“Simple Prayers” (Holy Habits, Week 2)
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
15 September, 2019
Acts 2:42
Romans 8:26-27
Philippians 4:4-9

Today, we’re going to look at some simple prayers.  Because let’s be honest: sometimes, it’s hard to know where to start with prayer.  As some people acknowledged last week, we can sometimes wonder what the point is, if God already knows our thoughts and our hearts.

I appreciated what one person explained during our discussion: God may already be aware of our thoughts, and knows the truth of our hearts better than we do.  But prayer helps us to know ourselves and our own hearts better—because in prayer, we can put words to what are often complicated feelings.  In a reflective moment of communion with God, we may be able to articulate a desire that was only a vague ache to us prior to deliberately sitting quietly, intentionally placing ourselves in the All-Knowing One’s presence.  And sometimes, when we listen in prayer, we can even hear God’s quiet voice responding with wisdom or reassurance to a fear or worry we had that until that moment was only comprehensible as a knot in our stomach.

Søren Kiergegaard once famously said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  Do you hear the humility that’s implied there, and the necessary willingness to be changed?  It’s a fundamental part of any deep and meaningful relationship.  We grow in faith and toward our full God-given potential when we name what we desire, but then submit ourselves to God’s purpose for our life.  When we follow Jesus’ example as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, please take this cup from me—don’t make me go through this.  Yet, not my will, but yours be done.”

As Christians, we are trying to pattern our lives after the practices and commitments that Jesus was devoted to—this is how we discover the freedom and wholeness in life that he embodied. There are many examples in the gospels of the important place that prayer had in Jesus’ life.  He regularly slipped off by himself to pray when he wasn’t teaching or learning or worshiping with others in the Temple.  He prayed before he healed people.  And as he blessed a few fishes and loaves that wound up feeding thousands of people.  He prayed as he blessed bread and wine at his last supper with his disciples.  And then on the cross, as first he implored God: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!”[1], and then lamented, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[2], and then as he drew his last breath said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[3]  Jesus was constantly talking, and listening, to God.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledged that there are times we don’t even know what to pray for—and in those moments, the Holy Spirit is here to help us.  It’s the same Spirit that Jesus embodied fully, the same Spirit that came upon those earliest Christians in Jerusalem at Pentecost and inspired them to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[4]

It is the Holy Spirit of God, which can comprehend and interpret our thoughts, even when we ourselves can’t.  And, Paul says, that Spirit intercedes for us—interprets and acts as a go-between for us, when our own minds and vocabulary can’t put together articulate thoughts or understandings about our situation.  So, God knows all of our thoughts, and can respond to us in the bleakest places of our confusion and loneliness, even when we lack words to describe what we need or want, or are trying to figure out about life, or our feelings, or our experience.

But in order for that to happen, we need to be willing to approach God in prayer.  To deliberately make ourselves attentive to the presence of that Holy Spirit, and of our need.  To sit in a state of distinct awareness of our discomfort and anguish, allowing and trusting that the Holy Spirit is with us and is interpreting our jumbled mess.  Many of us spend more time avoiding our unpleasant feelings, our fears and anxieties and regrets and confusions, than we spend purposefully depositing them with God, entrusting them to the Spirit.  But when we avoid facing unpleasant or complicated feelings, we deprive ourselves of the peace and comfort God really wants us to know.

In the passage we heard from his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages his audience to “Rejoice in the Lord always. . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”[5]

Most of us know all too well what worry is—and we know that “do not worry about anything” is easier said than done.  But maybe if we understood and practiced what Paul means when he says, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” we might experience the profound peace and freedom from worry that Jesus himself felt.

Anne Lamott, who writes easy-to-read, funny and relatable books on faith, has suggested that there are two fundamental prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”   And while she may be right that these are the most basic prayers human beings offer, I’d suggest that that’s before they grow in their prayer life.  Which isn’t something that is necessarily intuitive.  Sometimes, it helps to have tools to guide us, like simple prayers that offer us the structure we need to focus our thoughts and feelings.  So, this morning, I’d like to introduce you to three-, four-, and five-step ways to “rejoice in the Lord, to make your requests and thanksgivings known to God.”  They’re easy enough to teach a child—and what a great gift it could be to give them these tools!

First is the teaspoon prayer—pretty straightforward.  The abbreviation for teaspoon is tsp, which is an acrostic for Thanks, Sorry, Please.  Think for a moment about the first relational concepts we try to teach our children when they’re learning to speak.  Are they not: Please, I’m sorry, and thank you?  In prayer, we start with gratitude, because it’s an acknowledgement that we have received grace and abundance from God even before we’ve asked for anything.  T is for “thanks.”

S is for “sorry.”  One of the things human beings seem to struggle with from a very young age is saying sincerely, “I’m sorry.”  Although we recognize the faults of others pretty easily, we don’t like the fact that we’re flawed—it makes us feel vulnerable, exposed.  Think about how in the Creation Story, Adam and Eve reacted when they recognized they were naked and heard God walking in the Garden: they hid.  We dislike facing our brokenness and alienation from God so much, sometimes, that we refuse even to acknowledge it.  (What was it that Jesus said about our tendency to complain about the splinter in someone else’s eye when there’s a log in our own?)  But until we’re able to acknowledge to ourselvesby saying it in the presence of the only One who has already demonstrated the unconditional grace to forgive us, we will live in a state of denial: a state of separation, of alienation not only from God, but also from our true self.  There is no hope for complete freedom or wholeness in that condition.

