04/09/2015 01:20 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2015

What to Pray When You Don't Know What to Pray

What do you pray when you don't know what to pray?

When the Ebola outbreak swept over West Africa, Dr. Rick Sacra, 52, was working at the ELWA hospital in Monrovia and he himself contracted the disease. One set of thoughts flooded his mind. "I tell you I hung onto the Lord's Prayer like a drowning man," he later said. "I prayed through that prayer many times a day and just wept through it most of the time."

That reminds me of another man who, a hundred years prior, found the same words equally comforting. His name was Archibald Gracie, and he was drowning in a literal sense, grasping to the slippery keel of an overturned lifeboat, and nearly frozen. The Titanic had just slipped to its watery grave.

"During all these struggles," Gracie recalled, 'I had been uttering silent prayers for deliverance, and it occurred to me that this was the occasion of all others when we should join in an appeal to the Almighty as our last and only hope in life."

A pitiful group of about 30 souls were grasping to the overturned raft-- Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians. There was one prayer everyone knew by heart -- the Lord's Prayer. "Our voices with one accord burst forth in repeating that great appeal to the Creator and Preserver of all mankind," recalled Gracie, "and the only prayer that everyone of us knew and could unit in, thereby manifesting that we were all sons of God and brothers to each other whatever our sphere in life and creed may be."

To my knowledge, no other paragraph in literature has been so appreciated, contemplated, and venerated as the Lord's Prayer. It's the world's prayer and it's the church's special treasure, cherished and passed down from generation to generation as one of our greatest spiritual heirlooms. It unites people of all ages, of all generations, of all nations, and of all denominations. Some choose not to pray it, and that's their right. But when a culture loses the Lord's Prayer, it loses something that has given strength and stability to millions of people over thousands of years. We should beware longing for a culture that has forgotten how to pray and that no longer remembers the words of the Lord's Prayer.

There may come a time when you need to cling to it like a drowning man.

Consider, for example, what happened to Air Force pilot Leo Keith Thorsness after his plane was shot out of the sky on April 30, 1967. He spent the next six years as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. After his release, he wrote a gripping account of his ordeal, Surviving Hell. Chapter 15 bears the simple title: "The Lord's Prayer."

One Sunday, recalled Thorsness, the prisoners were trying to conduct a church service when guards burst in. The service was aborted and the prayer was banned. The POWs complained about it all week, and toward the end of the week Ned Shuman, the Senior Ranking Officer, asked, "Are we really committed to having church Sunday?" One by one the prisoners said yes, knowing they would likely be tortured for the decision.

The following Sunday, Ned walked to the center of the cell and said, "Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer." The group stood and started praying, but were only halfway through when the guards burst in and hauled Ned Shuman away to be punished.

The second Senior Ranking Officer stood and said, "Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer." The guards pulled him away to torture.

The third office took his place, saying, "Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer." This time they got as far as "Thy kingdom come" when guards hauled the leader away.

The fourth man immediately stood and said, "Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer." Thorsness recalled, "I have never heard five or six words of the Lord's Prayer--as far as we got before they seized him--recited so loudly, or so reverently. The interrogator was shouting, 'Stop, stop,' but we drowned him out."

"The number five ranking officer was way back in the corner and took his time moving toward the center of the cell... But just before he got to the center of the area, the cell became pin-drop quiet. In Vietnamese, the interrogator spat out something to the guards, they grabbled number five SRO and they all left, locking the cell door behind them. The number sixth SRO began, 'Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer.' This time we finished it."

In his memoirs, Thorsness said, "Five courageous officers were tortured, but I think they believed it was worth it. From that Sunday on until we came home, we held a church service. We won. They lost. Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned's lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words."

The Lord's Prayer and what it represented to these men was so precious they were willing to be tortured for their right to offer it to God; and it was so powerful no enemy could withstand the force of those simple words: "Our Father who art in heaven; hallowed by Thy Name."

Let's hold onto the Lord's Prayer like a drowning man. Let's teach it to our children, commit it to our memories, and pray it in public and private, in church, home, school, and community. Don't be afraid to say it, for it's our right and our responsibility. And in your own moments of confusion or crisis, try out these words, offering them sincerely as Jesus taught us. It's what we can pray when we don't know what to pray.

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

(Matthew 6:8-13, NKJV)