That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103).  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come.  And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others.  If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.

For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a  sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious.