Category Archive: Prayer
Arthur Paul Boers points out that, while many people object to daily fixed-hour prayers (or, for that matter, to liturgical worship in which much of the service is the same, Sunday after Sunday), repetition has rewards:
It gives us an accumulated store of knowledge upon which to draw, preparing us to receive new insights. We are not always ready or able to hear a particular Scripture. But if we repeatedly ponder Scriptures, they can be near our hearts, form our lives, and speak to us when we are ready. It is important to do this vital preparatory work in an ongoing way so that if there are times of crisis the texts and their meanings will be available to us.
Repetition convinces and converts us. Hearing something once may not be enough for us to hear, learn, or understand…. We often resist the challenge of Scriptures and need to hear them over and over precisely because of that resistance. There are things we do not get, understand, or absorb with one or two readings. We need to hear them again and again. Perhaps we dislike repetition because it forces us to plumb deeper, and we may dislike hearing over and over again words that challenge us and make us uncomfortable (The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 98-99).
Is repetition boring? Perhaps literally so. Boers quotes Eugene Peterson: “It’s a bit like turning a drill. It might appear boring, but he more you are turning the deeper you get. It’s literally boring. But if you only turn it once you don’t get very far” (cited 99). In fact, much of what is most valuable in life involves repetition and even some monotony. Boers cites C. W. McPherson, who says that common prayer parallels other
human experiences: an exclusive sexual relationship over a long time; practice of an art or a skill to mastery; raising a child or mentoring a young person. All these require a daily, or near daily, commitment. All involve periods of … monotony as well as occasional periods of disruptive challenge. All can eventuate in joy (cited 104).
Some complain that fixed-hour prayer is boring or repetitive. Not too often does it ignite emotional fireworks, mystical revelations, or ecstatic experiences. But the “ordinariness” of the Office is essential for sanctifying our ordinary lives and for reminding us that God is found in the ordinary and the mundane more than in the extraordinary and the melodramatic. The ordinariness, everydayness, and repetition of the Office help us appreciate God in all of our life, including its humdrum and repetitive rhythms. — Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 66.
Evening and morning prayers reflect a central Christian truth, the paschal mystery: Our life comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we are called to die to our old selves and to sin, and to take up our cross so that we too might know new and eternal life and be born again. Evening prayer is a small death; we surrender ourselves into God’s hands. … The morning is a small rebirth and resurrection. We often give thanks for a new day and its opportunities. The dying and rising is relived in each daily cycle. Thus, as we observe the morning and evening rhythm, we also have opportunity to live deeply and enter into the most basic and important truths of our faith. — Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 61.
I know the difficulty of being prayerful. Before learning fixed-hour prayer, my prayers were ad hoc: made up without paying attention to the Christian year or the priorities of the church and God’s Reign or the needs of the wider world. They were self-directed: deciding on my own what I should pray rather than having help, support, or direction from others with maturity or experience, not to mention the wisdom of Christian tradition. They were disconnected: prayed in isolation from other believers, both nearby and around the world. They were subjective: praying what I “feel” like, freely abandoning important ways of prayer such as confession, praise, and intercession. Besides that, when prayer relied totally on my initiative and invention, it was easy to set aside when the mood did not suit me or if life circumstances were overwhelming.
Many problems of prayer could be addressed by a common discipline of daily morning and evening prayer. — Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace, 3-4.
So if a minister ought not to be a shopkeeper, aiming at getting more customers to buy the church’s goods, what should he be doing? Eugene Peterson gives three answers: praying, reading (actually: hearing) Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Working the Angles devotes three chapters to each of those tasks.
When it comes to prayer, Peterson urges caution:
We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray (44).
That may sound odd, but consider Ecclesiastes 5:2: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” Prayer is dangerous, Peterson maintains, and we should not pray lightly. But so often such light prayers seem to be what people demand of pastors:
One of the indignities to which pastors are routinely subjected is to be approached, as a group of people are gathering for a meeting or a meal, with the request, “Reverend, get things started for us with a little prayer, will ya?” It would be wonderful if we would counter by bellowing William McNamara’s fantasized response: “I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion’s den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.’”
I am not prescribing rudeness: the bellow does not have to be audible. I am insisting that the pastor who in indolence or ignorance is politely compliant with requests from congregation or community for cut-flower prayers forfeits his … calling. Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get things going. They suppose that the “real action,” as they call it, is in the “things going” — projects and conventions, plans and performances. It is an outrage and a blasphemy when pastors adjust their practice of prayer to accommodate these inanities (46).
What does Peterson recommend as a remedy? Saturating ourselves in Scripture, and the Psalms in particular, understanding that all of our prayers are responses, second words in response to God’s first words:
What do we do? We do the obvious: we restore prayer to its context in God’s word. Prayer is not something we think up to get God’s attention or enlist his favor. Prayer is answering speech. The first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary… (47).
Another reason the church needs to return to singing the Psalms:
God’s readiness to hear and willingness to grant His people’s prayers are continually proclaimed throughout Scripture (Ps. 9:10; 10:17-18; 18:3; 34:15-17; 37:4-5; 50:14-15; 145:18-19). God has given us numerous examples of imprecatory prayers, showing repeatedly that one aspect of a godly man’s attitude is hatred for God’s enemies and fervent prayer for their downfall and destruction (Ps. 5:10; 10:15; 35:1-8, 22-26; 59:12-13; 68:1-4; 69:22-28; 83; 94; 109; 137:8-9; 139:19-24; 140:6-11). Why then do we not see the overthrow of the wicked in our own time? An important part of the answer is the unwillingness of the modern Church to pray Biblically; and God has assured us: You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2). —David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance, p. 250.
