Worship as Prayer

27 10 2014

The first “contemporary” worship service I attended was at Willow Creek in the early 1990’s. I was in college and, in fact, attendance was part of a class assignment for a course on church growth. And even in those days when I possessed extensive ignorance in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy, I noticed the distinct lack of prayer in the service. When discussing this in the classroom, it was argued this was intentional because it was a “seeker” service. The more intensive “praying” took place in small groups throughout the week. There were just too many non-Christians in the Sunday services to warrant the use of the very Christian act of prayer.

 

Setting aside, for now, the pros and cons of using Sunday “worship” services as the main evangelistic tool of the church, it must be pointed out that churches like Willow Creek influenced the way thousands of churches conducted their worship services in North America (and now, the world). Which means this lack of prayer in the main service has now become common-place in “contemporary” worship services in country, small town, suburban and urban congregations. When I sit through these sort of services (and sitting is about all that the “audience” gets to do, except standing to sing) I increasingly feel like I have been to some kind of a show that may be distantly related to Christian worship, but does not quite pull-off the real deal.

 

The truth is painful (and controversial) but it must be said and repeated: most of our Evangelical “contemporary” worship services would be unrecognizable to believers from Justin Martyr to John Wesley. The lack of a distinct and unified prayer of the people of God is an immense contributor to this very lamentable reality.

 

This lack of prayer in our “worship” services has, I believe, been a major impetus for the many prayer movements that have experienced dynamic growth in the last 20 years (The International House of Prayer, IHOP, comes immediately to mind– and while, on the one hand, IHOP takes “contemporary” worship forms to a new extreme with 24/7 worship music lead by a band; on the other hand, IHOP conceives of every facet of their services as prayer which is much closer to Biblical and historic perspectives of worship).

 

My concern and anger are piqued because most of Evangelicalism’s fastest growing churches are training Christians that prayer is either a minor component of Christian practice or it is something best left to the paid professionals. There may be a prayer here and there, and the pastor may pray, but when do God’s people learn how to pray as individuals, much less as a cohesive whole?

 

Hence my preference for ancient liturgies, East and West, and the emphasis on the worship service as the unified prayer of God’s people– a service that is prayer from start to finish. But Evangelicals, by and large, dismiss these prayers as wrote and unreal because they are not prayed from the heart. How can they be since they are just printed words mouthed in unison? But my rebuttal is based on the didactic importance of prayer: how can the heart, or mind, pray well when it has never been invited into the Church’s prayer life that has been going on for 3,000 plus years (going back to the Psalms)? Old and New Testament followers of God prayed written prayers as one. And so did Christians for the vast majority of Church history. How is it that some of us now know better or have graduated to a higher level than the giants of the faith who have gone before us?

 

I’m afraid we place too much emphasis on “heart-felt” emotional prayers and not enough on serious corporate prayer that forms and shapes those who join their voices to it into Christ-like, living sculptures. In fact, if our extemporaneous, “heart-felt” prayers too often seem inane, shallow and self-focused, we need not look far for one of the main culprits. Written, corporate prayers are not meant to replace other forms of prayer, but to breath life, vibrancy and depth into them. Our own time tends to pit written and extemporaneous forms prayer against one another– making them mutually exclusive. But they are meant, and have been used as such down through the millennia, to be the right and left lungs of the prayer life of God’s people. We dare not keep the Holy Spirit on a short leash by using only one prayer form to the utter neglect of the other.


Please take these following paragraphs from the late Robert Webber with the weight and seriousness they deserve. If we are no longer praying God’s story for the sake of the world, we are no longer Christ’s body or bride. We’re just another association with faded semblances to a vibrant Christian heritage. (What follows is from his final book: Ancient-Future Worship)

 

The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most if not all churches will do prayers. They may begin and end with prayer. A prayer may be said before a sermon or at its ending; intercessory prayers may be made for the sick, for shutins, for the needs of the congregation, local city, country, and even for the world (however, many contemporary churches do not have a place for intercessory prayer). What I speak of here as the neglect of prayer is the failure to conduct all of worship as the prayer of the church for the life of the world.

This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first and, I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. We think of corporate prayers as arising within ourselves. Yet the story of God . . .is the story of the world and of human existence. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.

A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship, and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.

Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer to platform presentational performance. Worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy, and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires–prayers that seem indifferent to the needs of the poor and the problem of violence and war that devours nations and societies and ignore the works of God in Christ to bring to an end all evil, death, and sin. . . .

Worship as public prayer may be described as follows: “Public prayer lifts up all creation to the Father through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Son, who has reconciled creatures and creation to God.” Because this is what the public prayer of the church does, the story of God is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God’s story.

 

 

Paul instructs the churches in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The “your” here is second person plural. This is a corporate activity flowing from and resting on the accomplished work of Christ Jesus. The prayers we pray when we gather for worship need to more intentionally unite us into the true story of Jesus. Written, responsorial, and Eucharistic prayers are indispensible for this task.





Pasta Bowl Worship

26 05 2014

I love pasta. In fact, I love all sorts of pasta: linguine, fettuccini, penne, spaghetti, bow-tie, and even good old fashioned “elbow noodles.” I even really enjoy different types of sauces: marinara, alfredo, traditional, and many others (as long as they don’t contain big chucks of veggies!). And toppings too! Meatballs, grilled chicken, ground beef, (I’m still not sure about seafood…). But something I do not like, is pasta all by itself. It is the combination of pasta, sauce and meat that make it a meal– a great tasting meal.

I am concerned that too many of our worship services are like bowls of plain pasta, without the other ingredients. Now, it is true that pasta by itself is still food that will provide the human body with some needed nutrients. My wife and daughter sometimes have pasta with just a little butter and it is enough. But most of the time they also crave flavor, protein and vegetables (the last item I personally do not have much interest in!). But a bowl of unadorned pasta would be poor fare day in and day out. There are many millions around the world who subsist on rice as their daily diet. Maybe one or two times a year they get to top that rice with other things, but it is a rare treat. Does this diet keep them alive? Yes, it does. Are they able to thrive and flourish? Not so much. Without vitamins and nutrients that come from other varieties of food, those who have access to only rice have poor or fragile health.

Many millions of Christians subsist on weekly offerings of pasta bowl worship. There is singing, there is preaching, there is some prayer, but the “meat” and the “sauce” of Word and Table are meager, rare, and all too often, poorly prepared.


I have heard and read about Evangelical leaders who say something like, “Why do we need to have multiple Scripture readings and weekly Communion, when thousands flock to our churches, get saved, and have transformed lives without it?!” I accept this as a good point not lightly swept aside. Such is surely evidence of the power of the Cross and the Holy Spirit. It cannot be said that those who worship with “simple pasta” are somehow un-Christian or will fail to make it to heaven. Not even Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox make such a claim. I believe it is the difference between simple subsistence and a well-rounded diet.

I realize the analogy with the pasta and rice is not without flaws as I am employing it.* However, it helps me explain why I think the ancient worship pattern of weekly Word and Table is so very important even though millions of Christians seem to get along just fine without it. To me it is the difference between getting by, on the one hand, and really living, on the other. It is the difference between possessing a part verses embracing the whole.

I have also noticed that those churches who make little use of Word and Table, the “meat and sauce”, find other substitutes. Every local church and denomination that does not make the Word and Sacraments central in their worship, will fill that slot with other things. And those other things, in time, become central to those believers: emotion-laded songs (contemporary and traditional), scholarly or emotional preaching, ecstatic prayer experiences, missions (foreign & domestic), social and political issues, even doctrinal distinctives.

Let me be clear! There is great value in every item on that list, and not one is bad or sinful. Not one of them, however, is meant to be central. God is meant to be the focus and center of our worship. And when we keep Scripture and the Sacraments central we have a time tested means of keeping God, and all His saving works in Christ through the Holy Spirit, central. (By the way, “preaching” is not the same as keeping Scripture central, because preaching is human comment and explanation of Scripture. To make preaching central is to dance the near the precipice of idolatry. The same is very much true of music and singing in our services).

I am no fool (usually) and I’m not too terribly naïve. I am fully aware that Scripture and the Sacraments are, #1, not a fool-proof way to keep God central in our worship gatherings. There are some liturgical traditions that have so many layers of words and actions that Christ in His church is obscured. Fortunately, there has been a “clearing of the decks” in the last 50 years with much positive liturgical renewal. And #2, I am painfully aware that the Bible and Communion have been sources of idolatry at various times and places within church history. In other words, some have become so enraptured with the symbol (which truly does participate with Divine reality, by the way), that they no longer see the real thing the symbol is trying to point them to. (For the Bible, think sola scriptura, or King James only; for Communion think keeping the consecrated bread on reserve in little tabernacles, or when lay folk are discouraged from receiving the elements on a regular basis).

Throughout church history, again and again, Word and Table have rescued God’s people from heresy and self-centeredness. But for this to happen in our day, we desperately need to employ the following sorts of things (as quickly as it can be tolerated, as church-folk are lovingly taught their importance):

  • Multiple Scripture readings every Sunday. And preferably not just ones that fit the pastor’s agenda or desires. Additionally, it is not necessary to comment upon or explain every reading that is made on a given Sunday. However, some time of silence after each reading is in order. Even in liturgical churches, there is the annoying habit of rushing from one reading to the next without time for reflection and contemplation.
  • A much greater use of the Psalms as part of our prayer and praise time.
  • Shorter sermons that allow time for longer uses of Scripture (readings and Psalms), longer times of prayer, and a truly full-orbed celebration of the Lord’s Supper that is not rushed to fit it in before everyone is late for dinner or the ball game.
  • Weekly Communion services. I realize that for most in non-liturgical churches, this is unrealistic– there would be mass mutiny as people fled churches implementing this, only to find or establish congregations where their own preferences are kept in high regard. However, the least we can do to remain obedient to Scripture and faithful to the wise saints who have gone before us, is to offer a weekly Communion service that is separate from the “main” service. But I really do hope that ALL churches will quickly realize that the main service should be celebrating the Eucharist no less than monthly!
  • Communion services that emphasize the fullness of Christ’s accomplished work beyond His atoning death on the cross. Protestants and Evangelicals are inheritors of the, often despised, Medieval church more than they will ever admit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the way Communion is carried out– from Baptist, to Presbyterian, to Methodist, to Charismatic, to Lutheran. Our Communion services, with rare exception, are somber and heavy, myopically focused on sin and the Cross and seeming to lack in Good News. This may be appropriate for a season like Lent, or on a day like Good Friday, but Christ did and is doing so much more! Jesus also healed, rejoiced in His Father’s love, rose again, ascended into heaven, and is with us to the end of the age. Our Communion services must do a much better job of reflecting the full reality of Christ and his works.

    Many in the Evangelical universe hope and pray for revival in our churches because so many are struggling and genuine conversions seem few and far between, while many believers live blatantly immoral lives. Just such a revival may come with the renewal of Word and Table in our Sunday services. As churched and un-churched are confronted with the fullness of God’s Word, and immersed in the saving acts of THE Word, Christ Jesus, week in and week out, revival (although quietly and largely unobserved) will come. It may not be the revival of our immediate forbears where the “altar” was lined with weeping, penitent sinners, or the raucous emotionalism of revival tent meetings; but rather the steady growth that takes place because the roots are spreading deep into nutrient rich soil and pure subterranean water-ways. It its season, such a revival will produce a crop thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. A revival of the ole’ fashioned kind burned hot and bright but quickly died away. The next revival must be slow and deep enough to transform, not only individual lives, but the whole culture as well.

    A diet of plain pasta worship, from generation to generation, has and will fail to make disciples of the sort Jesus has commanded us to go and make. I long for the day when Word and Table is renewed and loved across the land, across denominations. Lord Jesus hasten the day.

    *I do, however, like to make the analogy that the different types of sauces and toppings are like the different styles and expressions of Word & Table worship that organically grow out of the many different cultures and “tribes” of the world.

    The analysis of “worship style” by the late Robert Webber, in his last book, Ancient-Future Worship, is spot on:


    The style of doing Word and Table is a matter of making the content and structure of worship indigenous to the local setting. The greatest error I have seen in the style of worship–both traditional and contemporary–is to program it. Traditional worship strings together Scripture readings, prayers, psalms, choir, solo numbers, offering and announcements and then adds a sermon and benediction at the end. Usually there is little thought given to narrating God’s story and vision. On the other hand, most contemporary worship leaders think in terms of opening with thirty minutes of songs and choruses strung together, followed by a time for announcements and offering, followed by the sermon (not generally regarded as worship). The sermon is usually topical, often supplemented with a few Bible stories, but seldom about the Good News that God has won a decisive victory over the powers of evil and will eventually set up his kingdom forever. Consider what is happening in our world today with militant terrorists who wish to cast Israel into the sea and scale the wall of the Western world and bring it to ruin. What is more relevant: a therapeutic sermon that makes you feel good about yourself, or a sermon that speaks to who narrates the world? (pg. 78)





Christians & Their Idols

26 01 2014

We can bear neither our vices nor their cure. — Livy

It is a difficult day and time to make disciples of Jesus the Messiah– especially in our churches. Entirely too many of our churches have bought into the beliefs and practices of the culture surrounding them. As a result, they look much like the Jerusalem in Solomon’s time: yes there is the Temple of the one, real God, but throughout the city are also temples and idols to a plethora of other “gods” and powers. Many of us Christians sitting in the pews of our sanctuaries (or the chairs of the auditoriums of our “worship centers”), do not have idols on our shelves, but we do have idols in our thinking and our doing. In other words, we (and I include myself in this) worship many of the same “gods” that our declining culture worships, but we haven’t yet awakened to the fact of it.

It’s odd that we don’t see the homage we pay to the deities of our time. For example, many of us would agree with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s assessment that our culture

“…has already gone far down the road of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles of the sanctity of life and the sacred covenant of marriage. Instead, it places its faith in a series of institutions, none of which can bear the weight of moral guidance: science, technology, the state, the market, and evolutionary biology. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use that power. The liberal democratic state, as a matter of principle, does not make moral judgments. The market gives us choices but does not tell us which choices to make. Evolutionary biology tells us why we have certain desires, but not which desires we should seek to satisfy and which not. (2013 Erasmus Lecture, FIRST THINGS, January, 2014)

And yet, how many of us bow at the altars of science, technology, government, consumerism, entertainment, and the rest? When someone is sick in your home, what is your first impulse? To pray or to reach for a bottle of pills? I am in NO way advocating that “true faith” avoids doctors and medicines– they are from God as well. I’m simply asking about our initial reaction? I can tell you mine: I wonder how many specialists will have to be seen, how many prescriptions; and I wonder if science will find a cure. I seem, mostly, only to come to prayer when the illness or condition appears to be beyond the reach of today’s science. Or how about the number of people you know who love Jesus and go to church but usually look to government to solve their problems and make life better? And how many Christians do you know who spend entirely too much time and money on the latest technology in order to have an optimal gaming or movie or sports watching experience (not to mention what we spend on phones & tablets!)?

