Dear Friends in Jesus Christ…,
Coach Grant Teaff (Taff, as in taffy), of Baylor University in Texas, has written a book called I Believe. In it he describes an incident that happened earlier in his career at McMurry College. One Saturday night he and his team had just taken off in a chartered plane to return to Texas. Suddenly the plane developed serious trouble. The pilot announced that he would have to attempt a crash landing. The plane was loaded with fuel, so an explosion was likely. As the plane sped downward one of the players called out, “Coach Teaff, would you lead us in prayer? We’re all pretty frightened.” Teaff prayed out loud for everyone. Seconds later the plane bellied across the ground. A shower of sparks engulfed it. Miraculously, however, it didn’t explode, and no one was hurt. The next night Teaff and his family were in church together. Right in the middle of the services Teaff got up, left the church, and went to the McMurry Fieldhouse about a mile away. He went directly to the team’s dressing room and knelt down and prayed: “God, I know that you have a plan, a purpose, and a will for my life and the lives of these young men. I do not know what it is but I’ll…try to impress upon the young men I coach this year and forever that there is more to life than just playing football; that you do have a purpose for our lives.”
That story fits in beautifully with today’s Scripture readings on prayer. Specifically, it’s an excellent illustration of the three settings in which prayer takes place. First, there’s the personal setting. That’s when we pray alone, as Coach Teaff did in the dressing room. Second, there’s the small group setting. That’s when we pray with our family or close friends, as Teaff did with his players on the plane. Finally, there’s the communal setting. That’s when we pray with the larger Christian community, as Coach Teaff and his family did on the Sunday after the plane mishap.
It is interesting to note that Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus praying in these same three settings in his lifetime. First. Jesus prayed alone. We see him doing this before choosing his apostles. Luke says, “at that time Jesus went up a hill to pray and spent the whole night there praying to God.” (Lk 6:12) Second, Jesus also prayed in small groups with his family and his friends. It was customary for Jewish families to pray together often. Jesus’ family would have been no exception. Likewise, Jesus prayed with his close friends. Luke says that Jesus “took Peter, John, and James with him and went up a hill to pray.” (Lk 9:28) Finally, Jesus prayed with the community. Luke says that Jesus “went as usual to the synagogue” on the Sabbath to pray. (Lk 4:16)
This brings us to our own time. As the story of Coach Teaff shows, Christians still pray in each of these settings. They pray alone, in small groups, and with the larger Christian community. For the most part, prayer in community and prayer in small groups follow a set pattern. It’s a different story, however, when we pray alone. There is no set pattern that everyone uses. One excellent way to pray alone is simply to talk to God in our own words. This is how Jesus prays to his Father in today’s gospel.
In his book Sadhana, Anthony de Mello has developed an exercise for those who want to talk to God in their own words but find it hard. He calls it the “empty chair” exercise. De Mello developed it after hearing the story of a person who had been sick in bed for several years. The sick person found it hard to pray to God. One day a friend suggested that the sick person place an empty chair near the bed. He told him to imagine Jesus sitting in it. Then he told him to converse with Jesus, just as the two of them were conversing now. The sick man tried it and had no more trouble after that. Of course, Jesus wasn’t sitting in the chair, but Jesus was present in the room. The “empty chair” exercise merely helped the person realize this fact. If you decide to try this exercise, you might find it helpful to talk out loud to Jesus. Many people find talking out loud to Jesus in a quiet voice helps them pray better. And what do you say to Jesus? Anything! Whatever you feel like saying. Talk to him about your life. But also talk to him about his life. For example, pick out a passage from the Gospel – like the passage we read today. Discuss it with Jesus step by step. But whatever you talk to Jesus about, be sure to pause now and then to let him reply, as he wishes to. Finally, don’t bother trying to imagine what Jesus looked like. St. Teresa of Avila, who used a method of praying like this, never imagined the face of Jesus. She merely sensed his closeness, just as two people in a dark room sense each other’s presence. During the week ahead, you might wish to experiment with this method of praying to God in your own words.
In conclusion, then, there are three settings in which prayer can take place: the personal, the small group, the community. An excellent way to pray in the personal setting is to pray in your own words, as Jesus did in today’s gospel. The important thing in conversing with God is not the words that come from our lips, but the love that comes from our hearts.
God Bless You,