It’s when we acknowledge our brokenness and recognize that God forgives and accepts us despite our flaws, and even before we know we need it, that we can discover the courage to ask for what we desire.  Because such a loving God would not deny us what our soul truly needs.  Our “please” prayers can also include our prayers for God to be with, or care for, others we are thinking about or concerned for.  In a moment, our Five-fingers prayer will teach us ways to be more specific in our “please” or petitionary prayers.  That’s the teaspoon prayer: Thank you, sorry, please.

The second, four-step simple prayer is similar, though instead of starting with thanksgiving, we start with adoration.  This is the ACTS prayer—you can remember it because it’s the name of the book that describes how the earliest Christians practiced, and formed, their holy habit of prayer.

Starting with adoration puts our hearts first and foremost in a posture of deep love and respect.  We arrive there when we’ve taken time to recognize how infinitely good God is and has been toward us.  This awareness inevitably makes us aware of how we’ve fallen short of equal goodness and grace—and so we are moved to acknowledge it, to confess our brokenness.  That, in turn, moves us to express our gratitude with thanks-giving.  And finally, we offer our petitions, our “please” prayers—our supplications.

To supplicate is to ask or beg earnestly or humbly for something, and in the practice of prayerful supplication, God invites us to pour out our heart’s deepest desires—not only so that God can know them, but so that we might examine them ourselves.  That sort of self-knowledge is helpful not just in our relationship with God, but also with other people.  And so, as I mentioned in the “teaspoon prayer”, the “please” or “supplication” portion of our prayers can benefit from the Five-fingers prayer.

This is a prayer that Pope Francis has popularized, and it starts with your thumb, because it is closest to your heart.  So, you begin your prayers by thinking about and interceding for those individuals closest to your heart—the ones (not including yourself) who are probably on your mind the most.

The index finger is next.  This is commonly known as the pointer finger.  Pray for those who teach you, whose responsibility it is to point you in the right direction.  They need wisdom and support to show direction to others.

Third is your middle or tallest finger.  This one represents our leaders and those who have authority—pray for them, because they need God’s guidance.

Fourth is often called the ring finger.  Did you know this is your weakest finger?  This finger reminds us to pray for the weakest among us, for the sick, and those who are suffering with various problems and challenges in life.  I had never thought about why this is the finger that we tend to wear wedding bands on, but I really like the symbolism it suggests, that our spouse—whose love and faithfulness the band represents—strengthens us.  Because the relationship of marriage teaches us things about God’s love and faithfulness, which gives us strength and wholeness.

Finally, we come to the pinky.  You may remember I quipped that when you’re offering prayers for those closest to your heart, it doesn’t include yourself yet.  Although our individualistic and self-centered culture tends to teach that our first concern ought to be for our self, as we take our example from Jesus, we discover that after praying for the other groups and individuals, we can pray for our own needs in a better way—a way that helps us to not only to grow spiritually, but also to experience and share love more authentically.  It is the surest way to open ourselves to being changed by God for good, and it’s the way that Jesus modeled with his own prayer life in action.

Of course, these simple prayers don’t explicitly include time for silence and listening for God’s voice within you—and for some people, that’s something that takes a very long time to learn how to do.  But I encourage you to try to practice a few moments of silent listening every time you sit down to pray, as well;  you just never know how your spirit might be strengthened, your soul might be healed, you might receive just the piece of wisdom you need for a particular moment that hasn’t yet come to you.

The last thing you’ll notice on ‘The Takeaway’ insert is a challenge to set a goal of spending 5-10 minutes in intentional prayer each day, or at least 3 or 4 times a week.  If you use the 5-fingers prayer along with either the teaspoon or ACTS prayers, you’ll discover that five minutes of silent prayer (or even 10 or 20!) goes very quickly.  So, I encourage you to increase the daily time by about five minutes each week for the next month.  See what a difference spending 30 minutes each day deliberately focusing on prayer can make!

Please pray with me:
God who has created us to commune with you in the give and take of prayer and sacred relationship, move our spirits to recognize our spiritual hunger to break away from all the other clamors of our world and spend a little time with you.  Amen.

CLICK HERE FOR THE TAKEAWAY – WEEK 2: Simple Prayers

The “teaspoon (tsp.) prayer”:
            t hank you
            s orry
            p lease

ACTS Prayer:
A doration

C onfession

T hanksgiving

S upplication

Five-fingers prayer:

[Click link above]

Set a goal of spending 5-10 minutes in intentional prayer each day.  Write it into your day planner if necessary.  Increase the daily time by ~5 minutes each week for the next month.  See what a difference spending 30 minutes each day deliberately focusing on prayer can make! 

[1] Luke 23:34

[2] Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34

[3] Luke 23:46

[4] Acts 2:42

[5] Philippians 4:4, 6

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC