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.