For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter. Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.
Mike Ditka is one of the most famous tough guys in NFL history.
After being drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1961, he helped revolutionize professional football. Instead of merely throwing some mean blocks – the classic job assignment for tight ends – Ditka became a pass-catching, touchdown-scoring machine. After finishing his career as a Dallas Cowboy, he was welcomed back to Chicago as head coach. With his swept-back hair and aviator sunglasses, Ditka became an iconic member of the 1985 championship team. His ranting, raving, clipboard-throwing, gum-chewing (he usually chomped an entire pack at once) style of generalship was a perfect fit for “Da Bears.”
No one was surprised when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
People were surprised, however, when Mike Ditka got religion.
During a stint as an assistant coach under the stoic Tom Landry of the Cowboys, Ditka – a famous late-night carouser – decided to give Jesus a try. As journalist Rich Cohen recalls, “He was a believer, yet there was always something odd about his speeches and homilies… When he went for the spiritual, he came off like a big man in a tiny coat.”
Before a game, Ditka would summon his Bears players and take a knee. Here’s one of his actual prayers:
“Heavenly Father, we’re grateful for the opportunity and we thank you for the talents you have given us – the chance to prove that we are the very best. Father, we ask you to give us the courage and the commitment to use these talents to the best of our ability so that we may give the glory back to you. Father, we ask that you may protect all the players in the game so that they may play the game free from injury.
“We pray, as always, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, Amen. Now let’s go kick ass.”
If you check out Ditka’s Hall of Fame webpage, you’ll find a gallery of pictures, his stats as a player and coach, and a link to his enshrinement speech at Canton. What you won’t find are any official Mike Ditka rump-kicking prayers. Those will have to live on in the memories of his players.
There was one Hall of Fame prayer during the first Holy Week, however. It was an anguished request uttered by Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death. “If it’s possible, Father, let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will, but your will be done.”
Gethsemane means “olive press.” The place where Jesus prayed was apparently a commercial olive orchard. He wrestled with his Father in the full awareness that his life would soon be crushed under the excruciating (“out-of-the-cross”) pressure of bearing the whole world’s sin.
Others had come to the garden to pray, too. Jesus had personally recruited them. He had asked the select trio of Peter, James and John to offer their prayers just a few steps away from him, providing the priceless gift of solidarity and support.
Instead, they fell asleep.
Peter’s worst moment – saying aloud three times that he didn’t even know who Jesus was – would come the next day. But this particular debacle, this failure of friendship, seems to have broken Jesus’ heart. “Couldn’t you stick it out with me for one hour?” he asked. Then he turned a very painful moment into a teaching moment: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
In his Bible paraphrase called The Message, Eugene Peterson offers this memorable rendering of the same verse:
“Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”
In 1977 the Catholic scholar Hans Kung wrote an exquisitely detailed book called On Being a Christian. It is 702 pages long. The index references almost every conceivable subject in the average spiritual life.
Except prayer. When some of his colleagues gently pointed out to Kung that he had written an entire book on having a relationship with God but had neglected to mention prayer, he was mortified. “I was up against my publisher’s deadline. I was in a hurry. I forgot.”
Which rings true for all too many of us.
We want to pray. But life is very busy. We’re in a hurry. And we’re exhausted. When we finally find time, we also may fall asleep. And we wake up feeling like Peter in Gethsemane. It seems certain that if there’s a Hall of Fame for drawing close to God during all life’s moments, none of us is going to be inducted into it.
What can we do? Should we go to a weekend prayer retreat? Make stronger promises, and really mean them this time? Buy a book that will help us get started?
The late Franciscan monk and lifelong recovering alcoholic Brennan Manning provided this wonderful advice:
“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
In other words, just talk to God. You don’t have to pray like Billy Graham or Mike Ditka. Just pray like you.
What we know for sure is that your Father in heaven will be hanging onto every word.