Responding with prayer is right (but not in the way you think).
The immediate reaction to shootings like the one in Las Vegas is to offer “thoughts and prayers.” We make an image-card and post it on social media. And we say prayers for those grieving.
But the immediate response to this by progressives is to complain that “thoughts and prayers” are no help at all. “What we need is a change of laws,” they say.
The call to prayer—for so many—feels like an abdication for responsibility.
“Why pray when we know the problem and the solution?”
“Why pray for those grieving when we could have avoided this?”
“Why pray when we can go out and do something?”
And they have a point.
Is the call to prayer that we make just a platitude thrown around to sound more concerned than we are? Is the promise to pray just a vacuous statement signaling how compassionate we are (or would like to seem to be)?
Even if it is genuine, even if we are pleading before God for mercy with countless other, is there more we could be doing?
I say, No. We should keep praying.
We should pray without ceasing.
Prayer without ceasing
Paul tells us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). But what does mean to pray without ceasing? How can you pray without ceasing if you have to go about your regular life?
One view of “praying without ceasing” understands all our loving connections with others as a type of prayer, a kind of connection with God. All our good works and compassionate acts constitute our praying without ceasing.
Prayers for those affected by violence
So we should offer prayers to God for all who suffer from these shootings.
And we should do this by acting compassionately and by seeking justice on behalf of these and future victims. Part of our praying without ceasing is to advocate for a change in the gun laws in America.
Prayers against the spiritual forces of violence
But I’m not siding with the progressives by redefining prayer as merely political action. I don’t think the answer to all of life’s problems can be fixed through government regulation. It can’t.
Many progressives have thrown up their hands in despair over the possibility of changing our guns laws.
And this is exactly why we should pray!
As Paul reminds, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
So Let us Pray
To all progressives calling for us to stop praying and instead take up the cause for gun regulation, I say, “No way! Without prayer this cause is lost.”
Today, may we pray for those who grieve, for those in pain, for those who lost a loved one. May we pray without ceasing in seeking justice and righteousness in the laws of our land. And may we pray to overcome the cosmic powers of darkness and evil.
As a Reformed pastor and theologian I know Keller is seeking God’s Glory in all things, and rooting out humanity’s pride and arrogance in all things. I agree with this framework, to a point, in that in the Garden Adam and Eve fell because they wanted to be like God.
But this is only half the story.
Isn’t it also correct to say that Adam and Eve fell because they didn’t want to be who they were made to be? They were trying to be other-than themselves, other-than created beings made in the image of God, designed for fellowship and communion with God. It is not just that they weren’t treating “God as God” but they weren’t treating “themselves as themselves” (I know that is an awkward phrase, but you get the point).
Returning back to prayer, I think it better to say not just that if we fail to pray we aren’t treating “God as God” but that in failing to pray we aren’t treating “ourselves as ourselves.” When we don’t pray are not doing what we need to do to be truly human. When we don’t pray we are becoming more and more sub-human (as it were). It is not “weak” humanity that needs to pray, but rather it is “true” humanity that needs to pray.
This doesn’t make prayer all about humanity, but rather that true humanity is always a prayerful dependence on God, a prayerful seeking of God’s ways in the world. True humanity always knows itself to be coming from and returning to God.
I worry that often times Reformed theology creates an “us” versus “God” dynamic (in this case it is prayer) rather than fostering an “us” with “God” perspective.
Why did Jesus Pray?
Let’s do a thought experiment and ask “Why did Jesus pray?”
Did he pray because he wanted to “treat God as God”? Well, that seems funny because he already was/is God and so in that sens there would be no need for prayer.
Did he prayer in order to be a good example to his disciples about how to “treat God as God”? Well, maybe, but again that would seem particularly disingenuous and inauthentic to fake prayers as an example (I suppose this would be something like a dad letting his kids win at a game).