On the threshold of Advent, it’s good to remember that Christ came so that God’s kingdom would come on earth.Â But He did not merely come to establish God’s kingdom on earth.Â He came so that we would long and work and pray for God’s kingdom to come more and more on earth, for God’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven.
Paul Buckley provides a helpful meditation on our prayer “Thy Kingdom Come.”Â Â Here’s a paragraph to whet your appetite:
“Thy kingdom come … on earth as in heaven.” That’s a plea. But I doubt many of us experience it as much more than pretty words until we get some heartfelt sense of the present disjointedness between heaven and earth. We’ve got to feel in our gut, as Hamlet did after that horripilating midnight interview with the ghost, that “the time is out of joint.” We’ve got to feel the pinch. I suspect that my brothers and sisters in Asia and elsewhere feel it more keenly than most of us in the West do. The ones I met gather every morning at 5:30 to pray. I take it their circumstances have taught them something about the importance of prayer, perhaps especially a prayer such as “Thy kingdom come.”
Prayer, like everything else, was meant for a means of joy; but, in our knowledge of the good as evil, we have to recover it so, and it is not an easy thing.Â Prayer is thought of as a means to an end, but the end itself is sometimes only the means to the means, as with all love.Â â€” Charles Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, pp. 27-28.
Glancing through The Screwtape Letters, I realize that my temptation is to quote large sections.Â For instance, the third letter, in which Screwtape instructs Wormwood on how to mess up the patient’s relationship with his mother, is worth reading and re-reading but I’m not going to quote the whole thing here.Â But I will quote a couple things from later letters.
And so here’s Screwtape on prayer:
The best thing, wehre it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether.Â When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.Â In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part….
At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls….
If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention.Â Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so.Â The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves.Â Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills.Â When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing.Â When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave.Â When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven.Â Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment (pp. 24-26; I’ve added a paragraph break).
What do we mean when we pray “thy Kingdom come”? Here are a couple paragraphs from N. T. Wright’s The Lord and His Prayer:
The second main petition in the Lord’s Prayer â€” “Thy Kingdom Come” â€” rules out any idea that the Kingdom of God is a purely heavenly (that is, “other-worldly”) reality. Thy kingdom come, we pray, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Sort out the familiar, but technical, terms. “Heaven” and “earth” are the two interlocking arenas of God’s good world. Heaven is God’s space, where God’s writ runs and God’s future purposes are waiting in the wings. Earth is our world, our space. Think of the vision at the end of Revelation. It isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. The holy city, new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray “thy Kingdom come” (pp. 24-25).
What then might it mean to pray this Kingdom-prayer today?It means, for a start, that as we look up into the face of our Father in Heaven, and commit ourselves to the hallowing of his name, that we look immediately out upon the whole world that he made, and we see it as he sees it. Thy Kingdom Come: to pray this means seeing the world in binocular vision. See it with the love of the creator for his spectacularly beautiful creation; and see it with the deep grief of the creator for the battered and battle-scarred state in which the world now finds itself. Put those two together, and bring the binocular picture into focus: the love and the grief join into the Jesus-shape, the kingdom-shape, the shape of the cross â€” never was Love, dear King, never was Grief like thine! And with this Jesus before your eyes, pray again, Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven! We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way (p. 31).
It’s a day late, but happy birthday, N. T. Wright!
I’ve been greatly enjoying Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. I’m halfway through and finding it helpful and thought-provoking, even when I don’t agree with him. In connection with a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve also started rereading Wright’s delightful The Lord and His Prayer, which I highly recommend.
In honour of Wright’s birthday, here are two quotations from the chapter on “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Wright points out that calling God “our Father” has everything to do with the salvation of God’s people as well as with the vocation of God’s people. As God’s Son, Jesus had a particular vocation. And as the Father sent Him, He has sent us so that we share in His vocation. When we say, “Our Father,” we’re committing ourselves to that vocation:
When we call God “Father,” we are called to step out, as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness. We will find that darkness all around us; it will terrify us, precisely because it will remind us of the darkness inside our own selves. The temptation then is to switch off the news, to shut out the pain of the world, to create a painless world for ourselves. A good deal of our contemporary culture is designed to do exactly that. No wonder people find it hard to pray. But if, as the people of the living creator God, we respond to the call to be his sons and daughters; if we take the risk of calling him Father; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God. And we then discover that we want to pray, and need to pray, this prayer. Father; Our Father; Our Father in heaven; Our Father in heaven, may your name be honoured. That is, may you be worshipped by your whole creation; may the whole cosmos resound with your praise; may the whole world be freed from injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death, and may your name be hallowed. And as we stand in the presence of the living God, with the darkness and pain of the world on our hearts, praying that he will fulfill his ancient promises, and implement the victory of Calvary and Easter for the whole cosmos â€” then we may discover that our own pain, our own darkness, is somehow being dealt with as well (pp. 21-22).
In John’s gospel, one of his [Jesus'] regular ways of talking about God was “the Father who sent me.” He wanted people to discover who the Father really was by seeing what he, Jesus, was doing. When we call God “Father,” we are making the same astonishing, crazy, utterly risky claim. The mission of the church is contained in that word; the failure of the church is highlighted by that word. But the failure, too, is taken care of in the prayer, and in the cross. Our task is to grow up into the Our Father, to dare to impersonate our older brother, seeking daily bread and daily forgiveness as we do so: to wear his clothes, to walk in his shoes, to feast at his table, to weep with him in the garden, to share his suffering, and to know his victory. As our Saviour Jesus Christ has commanded and taught us, by his life and death, even more than by his words, we are bold, very bold â€” even crazy, some might think â€” to say “Our Father” (pp. 22-23).