Guest Post: The "You" in Prayer

This guest post comes from Rev. Dr. Joe Kutter, a retired American Baptist pastor who served 5 congregations over the course of 39 years. He's the author of Praying for Ministers, a collection of prayers he wrote and sent to colleagues in ministry during his time as Executive Director of the American Baptist Ministers Council. The following was originally written as part of a sermon series called "Pronouns of Prayer."


I was in the hospital following surgery on my neck. Effective pain killers meant that I was feeling no pain nor was I feeling much of anything else. I was not eager for visitors. Floyd walked through the door and up to my bed looking like the retired Army Colonel that he was. We exchanged greetings and then he announced, “Pastor, you prayed for me and I am here to pray for you.” He studied me for a brief moment and then put his hand on my arm and he prayed. And then he left. The entire encounter took less than five minutes. Brevity at that time in my hospital stay was a very good thing and he was brief.

So what happened in those brief hospital moments? He demonstrated his care. He showed his sensitivity and good sense about the realities of being a hospital patient. He prayed for me.

And what happened in that prayer? Allow me to confess that there are lots things about prayer that I do not understand, so this represents my best reflection on an experience that is really too big and complex and mysterious for me to understand.

What I do know is this. In that moment, Floyd became a present reminder of the love and grace of God. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about God during that stay. I was too drugged up and too uncomfortable to think about much of anything. Well, I did spend a fair amount of time wondering if they would ever take the tubes out of my body or just how open my robe was when the nurses or visitors walked in. Hospital thoughts tend to be very very basic.

But Floyd reminded me of the larger context. Floyd’s presence reminded me that God had promised to be with me and that God’s promises are good. If you like sacramental language, Floyd became a means of grace. He asked God to make me well. I would love to report that I pulled out the tubes and jumped out of bed and immediately returned to work full of energy and enthusiasm. But the truth is that I went back to sleep and getting well took weeks if not months. 

Now, here is the part that I do not understand. I do not know what went on in God’s mind as God listened to Floyd’s prayer. Did God need to be reminded that I was a patient in the hospital and in need of some help? That doesn’t seem right to me. Or did God hold back on the healing until somebody like Floyd prayed and asked for my healing? That doesn’t sound like the God who was represented in Jesus to me.

Here is my confession. I do not understand or pretend to understand the physics or metaphysics of prayer. I cannot explain the dynamics of what happens in God’s mind when we pray. So I am left with these observations.

The scriptures are full of prayers in which people ask for help for themselves and others. Jesus prayed. The church has two thousand years of experience with prayer. Praying is an integral part of our relationship with God and one another. It was William Temple, the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury , who wrestled with the mysteries of prayer and finally offered this simple observation. “When I pray, coincidences happen.” When we pray, things happen and those happenings are rooted in our relationships with one another and God.

The writer of the little New Testament book of James has some powerful words to say to this. "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven." (James 5:14-15). James is clear. He believes that when the seasoned saints of the church pray together, things happen. Healing happens. Sins are forgiven.

Now these words from 1 Peter 2:5:  "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God though Jesus Christ." This is not quite 21st century language! What does it mean?

Let’s break it down. "You." Who is the "you” to whom he is writing? It is the church, the “body of baptized believers.” The "you” is the group of people who have accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him in the life and way of God. 'Like living stones, you are being built into a spiritual house.' It’s a metaphor, a picture. We are being led by God into a relationship with God and with one another that is of such a quality that God lives within the midst of our fellowship with one another.

Do you remember the old hand game about the church? “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and here are the people!” Peter might have put it differently. “Here is the church and made up of the people. Open the doors, and here is God!"

Let me say it again. If we relate to one another as disciples of Jesus, if we love one another and together we love God, then like stones being brought together to build a building, we will form the place where God lives. We will be a spiritual house. We will be a house of the Spirit. We will be a temple. The temple is where God lives.

Now Peter changes the metaphor. Now he refers, to the disciples, to the church, and to us as a royal priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifice. Each of us is a priest and together we form a royal priesthood. You are a priest and I am a priest and together we are a priesthood. So what does a priest do? In the ancient temple, the priest was the one who made the sacrifice to God. For animal lovers among us, this may be a bit tough to take, but this is how it worked. If John wanted to be forgiven of his sins then he would buy an animal and take it to the priest and then the priest would kill the animal and sacrifice it as a gift to God. In effect, the priest said to God, “Here is John. He is a sinner. He has brought you a gift and he asks for forgiveness. And in response to the gift, the sacrifice, the priest would say, “John, God forgives you." The priest is the one who has the privilege and responsibility of approaching God. The priest is the one who bridges the gap between God and God’s people.

We Baptists have joined with most Protestants in affirming a phrase derived from Martin Luther's theology: “The Priesthood of Believers.” We believe that every disciple of Jesus is one who is invited by God to bridge the gap between God and God’s people. For a lot of people, the phrase "priesthood of believers” meant, "I don’t need any priest or pastor to pray for me. I can pray for myself and I don’t need anybody else.” This is only partially true. Each of us has been invited to go to God individually and personally and while we are intentionally standing in God’s presence, we can indeed ask God for forgiveness or ask God for wisdom or even ask God for a parking place in a busy mall. As for the part about not needing anybody else, that's a load of narcissistic and self-centered nonsense (but other than that, it's fine)! This line of thought is found nowhere in the Bible. Never has the priesthood been about “You and me, Jesus, just you and me." The primary role of the priest is always to pray in behalf of somebody else.

Let me refer you to something that you see every Sunday. At some point in the Sunday morning service, your pastor will offer a prayer. It may be called the Morning Prayer or the Pastoral Prayer or the Prayers of the Pastor and People. Whatever it is called, your pastor is praying for you. In that moment of corporate worship, your pastor is the voice of this church as together you speak to God. It is as if your pastor is standing in your midst and saying, “God, here we are." But, your pastor is not finished when the prayer is offered. In another part of the service, your pastor will read scripture to you. And then, with that holy reading firmly in mind, the pastor will preach. Your pastor is saying to you, “As you hear me, listen for the truth and wisdom and love of God for you." In so doing, he or she is being the priest.

Do you see how it works? The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor. I am not saying that the pastor is the priest and you are not. I am saying that in this process, the pastor is illustrating what it means for all of us to be priests.

When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me. For a moment, he stood in the gap between God and me.

Now, I can sense it, somebody is nervous. “I’m not about to preach any sermons to my neighbors.” If that's what you're thinking, my response would be, “Good. You would probably alienate your neighbor rather than helping him or her to find the presence of God.” Most of the time, we represent God by doing as Jesus instructed; by deeds of compassion and kindness that the neighbor is most likely to experience as the presence of God.

But remember, to pray for your neighbor, you must pay attention to your neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor while ignoring your neighbor or without knowing your neighbor. Prayer for the neighbor always involves listening, as best one can, to the neighbor. The priest not only speaks for God, the priest is the one who stands in for God and listens as God would listen. And, if it is within your capacity, you represent God in responding as God would respond, with love and forgiveness.

Do you remember Michelangelo’s image of God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel? God is in heaven reaching down towards Adam and Adam is reaching up towards God but their fingers never quite connect. There’s a gap, a separation that will never be quite overcome. The priest is the one who lives in the gap! Jesus is there, our high priest, bridging the gap between God and us (Hebrews 4:14). And, from time to time, as followers of Jesus, we venture into that space ourselves and offer to connect our neighbors to God. We do the kind deed or we say the word or we offer the prayer that may remind them of the grace and goodness of God. And we say to God, though God already knows, "Please take care of my neighbor. . . and help me to do my part."


Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.

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