Rather I would say we must not forget about Jesus’ humanity and this in his humanity (or better, as the “true” human) Jesus prayed because this is what he needed and had to do. As the image of the true humanity living in faithful obedience to God, Jesus prayed to God for all that he needed (and even argued and pleaded with God, at least once in the Garden of Gethsemane).
So let us keep our understanding of prayer (and other practices) as balanced as our Christology (divine and human), taking into account both the human and divine directions of these practices (we could easily talk about evangelism, preaching, sanctification, etc).
Last month, at the Ecclesia National Gathering, I had the privilege and honor to preside over communion for the whole group. I led through the time as we usually do here at Life on the Vine, but many people not from a more liturgical background asked about the prayer leading into the Table. Many commented on how they really “liked how I re-told the story of salvation” leading into communion.
So I want to explain a little bit of the Eucharistic Prayer (of “Great Thanksgiving”) that I used.
The idea of the Eucharistic prayer (and remember, “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” which indicate that Communion or the Lord’s Table is meant to be a celebration of God’s great gift in Christ, not merely a somber remembrance), the idea is that as Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me” that the this didn’t just mean the taking of the cup and bread, but the whole process of giving thanks to God during the mealtime prayer.
Following Deut. 8: 10 (“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”), at every meal a devout Jew would thank God the creator for the gift of land which was a promise of the covenant. They would affirm God as the creator of all things who has covenanted especially with Israel by giving the land, and the fruits of this land now eaten come from the promises of God and therefore call for thanksgiving. But now for Christians, in Christ, the Creator God has covenanted with all people and the entire world becomes the land of blessing.
Do “to this in remembrance of me” is to pray a prayer similar to Jesus’ when he prayed over the cup and the bread during the Last Supper, a prayer assumed by all those familiar with Jewish practice and not mentioned in the Gospel texts for that reason (although the very early Didache indicates such a prayer).
This prayer of thanksgiving to God becomes the first part of the “Eucharistic Prayer”, with the second part being the words of institution (action of the Son) and the third part being the epiclesis (action of the Spirit), making this prayer Trinitarian in structure.
So basically there are three parts corresponding to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Part One: Thanks to the Father
The prayer begins with thanking/praising the Father for all of creation. But creation is corrupted, but because God hasn’t abandoned creation, we thank the Father for the promise of salvation. This can take many forms from the promise in the garden, to the calling of Abraham, the people of Israel, etc. But whatever is said this first section ends with thanking God for sending the Son (Gal. 4:4 “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”).
This is where “telling the story of salvation” comes in, and depending on the liturgical calendar and the sermon you can emphasize different elements. See the Book of Common Worship, beginning on page 126 for several different types of prayer to inspire you.
As a way of tying together the cosmic and eternal significance of such a salvation in Christ, this section is often concluded with the Sanctus from Is. 6:3 (Rev. 4:8): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Example (I usually do this extemporaneously):
From Book of Common Worship, Prayer D
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed right, our duty and highest joy,
that we should at all times and in all places
give thanks to you, O holy Lord,
Father almighty, everlasting God.
You created the heavens and the earth
and all that is in them.
You made us in your own image;
and in countless ways you show us your mercy.
We praise you for Jesus Christ,
who was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin,
and who, having overcome temptation,
is able to help us in our times of trial,
and to give us strength to take up the cross and follow him
Therefore with angels and archangels
and the whole company of heaven,
we worship and adore your glorious name,
praising you forevermore:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Part Two: Thanks to the Son
The second part focuses on the words of Jesus in commanding us to repeat his Last Supper, and is often called the words of institution. The purpose is to remind us that this is what Jesus commanded us to do. For many traditions it is these words that make Communion be Communion, the Eucharist a Eucharist.
It must be remember that these words are still part of the prayer (we are not just teach the congregation about what we are doing). We are still thanking the Father for the gift of the Son and for the Son’s sacrifice.
Example (I usually do this word for word, as best I can):
From Book of Common Worship, Prayer D
We give you thanks that the Lord Jesus,
on the night before he died,
and after giving thanks to you,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
This is my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
In the same way he took the cup, saying:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.