We look, I look, to these idols and expect them to fill me. And when they don’t I get frustrated, angry and depressed. These false “gods” cannot answer the deepest questions of our souls or heal our debilitating wounds. And we seem to have a love-hate relationship with them. We say, “I know I spend too much time and money on X & Y, and I need to be a better Christian, but I don’t want to be one of those religious freaks who is always reading the Bible, going to church, fasting and helping those in need! That’s just too much!” And so we find that we can bear neither our vices nor their cure.

The bottom line is that we will not feel fully ourselves by any of the following: the latest exercise program, the newest tech, the most up-to-date medical science, great sales at the mall, the election of “our guy” as the new president, eating the latest “super-foods”, or our team winning the championship. Equally true, we will not be who we were meant to be simply by singing the newest worship song, buying the hottest Christian book on spiritual health, or finding a “dynamic” church and preacher.

If we would be cured and made whole, we will, as C.S. Lewis puts it, have to “go in for the full treatment” from Jesus. He cannot be just another “idol” on our life’s list of things we enjoy and look to for happiness and fulfillment. We must allow him to be King of the Mountain of our lives, with all other idols lying broken and in disarray at the bottom of that same mountain.


How we accomplish this is a matter for another time. But it begins with recognizing the false “gods” we worship (even if we worship them in church!) and seeing them for what they are: used car salesmen who bait us with polished greatness, and switch us to a money sucking lemon. For that is what the demons do– these false “gods”. They promise us the moon, and leave us naked in the dark. It may be time to seek out and submit ourselves wholly to the Light, the One who is real and whose promises are true.

I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

— Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:12)





Dangerous Power

2 05 2012

Music is a powerful, emotion-laden tool. As with most things imbued with power, it can do great good…and great harm. Note the horrendous effects of the “worship-wars” that have taken place across all denominations over the last 30 or 40 years. All because certain types of songs and styles of music evoke such strong emotions. The worst part is that so many well-meaning believers have reduced the concept of “worship” to the music portion of our Sunday morning gatherings. Certain styles of church music are incorrectly labeled “praise and worship.”
The following quote is by David Walker, who is asking what we should do when we find ourselves addicted to the music of worship. My response to his question follows.
I’m a worship leader in a church that immensely values the musical expression of worship. I love music that connects and gives people an opportunity to respond

to God. With all that is in me, I feel this is a good thing.

But what happens when this musical expression becomes the central focus, instead of the King who it is for? As worship gatherings happen all over the world week in and week out, how much time is the church actually spending worshipping the King of Glory, and how often are people instead worshipping worship itself?

From what I have seen and experienced, this addiction to worship is a common problem. So how do we break out of worshipping worship?

Pasted from <http://weare3dm.com/wayfarer/we-are-3dm/when-worship-becomes-an-addiction/#comment-237>

I have overcome worship addiction through the use of time-tested, ancient worship practices, aka “liturgy”. It is like a marriage or family– don’t we all have little rituals we do at home with spouse and children. Don’t we frequently say, “I love you” even when we don’t necessarily feel loving? Sometimes liturgy is boring, or even feels dumb– but so too with our family lives. But our little family rituals always, no matter if they’re exciting, normal or boring, point us back to the love that binds us together. So does ancient liturgy: boring or thrilling, it ALWAYS points us to the Trinity, and helps us enter into the eternal love, joy and strength of the Trinity. That same-ness so many find boring in liturgical worship is also the thing that keeps us properly centered– just like that silly thing your kids and my kids insist that you or I do for them every night (a song or funny face or whatever it is)! Saying “I love you” every day is sometimes full of emotion, sometimes devoid of it– but it is ALWAYS a powerful symbol and icon pointing us to the truth that holds life together. So with liturgy.





The Point of It All

21 04 2012

Quoting C.S. Lewis IS a most unyielding addiction! I cannot resist this lengthy quote since it deals with the heart, the living-center, of the purpose of the incarnation AND the Church. God did not create us for an eternity sub-human existence, torment or oblivion. We were made for a never-ending existence filled with the very life of the Trinity with us becoming ever more and more like God– especially Christ. As the Beloved Apostle declares it: “We are God’s children now [because of the work of THE Son of God], and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him….” (1 John 3:2).

