much, standing at all of about 5 foot five inches tall, but he was a giant of a man. His round wire glasses, short dark mustache and long southern drawl made him impossible to miss. John Trotti served as the librarian at Union Presbyterian Seminary for over 30 years.
Dr. Trotti rejoiced when an incoming class included some UNC grads and he was quick to invite us over to watch Tarheel hoops. Nancy Myer’s brother Neil may bleed Michigan State Green and White but he was adopted into that family.
John served popcorn popped the old fashioned way, in a pot with oil. He intentionally burned his portion because he, I quote, “liked the taste of carbon.” In his lap, he held this ancient, stuffed Tarheel basketball for when the games were close – he called it his “worry ball.”
These are but a few things that endeared John Trotti to countless generations of seminarians. But perhaps most striking of all is that he carried a small flip-pad of paper in his breast pocket – it was his prayer list.
You see, Dr. Trotti had that disarming charm that got you talking about whatever was going on in your life. If you shared something heavy, he would take that flip pad out and find the next day he could fit you in to his prayers.
That might sound kind of odd, that he had to fit you in, but fit you in he would.
“Tell you what…I’m going to pray for you this coming Thursday,” he’d say.
I can’t recall with certainty, but I want to say that Dr. Trotti had space for seven names on his prayer list for each day. Seven was the number of folks he could pray for authentically. Beyond that, it felt like he couldn’t give that prayer the energy that you deserved.
Prayer was serious business to John Trotti.
He was never satisfied to simply say “I’ll pray for you.”
He scheduled it. He meant it.
Have you ever had somebody pray for you? Really pray for you?
Time was running out for Jesus. Judas was already gathering with the Roman Centurions and the Temple guards. While they were strapping on swords and lighting torches, Jesus was praying.
He could have been running. He could have been hiding. He could have been escaping. Instead, he was praying – and not for himself.
There is plenty of content to unpack in Jesus’ prayer, but right now I’m interested in the profoundly simple fact that he prayed for his disciples. Not just for the twelve, though. Did you catch it? Jesus prayed for us as well. He said:
‘I ask not only on behalf of these,” – being the twelve – “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
His prayer wasn’t just for Peter, James, John, Matthew, Nathaniel…this is Jesus praying for ALL of us. Millions, perhaps billions, of people. Dr. Trotti may have held to a strict 7-people-per-day limit, but Jesus doesn’t shy away from praying for all his future followers, that we might be one.
In spite of all opinions to the contrary, I still maintain that it is a powerful thing – to have somebody pray for you. Really pray for you.
This week the city of Nashville joined the number of communities who have suffered the tragedy of a fatal school shooting. Whenever these happen – which is alarmingly often – Gun Laws may be the topic that moves to the forefront of our national discourse, but right there behind it, lurking in the background, is a conversation about prayer. And like everything in America these days, it’s highly polarized.
First comes the flood of “thoughts and prayers” statements that go out to the families of the victims. Then comes the backlash: “Save your thought & prayers, we want policy & change.”
Somewhere in the crossfire, the practice of prayer has been obscured…perhaps even cheapened.
David French, a journalist who lives in Nashville and so is close to this latest shooting, and also a person of faith, wrote an Op-Ed piece, wondering aloud about this topic. He describes how the phrase “I’ll pray for you” can become a polite form of dismissal; a way to strike a vague posture of concern for tragedies that are absolutely preventable by concerted, collective action. This, French says, turns something that is profoundly sacred into profane platitudes.
But where faith is genuine and care is real, he argues, it’s a powerful thing to pray for those who are hurting and feeling powerless in the face of so much injury. And if you are the one who is suffering, there may be nothing more powerful than the act of somebody praying for you…really praying for you. Prayer is how we touch the hurts that have no words.
Prayer is also how we dig deep to find the courage to do the right thing and prayer is how we seek the wisdom to know what that right thing might be. “Prayer,” he says, “is not a substitute for action, it’s a prerequisite for action.”
I think there is something to be learned in there;
that we don’t pray to God so that God will make things happen.
We pray so that we might get clear about what we will make happen.
When we pray for others, we are not abdicating our responsibility to care for them; we’re not dumping the whole situation in God’s lap and resuming our regularly scheduled lives, unchanged.
Like my prayer partner, Jackie in Haiti – prayer commits us in loving care to the one we pray for in a way that is measured in months or even years…far more than just a single moment.
Like Dr. John Trotti – prayer alters our plans as we schedule our days around someone or something other than ourselves.
And finally, prayer puts us square in the path of the worst this world can throw at us, giving us access to a power we could never summon on our own – power to witness to and work toward a world where nobody hurts or destroys any of God’s creations.
Friends, Jesus prays for you – and Jesus invites you to pray for one another. There really is nothing more powerful than that.