Decades ago, I came across a simple structure for personal prayer I’ve since used countless times. This prayer form is one that works well when you want to pray for the needs of others (the “Serene Light” prayer I wrote about last week is more of a meditation). I like the way it moves from point to point and how it is easy to remember and adapt. When I complete it, it feels like I’ve covered the important bases. It’s uses A-C-T-S as an acronym … Appreciation, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.
The ACTS prayer will be familiar to some, but I’ve adapted it to make it my own. I start with “Appreciation” rather than the traditional “Adoration.” I avoid stock phrases about God, and don’t dwell on “sin.” My focus is on moments of personal awareness leading to the needs of others. What I’m offering is my own, custom version, not the standard one. Adapt it as you like.
APPRECIATION – Some prayers start with something like, “Thank you for all my blessings,” but that general statement doesn’t capture actual moments to be savored. Instead, I begin by recalling at least seven recent experiences I’ve had that feel like blessings – tangible reminders of how good it is to be alive, even amid difficulties.
Here’s seven moments that came to me recently:
- My breakfast Thursday morning — that toasted half of a poppy seed bagel with cream cheese and the last of the smoked salmon.
- The lunch I had yesterday with A., catching up on two years of each other’s lives.
- The hour my wife and I spent with our seven-month-old granddaughter on Wednesday. She cried because she missed her mom, but the smile on her face when mom came back was something to behold.
- Completing the first six weeks of the interim pastoral work I’m doing and meeting new people.
- The swim in the ocean I had last week, knowing the ocean where we live is not always warm enough for an old guy to enjoy.
- Going to the fish market yesterday and buying fresh yellowtail, grilling it, and eating it.
- A good night’s sleep last night — only awoke once.
If we don’t stop and intentionally remember these kinds of blessings, we can easily forget them, and they’ll be lost.
I don’t make this into a time to grovel or heap guilt on myself, but to simply reflect on the last few days to see what regrets come to mind…things I said or did, or opportunities to do better that I missed; e.g., “The moment when I lost my patience when we were moving furniture the other day.” It’s taking an inventory of my behavior with the aim of doing better in the future, but not getting stuck in regret.
I use this prompt to express gratitude for the divine presence in my life that is always ready to receive my “confession” in a way that encourages me to keep learning how to live. “God does not love as we love,” the French mystic Simone Weil said, “God loves as an emerald is green.” I take a moment to accept the divine compassion.
Here’s where I turn to specific situations or people that I want to pray for. Like the “Metta” prayer in Buddhism, it begins with personal concerns and then moves outward to situations beyond me.
I begin by visualizing our youngest daughter, her fiancé, and his family. I ask they be surrounded with divine light, strength, and goodness.
I turn to our middle daughter, her husband, each of their three children, and then to members of his family with the same request.
I pray for our oldest daughter, her son, and her ex-husband.
I see my wife and ask for her to be blessed.
I turn to myself, focusing first on my health, my personal journey, and whatever work or projects I’m involved in currently.
Sometimes I shift to members of our extended family who are on my mind.
My attention then moves to specific people I know who are facing health issues, depression, important decisions, or uncertainty. This may be personal friends or situations I have learned of recently.
I end by imagining my mind being clear and open and being receptive for any intuitions, prompts or ideas that may arise. If I sense something, I note it, but I’m not straining for anything…just making my consciousness available.
When I’m done, I may simply bow my head and silently say, “Thank you.”
I’ve used this ACTS prayer form many times in my life. It’s particularly fitting to do after yoga or some mindfulness practices. Like the “Serene Light” prayer, I’ve used it on airplane flights, sleepless periods in the night, outside of hospital rooms, and in quiet times in the morning – any place or situation when I would like to center myself in gratitude and compassion for others.
If we are turning to prayer because we are worried about something or someone else, we may feel tempted to skip the first three parts and get to “supplication.” But I’ve found taking each step in turn puts me in a better place to pray for others rather than just rushing there right away.
Does it make any difference? Who knows! I’ve been surprised by how many times I’ll bring a familiar concern to mind and realize something good has occurred since the last time I prayed for it. But not always. It’s not magic.
I remember a story about CS Lewis. A friend was skeptical that praying accomplished anything and said examples of “answered prayer” describe positive outcomes that are, in fact, just coincidences. Lewis responded, “Maybe so, but the funny thing is, the more you pray, the more positive coincidences seem to happen.”