ACTS, with a focus on the T

       Nearly a quarter century after my Young Life days came to an end, there is plenty that I would quibble with their leadership about these days.  My understanding of God’s grace, of atonement, human sexuality, and gender have all changed in the last 25 years. Yet, I still find myself recalling fondly many of the memories from those halcyon days.  One of the best lessons I learned from my Young Life leader, Fletch, is the ACTS form of prayer.  Not as in the book of Acts, from which the Pentecost Day story comes, but the acrostic, ACTS.  When my prayer life gets dry, I’m grateful that the foundation of ACTS is always there to catch me.

       I have probably told you this before, but in case you don’t recall, ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.   A prayer that follows that pattern can never go wrong.  Adoration, as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, “is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”[1]  This comes first as a means to enter into the presence of God in prayer.  Rather than flinging our requests up to some far away God, we seek first to come into God’s presence, so that we can enter into a conversation with the God of all creation.  Confession, an action we do corporately every Sunday, is the act of acknowledging our sins in the hope of repentance and forgiveness.  It comes second so as to wipe the slate clean before diving into deeper conversation.  Thanksgiving is also defined in the Prayer Book as the act of thanking God “for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.”  I often wonder if human beings put this third, not because it makes ACTS easier to remember than ACST, but because we feel the need to butter God up before we move onto the fourth step.  Supplication is asking God to do or provide something.  Supplication can be split into two foci: intercession, wherein we bring to God the needs of others, and petition, where we ask God’s will be done upon our own needs.

       ACTS is a simple way to begin, or restart for the 4,000th time, a routine of regular prayer and conversation with God.  If I’m honest, however, I’ve found the Thanksgiving piece to be increasingly difficult over the last 15 months.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  As I said on Wednesday evening, COVID-19 has taken so much from us, there have been times when it felt nearly impossible to come up with things to be thankful for.  When you are working, schooling, cooking, cleaning, and everything else from home, it can be hard to even be thankful for that dang roof over your head.  I guess that’s why I’ve found myself drawn not to the typical Pentecost lesson from Acts, or even Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit in John, but to Paul’s short little lesson on the Holy Spirit from Romans.

       “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  Tell me about it.  Whether it isn’t knowing how to give thanks for the little things when COVID was raging, or not knowing how to pray through such weighty issues as police violence against our black and brown siblings, assaults on the democratic process in this country, white supremacist Christian nationalism, or the return of mass shootings in the post-COVID world, I have found myself stuck, not knowing how to pray as I ought, again and again.  Thankfully, the redemption of the world is not dependent on my ability to pray, and even if it was, my ability to pray isn’t even dependent on my ability to pray.  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness…” Paul asserts, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

       Off the top of my head, I can think of three famous prayer scenes in movies from the last three decades.  There is the grace prayed over Christmas dinner by Aunt Bethany that is nothing more than the Pledge of Allegiance in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  There is the grace prayed to tiny infant Jesus in his golden fleece diaper by Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.  And finally, there is the dinner prayer of Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act.  “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts … and, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I shall fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day our daily bread … and to the republic for which it stands … by the power vested in me, I now pronounce us, ready to eat. Amen.”[2]  None of them know how to pray as they ought, and even though each prayer is ridiculous in its own right, I still firmly believe that the Spirit can translate even those prayers into words of thanks and praise.  Just imagine what the Holy Spirit can do with whatever prayers you or I might come up with.

       To further assuage my worry that my prayers aren’t up to snuff, Paul goes on to remind us that the reason the Spirit can take our deepest prayers to God using language that beyond words is that the mind of the Spirit is fully known to God the Father.  As we’ll hear again on Trinity Sunday next week, there is no brokenness in the relationship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The mind of the Spirit, which knows what is on the hearts of each of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ, is the same mind that is in God the Father.  The Spirit knows that even in my inability to be thankful during this difficult season, my desire to be thankful is enough. 

       Sometimes, I worry that the reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t get much love in the denominations of the former Mainline Christianity is that we think we’re too proper for such things.  The Spirit is so often associated with ecstatic outbursts like praying in tongues or Benny Hinn type healing miracles, and we prefer a more polite version of God, thank you very much.  On this Day of Pentecost, however, in the midst of a long, difficult journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, a long overdue racial reckoning, and a highly polarized and often violent political climate, I wonder if we might be well served to remember that for all the wind and flames and foreign languages, what the Spirit is really about in our lives is carrying the mind of humans to heart of God, and mind of God to the heart of humans.

This morning, as we gather to celebrate Holy Eucharist together for the first time since March of 2020, I’m reminded that Eucharist means Thanksgiving.  We begin this morning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a long-overdue season of Thanksgiving, for all that is past, for what is, for what is to come, but especially for the gift of God’s grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Come Holy Spirit.  Come and intercede to God on our behalf.  Come and show us the will of the Father.  Come and teach us to be thankful.  Come and refresh us, that we might help renew the face of the earth.  Amen.


[1] BCP, p. 857

[2] Thanks to Pastor Charlie Woodward at Epiphany Lutheran Church for transcribing this one. https://www.epiphanydayton.org/sighs-too-deep-for-words/

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