Part Three: Petition to/for the Holy Spirit
The last part is a petition to the Father that the Holy Spirit would come for otherwise all is in vain. It is the work of the Spirit to that makes us into the Body of Christ. Without the Spirit we would not have life. It is prayed that the Holy Spirit would take the bread and the cup and make them into the Body and Blood of Christ so that we (the Church) would be make into the Body of Christ.
Sometimes it is thought that the main purpose of the Holy Spirit is to miraculously change the bread and wine. But really, the whole point is that WE would be change!
Example (usually word for word):
From Book of Common Worship, Prayer D
by your Holy Spirit bless and make holy
both us and these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
may be a communion in the body of Christ,
and the cup we bless may
be a communion in the blood of Christ.
Now, I have left stuff out (the Acclamation and other parts), but this is roughly what we do at Life on the Vine and why we do it.
So basically we give thanks for the gift of God three times:
We thank the Father for the Son.
We thank the Son for his sacrifice.
We thank the Father for the gift of the Spirit.
In the first we thank the Father for the historical body of Christ.
In the second we thank the Son for the gift of his sacramental body of Christ.
In the third we thank the Holy Spirit for the gift of the ecclesial body Christ.
Last week I attended a conference in D.C, missing the Ash Wednesday service at our congregation in Chicago. Instead I attended one offered by the conference. The service was beautiful and well thought out. Some words were offered by Dallas Willard, but the only phrase I remember is when he said, “The Cross is the only way home.”
Of course Ash Wednesday is the day we are physically marked by the cross (on the forehead), as a sign that during Lent we are entering into a particular time of repentance of and purification from sin and temptation. So, at the end of the service we all went forward and receive the mark of the cross.
But about an hour later I noticed that everyone’s crosses had disappeared from their foreheads, mine included. “This is not how it is supposed to be,” I thought, “What kinda of cheap ashes did they use?” It seems that there was more oil than ashes, and that my skin absorbed everything. At first it felt like everything was invalidated, but as I reflected more it seems that this is really what Lent is meant to be, a time where the Cross of Christ is fully absorbed into our bodies and our lives that it is not not seen as a visible sign, but as our every way of living.
My hope and prayer for myself and you is that the Cross would be absorbed into us, that we could say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no long I who live by Christ who lives in me.”
Sin is nothing masquerading as something. Sin merely preys on something, on anything, but itself it is nothing. Sin produces desire for what doesn’t exist. It takes what is good, adds NOTHING to it, nothing but disordered desire, and, BAM, now there is something new, something disfigured and ugly. Wanton desires warp creation (what is good) and makes something less of it (which is evil).
This is the gist of the sermon on Sunday, at Life on the Vine, on Romans 7: 7-13. Sin took the good Law and produced disordered desires, covetousness. But of itself it could do nothing, because it is nothing. God only created what is good. And sin is turning away from what actually exists, for what we want to exist. It is Nothing that wants to be Something.
Sin says what actually exists is not good enough. That God is being stingy in His gifts. That He is unfairly withholding from us the knowledge of good and evil. The original lie of the Serpent is not “You will surely not die,” but rather, “What exists is not enough for you. Desire more!” In this way the Devil is the originator of the infomercial. But the truth of the gospel is that God is enough for us, that what exist is good, and that if we could only see what is right before us that we could indeed live with God.
But the problem is that we can’t see what exists, and so the author of existence entered existence, and endured the Nothing of Death, so that we could re-enter the Something of Life. And this is the great mystery of Lent, and the life of Christ, that now, after the Fall, the only way back to the fullness of life, the only way back to the abundance of all Something, is through the passage of Nothingness, the daily dying to the disordered desires and our false selves, the picking up of our crosses which make nothing out of our mis-created somethings.
