The ACTS of Prayer

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on July 20, 2016.

Years ago we had a quiet day at the church where I was serving. We had a member of the Order of the Holy Cross to lead us and her theme was prayer and she told us a story I still remember. She said she had been re-assigned at some point by her order to another convent and it was quite a while before she saw some of her friends again. Then she happened to be at a meeting where there was one member of the order whom she hadn’t seen in quite a while and they greeted each other warmly and the nun who was telling the story said, she began by saying: “Oh, it’s so good to see you you look wonderful, I’m sorry I haven’t made more of an effort to keep in touch but I do appreciate the Christmas card you sent. And listen, now that you’re here, I wonder whether you can do something for me . . .” And she told us that she stopped at that point because she suddenly realized that she was going through the basic forms of prayer.

One handy way of remembering the various forms of prayer is a mnemonic device: the word ACTS – a-c-t-s – ACTS. There are four basic types of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. She had used them all: Adoration: “You look wonderful.” Confession: “I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch.” Thanksgiving: “Thanks for the card. And Supplication: “Could you do something for me.?”

So that’s a full life of prayer and I wonder how many Christians have that full a prayer life. I’m sure lots of people get the “S” word taken care of: supplicating, asking God for things. We get in a mess and we cry for help. And that’s OK, that’s the S word, supplication, and we ought to use it. We need help, we know God can help, so we pray.

But I wonder how many ever get beyond supplication: asking for something for ourselves or for daily breadothers. Prayer often does begin that way and that’s alright, but it’s only a beginning and it’s not a very complete relationship. We all begin there. We begin there with all our relationships. A baby is hungry and cries for milk. That’s basic. But as we grow, we get more sophisticated in our inter-personal relationships. We learn about the C word: confession. Somewhere along the line, we get taught to “Tell your brother you’re sorry you kicked him.” So we learn, reluctantly, about confession.

I saw a story in the paper last week about the Treasurer of a Little League somewhere who had managed to milk the Little League fund for $300,000, but she confessed and they forgave her and agreed on a schedule of repayments. Now that’s a sequence we need to look for: Confession, absolution, renewal. Maybe we haven’t defrauded the Little League lately, but what have we done to overcome the divisions in our country? Have we even prayed about them? One thing we could have learned from the Republican convention last week was the need for prayer. If we share that vision of America, we should be praying night and day for help, and if we don’t share their vision we should be praying night and day for help – to God, not the candidate. And if we haven’t been doing that night and day we have sins to confess and we know it. So I don’t think I need to spend more time on that. So there’s the S word and the C word Supplication and Confession.

The T word, Thanksgiving, oddly doesn’t come up in the Lord’s Prayer or in Jesus’ teaching about prayer in the gospel today, but it’s right there in the Epistle where Paul describes a Christian life as one “abounding in thanksgiving.” So that’s also a basic aspect of life and a basic aspect of prayer, really an instinctive act of prayer: “Thank God.” Even people who think they don’t believe in God say it.

So that gives us the CT and S which you can’t pronounce without a vowel. Which gets me way off the subject, but do you remember “the owl without a vowel”? Temple University in Philadelphia has the owl for a mascot and one year long ago their basketball team was led by a man whose last name was spelled MLKVY so he was known as “the owl without a vowel.” He scored 73 points in a single game, led the nation in scoring, was drafted #1 by the Philadelphia Warriors (remember the Philadelphia Warriors?), played in 31 NBA games the next season, averaged 6 points a game, and went off to dental school. But I digress. My point is that you need a vowel to make a useful acronym: CTS is incomplete without A and our prayers are incomplete without adoration.
The nun’s little story is striking in reminding us what is so normal and natural in our daily life. We see someone we like that we haven’t seen in a while and we instinctively begin with adoration: “Good to see you! You look great!” Shouldn’t we say that to God? What we don’t do often enough in life or in prayer is move on to more sophisticated relationships in which we enjoy other people for their own sakes and not just because we need them or because we hurt them. Sooner or later unless we are complete narcissists – and we’ve learning a lot about narcissism lately – sooner or later we reach a alpha-omega-jesuspoint (most of us do) where we recognize our need for other people, recognize that we need their help, that we are not the center of the world, not self-sufficient, that we need other people and need God. But that also is not enough, and beyond the need for others, the need for God, we ought to grow to the point where we enjoy other people for themselves, not for what they can give us but for being who they are. That takes some growing up and we probably don’t often get to the point where we appreciate another person because they make us a better person, because they bring out the best in us, bring out aspects of ourselves that we may not even have recognized, but we go away from time spent with them feeling better about ourselves.

