Nola was a member of one of my parishes in South Carolina. On any weekday afternoon at her residential care facility, you could press the button for the second floor, step out into the lobby and find her sitting in a chair facing the elevator, as if she’d been expecting you.
Her gleeful expression suggested a child’s on Christmas morning. She sprang out of her chair, surprisingly nimble for a woman just over 100, and wrapped me in a joyful hug as if I’d just returned from some overseas campaign.
Nola often spoke of having served as a nurse at a state hospital, working with challenging patients when the nation was just beginning to make new discoveries about mental health. She recalled tending her backyard garden and caring for her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for many years before he died at home. Nola was quite the conversationalist—witty and wily and fun.
Once, when I was filling the small communion cups, preparing for us to receive the body and blood of Christ, Nola stopped me with a sly grin and said, “Don’t you think these cups need to be a little deeper?” More wine!
Nola brought up prayer that day, and we talked about how important it is in the life of a disciple, how vital it was in her own life. “Nola,” I asked, “didn’t you once tell me that you prayed an hour per day, on your knees, at the foot of your bed?”
Without batting an eye, this woman who’d lived for more than a century started rolling up the legs of her pants—one side, then the other—to reveal calloused knees. Knees that knew prayer and its power. There wasn’t a hint of pride in this act. Prayer was simply so much a part of Nola’s life that here was God’s mark upon her—prayer completely embedded in her identity, her person, her body.
Jesus once prayed a long and marvelous prayer that comprises an entire chapter in John’s Gospel (17:1-26). Jesus prays all through the Gospels, but we have relatively little of the content. This is how it should be. There’s nobody around with a recording device as we pray, which makes you wonder how John went about capturing this particular prayer.
Jesus often withdraws from his active life of ministry to go and pray somewhere. Sometimes people (even the disciples) won’t leave him alone long enough and he has to hide. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him” (Mark 1:35-36).
One recorded prayer that’s always amused me is found in John 11:41-42, part of the long story of the raising of Lazarus. Relatives and neighbors have been wondering why Jesus is so late in arriving to Bethany after hearing of his friend’s illness almost a week earlier. Jesus stands in front of the tomb, ready to do his thing, but first offers a prayer that sounds like: “God, thanks for listening—you always do. I’m praying for the sake of the dimwitted people standing behind me, so that they might come to believe.” I’ve taken a couple liberties with the text, but it’s pretty close.
Other of Jesus’ prayers are recorded (the most famous being the Lord’s Prayer), but not many. His prayer in John 17 is the longest we have in any of the Gospels. Jesus prays here in a fashion that resembles a stone thrown into a pond—the concentric circles from the original ripple keep spreading.
First, Jesus prays for himself, giving thanks for his mission and ministry. It’s OK to pray for yourself, by the way. I need all the guidance I can get to avoid bad decisions and manage the fallout after making one anyway. “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer!” It’s me!
Second, Jesus prays for his disciples. He could pray for any of the issues facing his community or world, and those would be legitimate and needed in any era. But Jesus prays instead for his disciples, the people who will lead the early church. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:11). Seeming to anticipate their future conflicts, he prays for the unity of the early church.
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is like a stone thrown into a pond—the concentric circles from the original ripple keep spreading.
Third, Jesus prays for Christians like us—“those who will believe in me” (17:20, italics mine). Don’t miss this! Peering into the future a couple millennia, he sees a band of Lutherans and intercedes on our behalf. He prays for the body of Christ in all its diversity of expression.
This chapter-long prayer is remarkable as a stand-alone example of faithful intercession. In context, however, it’s even more noteworthy. Immediately after it concludes, soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus (18:1-11), as if Jesus could hear their galloping approach as he prayed. I don’t know about you, but if a band of soldiers bent on arresting me was heading my way, I might not be praying. I’d probably be running.
A friend once told me that when she was 10, dancing around her childhood house, she burst into her mom’s bedroom through a closed door without knocking and found her kneeling beside the bed in prayer. My friend decided to dive onto the bed to get her attention, calling her name.
Nothing. No response. Not even a twitch of her head.
My friend concluded that her mom was really elsewhere, transported to another place. She tiptoed out of the room, from her mother’s holy ground.
Any congregation concerned with vibrancy and mission for the long haul will engage in the discipline of calloused knees—the gift of courage brought by prayer even (or especially) as the distracting “galloping” in our lives grows louder and closer. We enter into the gift of the Spirit’s transport to another realm as we live faithfully in this one.
Even if you never kneel, maybe Nola’s knees can serve as a compass and symbol for anyone in regular touch with Jesus and for the power of conversing with God in a life of prayer.