He most identified with the picture to the left. For the season of Lent, one of our artists here at Life on the Vine constructed a wall separating us from the altar, and on the top was a giant sign saying, “Separate.” On the wall hangs four pictures indicating various ways of being separated: a storm, an abandoned woman, a shipwreck, and this painting by surrealist Rene Magrite (La reproduction interdite, French for “The Forbidden Reproduction“).
This is the picture that one of our youths preparing for baptism most identified with at this point in his spiritual journey. He felt like he could never see himself, that he couldn’t understand himself, didn’t know why he acted the way he did. We prayed for a while that Christ would help him to see his own face, and see it in the face of Christ. It was really the only breakthrough I’ve had with this boys who feels abandoned and broke, struggling with Aspergers (which results in his acting out), disconnected from God.
Like this painting, the season of Lent calls us to look deeply at ourselves, but often the first step is to recognize that often we can’t even really see ourselves. We look into a mirror and all we see is the back of our heads. And this is frequently a result of our own choosing because we are afraid of what we might see. Augustine says of God’s work in his life:
You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself. You stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stain and sores. (Confessions, VIII, 7)
Only the Spirit of Christ can take us “from behind our own backs” and place us before ourselves. Will you, this Lent, seek to see yourself as you really are, deformed and defiled, so that you might be seen as you are in Christ, healed and holy?
I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room—
In serach of Something—as it seemed—
Then Cloudier become—
And then—obscure with Fog—
And then—be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
‘Twere blessed to have seen—
(#547, Emily Dickinson)
I haven’t died yet; but I’ve died thousands of times. Sometimes to addictions. Sometimes to fears. Most often to pride. It seems that my pride has more than nine lives, so I have to keep dying to it. Sometimes I die to dreams that I have dreamed for myself, or others. I have had to die to the image that I keep of myself, that I attempt to hold before others.
But with each death something is discovered, found, seen. But it is often hard to explain to those who have yet to died. As Dickinson says, what the dying Eye can see we cannot see unless we too do die.
Lent is this practice of dying. And with it come glimpses of life.
BREAKING NEWS: The 9 Marks of the church, a ministry of Mark Devers is really a front for a clandestine organization devoted receiving to the 9 Stigmata of Christ. While the 9 Marks ministry hasreceivedmuchattention of late, it seems to be based in a serious misunderstanding. The 9 “biblical” marks of the church are coded references to the 9 wounds of Christ received during his Holy Passion, which this group seeks to experience in their own bodies. Polemics against liberalism, the emerging or missional church, and bland evangelicalism are really pleas for everyone to experience for themselves the 9 Stigmata as a way of overcome the wounds of ecclesial divisions.
The 9 wounds of Christ to which this order is devoted are the wound on Christ’s back, the two nail holes in Christ’s feet, the two in Christ’s hands, the wound from the crown of thorns, Christ’s pierced sides, the wound of a broken heart, and a ninth secret wound, known only to those in the order.
A high ranking official in this secret order leaked this information because she (yes, she!) feels the message has not be received properly. In the hope of overcoming the wound of church division by devoting themselves exclusively to the 9 Wounds of Christ, this order actually desire to connect with the emerging, missional, liberal, and ecumenical dialogues so that all might experience the 9 Wounds of Christ from themselves, because as we know, “by his wounds we are healed.”
But in all seriousness, the church has been divided enough. Let us remember the broken body of Christ, torn apart again at each Eucharist, so that we might be united. As Thomas à Kempis says, “If you can not soar up as high as Christ sitting on his throne, behold him hanging on his cross. Rest in Christ’s Passion and live willingly in his wounds.” And as the old poem, Anima Christi, says,
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
(The woodcut print at the top of the post is by Sigmund Grimm, Augsburg, Germany, 1520.)
There are at least two levels of silence, if not many more: the silence after the audible sounds have left, and the silence after the accusers and justifiers have left.
