What better topic to talk about today, on our National Day of Prayer, than the topic of prayer. Just yesterday, I was struck by a beautiful story-filled paper on prayer. Halfway through, my eyes began to tear up, and they didn’t stop until I was finished. There is a depth to prayer that I had forgotten, and I’d like to share it with you today. Let’s pray…

Holy Father and Compassionate Friend, guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will we might truly discover joy and peace. Amen.

John 15:1-8 (same as last week!)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

“Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” — Fanny Crosby (lyrics) & W. H. Diane (music) (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)

Pass me not, O gentle Savior
Hear my humble cry
While on others Thou art calling
Do not pass me by

Savior, Savior
Hear my humble cry
While on others Thou art calling
Do not pass me by

Let me at Thy throne of mercy
Find a sweet relief
Kneeling there in deep contrition
Help my unbelief  (Refrain)

Trusting only in Thy merit
Would I seek Thy face
Heal my wounded, broken spirit
Save me by Thy grace  (Refrain)

Thou the Spring of all my comfort
More than life to me
Whom have I on earth beside Thee?
Whom in Heav’n but Thee?  (Refrain)

Karl Barth is known for his massive, fourteen-volume set of thick theology books called Church Dogmatics. But, maybe he should be known for his thoughts on prayer — not because they are high and lofty, but because they are practical and true. In a word, Barth reminds us that we pray not because we’re good at it, but because we are encouraged to do it, like a parent encourages a child. “There is no art in prayer,” he counsels, “only the simple fact that God’s children may pray.”

I know that, as a pastor, I’m practically paid to pray, but that doesn’t make it easy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to do what we might think should be something simple, and because of that, Romans 8:26 has become a mantra of mine: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul explains in one of the most powerful passages in the whole Bible, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” 

For Paul, humility is the posture of prayer. It’s why we kneel and bow our heads, exposing our necks, and it’s even one of the reasons we so often end our prayers with “in the name of Jesus.” Prayer’s power isn’t our power. It’s Jesus’ power. Barth understands this well:

“Who can pray?  Is there any one of us who can say, ‘I can pray’? I am afraid that if someone did, it would not really be true. Real prayer is something we cannot do. It is something that happens. It happens through us, yet not on the basis of any ability of ours, but on the basis of the fact that God has accepted us as his children. If we are his children, then we cry out to him.”

Prayer is grace. Prayer is gift. For this reason, Barth insists that there’s only one thing to do when we struggle to pray — we keep praying. Sometimes it will flow; sometimes it won’t. But that’s the nature of prayer.

How do we know that God hears our prayers? The answer, once again, is because when we pray, it’s not really us praying at all. It’s Jesus. “God is the Father of Jesus Christ,” Barth reminds us, “and that very man, Jesus Christ, has prayed, and he is praying still. Such is the foundation of our prayer in Jesus Christ…God cannot fail to answer since it is Jesus Christ who prays.” So, prayer is not just a gift. It’s a promise — a promise just as sure and certain as salvation itself.

In John 15, Jesus connects prayer with promise, too. This past Sunday, we noted how all the fruit in his image of the vine and the branches is solely a product of the vine. We are not the vine but the branches, and we’re fruitless without the vine. And yet, when we abide in the vine, Jesus promises to abide in us and to produce the fruit that we never could. This includes the fruit of prayer. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Hearing this promise, we often jump too quickly to talking about what we want, bypassing the first half of the verse. When we abide in Christ and he in us, we become more and more like him. His words become our words, his desires our desires, and so his prayers our prayers. “Those who have God really have everything,” Barth explains, “hardly as they would like to have it, but all the more certainly as God wants them to have everything, so that they can be content.”

“We are thankful, first,” Barth goes on, “that we may know that through our Lord everything has basically already been put into order, and thankful, second that we may come before him.  And all of that together is our prayer that even in the midst of the shadow that still surrounds us, his face will not cease to shine on us, and that we will not grow weary of hoping that the fog and veil that still plague us may be ripped apart and moved aside.”

That in itself is a beautiful prayer — that the shadow and the fog that so darken this planet might be lifted, that the order Christ accomplished on his cross might be realized in every single nook and cranny of our world, that all of us children might return to the vine and finally find the life that can only be found in him. Amen.

Closing Prayer
God who hears, we come to you broken, needy, grateful, blessed, and in humble prayer for our whole world today. Amen.

Sources for today’s reflection include Karl Barth’s Prayer and Preaching (London, 2012), A Karl Barth Reader (Grand Rapids, 1986), and Insights: Karl Barth’s Reflections on the Life of Faith (Louisville, 2009). A special thanks should also go to my friend and student, Sandy, who brought these wonderful insights on prayer to my attention.