So go back to the nun’s story: she began with “It’s so good to see you. You’re looking well. That’s great.” In prayer it’s called adoration. It’s what we do, really, at this service when we begin with what is called “The Salutation:” “Blessed be God, Father Son and Holy Spirit” – It’s recognizing another Person and their importance to us and being grateful for who they are: “It’s good to see you; you look wonderful. . .” Do we take the time in our own prayers to consider who God is, and how wonderful? “How great thou art” is not in our hymnal but it should be – it’s a hymn of adoration The A of the ACTS of prayer is adoration. “You’re wonderful, Lord God; It’s good to see you again.” Today’s psalm is perfect for the purpose:

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness . . . .

A full life of prayer begins there: giving thanks to God for being God. So those are the forms of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Now let me focus all this on the Gospel today: Luke’s story of how Jesus taught the disciples to pray. It’s all there and it begins with adoration: “Father – Hallowed be your name . . .” Or we might say: “Blessed are you You’re wonderful.” You know, we don’t establish good relationships with other people if we don’t show them our appreciation of them from time to time: “You’re wonderful. I love you.”

Get the basics in first. Then move on in one of two directions. I think confession comes next but Jesus disagrees and moves on to “your kingdom come.” Maybe that’s still adoration: Your priorities, not mine. What do you want to do? Maybe, like the nun, when we get together with someone after a long time apart we’ll suggest we do something together, but what would you like to do? Your choice: “Your kingdom come.”

Notice how telegraphic Luke is in his version of the Lord’s Prayer in today’s gospel: “Father” – not “Our Father who art in heaven,” just “Father” and he goes on to “Your kingdom come” – just that – not “your will be done on earth as in heaven” Luke’s version is brief. But Luke and Matthew both give a higher priority to petition than I would do – “Give us each day our daily bread” Well, no doubt we do have physical needs and no doubt we are more aware of them than of our need to praise God, so maybe we do need to get that taken care of. Some people, I’m sure, start right there and finish there to. Their relationship with God is all about me: my hunger, my thirst, my anxiety. And all those needs do have to be dealt with, no question. We do have needs and God can supply those needs, and Jesus is willing to give them priority. But we need to keep them in perspective. It’s probably our needs that bring us to God most often but it really shouldn’t be first priority. We don’t respond well to the new acquaintance who asks right away for a loan and I’m sure God is hopeful for a deeper relationship than just “Gimme.” But it is a part of our relationship: we need to have daily food and without God we won’t. But God understands how dependent we are and therefore how dominant our needs will be in all our relationships. When it comes time for the prayers of the people we have a long list of needs and not many thanksgivings. Maybe it’s the needs that bring us here in the first place – the needs we have for daily bread, the basics, on up to the joy of God’s presence because that also is a need. When we make a list of our needs the need for prayer should be high on the list, never more so than when our society seems to have lost its way and thy kingdom come – not my kingdom come – is a higher priority than ever.

I’m going to skip “confession” because I’m running out of time and only a total narcissist wouldaily breadd imagine he or she had no need for forgiveness. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” So the Lord’s Prayer is inclusive – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication It’s all there. And the fundamental message of today’s Gospel, of Jesus’ teaching about prayer, is persistence. Be persistent. Keep after it. Be like the widow who wore the judge out by coming and coming until she got what she wanted. Be like that, Jesus tells us; be like that. Be persistent. Wear God out! Keep after it. Make prayer a full part of your life, and you will grow into a deeper and fuller relationship with God and your prayers will be answered, often in ways beyond your expectation, And you will be changed.

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