The first is just getting to a place or a space, of solitude, of quiet, of silence. This is where physical, or audible silence, or at least something close enough to it to give the mind room to listen. Only utter silence works if I have ear plugs in, because mere stillness still has creaking floors, stepping cats, or distance cars to distract (they actually startle me, which is worse). Often I just use a fan or something that lightly covers over those other noices, something consistant and non-discript. But this is all merely technique preparing for silence by getting rid of the exterior sounds.
The second level of silence I often do not achieve. This is occurs when all the sounds of the accusers and justifiers have left my mind and my soul. Some struggle more with silencing the accurser, other the justifiers. The accusers all the thoughts and memories of what has gone wrong in a day or week, or last five minutes, and the recounting of your responsibility, of your guilt, of your shame within those moments. These voices are infinitely varied for each person because of our different families and contexts. The voices might accuse about failing to love someone, or being responsible for someone else’s failure, or you being the cause of relational problems, or you not raising your children right way, or you saying something just like your mother. It could almost be anything, and often is everything you have done, said, or left undone or unsaid. These voices often take on the persona of someone else, or God, a parent, sibling, spouce, friend, of some other authority in your life, shifting between these persons depending on the situation or infaction. The accuser slips into silence and proclaims that you are unworthy and unacceptible.
The voice of the justifier is usually given your own voice. It is you trying to explain, argue, convince others that you are right about something, that you didn’t mess it up, that they are the ones who don’t understand, that they are the ones in sin and causing all the problems. This is the voice of self-justification, or self-satisfaction before others, knowing that you are superior, but needing to tell yourself again just so that you feel better about yourself and your situation, about your effort, about your life. The justifier replays that past argument at work, and changes it so you come out looking good. It anticipates that future conversation you need to have with a friend about how they were wrong to treat you so poorly and how it offended you. The justifier mulls over a perceived social slighting by another, and dreams about how it might be reciprocated. In all these ways the justifer slips into the silence and proclaims that you are essentially right and good.
But in a sense, both the accuse and the justifer are addictions which we hardly know about until we enter silence. They are manifestations that we are addicted to ourselves, either in condemnig ourselve or approving of ourselves. And don’t be fooled, while it might seem transparent that self-justification is of course odious for Christians, self-loathing is equally as bad. While the former trusts ourselves for approval, the latter does not trust God in his approval of us.
But in any case, passing into the second level of silence is to silence these voices, which is a mental struggle all its own. It is here amid the warring voices heard most clearly in silence that we can turn toward the grace of God, the approval of God, the truth of God spoken in Christ. And this voice of Christ is only heard after the sounds of silence have ceased.
A similar thing happened to me in seminary. It made me stop reading my bible. When I’m in a worship service, I only listen to scripture. I never read it in my own Bible. Now it has happened again to my wife.
She has been reading scripture as a catalyst for prayer and devotion, moving between word and prayer, the Book and her Life. But recently she became a ministerial study program that is teaching her the RIGHT way to read scripture: hermeneutics, exegesis, historical method, etc. We were talking yesterday and she told me that once she started LEARNING how to read the Bible that it no longer functioned as a base for prayer, but instead has died in her hand. The Spirit had left the Word. That is exactly what she said!
Why is it that when someone learns the historical-grammatical method that the Bible becomes less a means of devotion and more a task to be mastered?
There is a subtle lure about learning how to properly read the Bible. It is the ever-present shift from communing with God to learning about God; from listening/talking with God to overhearing someone else’s conversation; from conversation to monologue.
This is the parallax of Scripture: at one moment it is the means of communion with God, listening to the Spirit’s whispers, integrating life and text, present and past (and future); while in another moment it is document to researched and argued over, to be investigated and analyzed. The same object can lead us on the paths of God, even while it functions only as a map; in it sings the songs of salvation even while it only notes the score; it overflows with the Spirit even as it dries up as a dead Letter.
The paradox of Scripture: Divine Prayer is always in need of guidance; Exegesis is always in need of Life. The danger is there, but it can’t be resolved. Prayer and Theology must walk with one another.