Let these words challenge you and your church. Are you living a mere religious life, or a surrendered and transformed one? Is your church doing lots of stuff and programs that seem Godly, but failing to make disciples that, in a substantive way, look like Christ? Or is your church careful to align all its doings and programs with the goal of making little Christs? These questions must be wrestled with and answered honestly: What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?

And now, here’s C.S. Lewis saying it much better than I can (from Mere Christianity, Book IV, chp. 8, “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?”):

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self–all your wishes and precautions–to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way–centered on money or pleasure or ambition–and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder–in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

May I come back to what I said before? This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects–education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects–military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden–that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

(One thing to note is that the inner being of the purpose of Christ and the Church is to glorify the Father, but the way that is manifested is to do the work the Father is most interested in: the rescue, redemption, and metamorphosis of those created in His image; and secondly, the redemption of the whole created order which we have allowed to come under the dominion of the Evil One. I think Lewis does not here discuss the overriding purpose to glorify God because he takes it as a given.)





Ancient – Present Prayer

17 07 2011

“Remember God more often than you breathe”, says St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389). Prayer is more essential to us, more an integral part of ourselves, than the rhythm of our breathing or the beating of our heart. Without prayer there is no life. Prayer is our nature. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and to think. The human animal is best defined, not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an animal that prays, a eucharistic animal, capable of offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and intercession.

I hope the preceding and subsequent quotes from Kallistos Ware on prayer stir your heart and soul as much as they have stirred mine. These comments come from his introduction to a little prayer book that is a translation of Greek liturgical manuscripts from the late 700’s (which means the prayers are much older than that, as they would have been in use several centuries before being written down).

Ware is speaking as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but I find his comments “spot on” and applicable to believers across most denominations. Also, he reminds us why the prayers of the early church ought to be a regular part of our praying.

This next comment describes how the Incarnation should guide and shape our prayer life:

Orthodoxy recognises no sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, every aspect of our daily life and work is blessed by the Church and so brought within the realm of divine grace. As Christians we are necessarily materialists; ours is an incarnate faith, earthy, rooted in this world. Thus our Orthodox service books contain prayers for sowing, threshing, and wine-making, for diseased sheep or cattle, for blessing cars, tractors, and fishing nets, for insomnia, for children starting to learn the alphabet or students taking their examinations. In the older editions there are even rites for cursing caterpillars and removing dead rats from the bottom of a well. Jesus Christ at his human birth took upon himself our whole nature — body, soul and spirit — and so he is rightly involved in everything we do. We meet him everywhere.

Ware points out four themes that forcefully emerge from praying with the ancient prayers of the church: Mystery, the Trinity, Community, and Mission.

  1. The [ancient] prayers are marked by a strong sense of God’s holiness and mystery, by a spirit of reverence and wonder. We approach the living God “in fear and trembling”, “in love and awe”. . . . [The one who prays] feels the nearness as well as the otherness of God. Transcendent, ineffable, he is also at the core of everything, closer to us than our own heart, “everywhere present and filling all things”, as we say to the Holy Spirit in an invocation at the start of each service.
  2. [The ancient prayers are] deeply Trinitarian. “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”, says the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky. The threefold invocation, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, with which each prayer concludes, is not an optional extra but sums up the very essence of our prayer. We do not simply address God, but explicitly or implicitly we always pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. To pray is to be taken up into a network of relationships, an interpersonal dialogue, that exists within God himself. As we pray we hear the Father say not to Christ only but also to ourselves, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11); and by the power of the Spirit we respond in union with Christ, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6), becoming sons in the Son. So through prayer we are assumed into the perichoresis, the mutual love or “round dance” of the Trinity. God as Trinity is the source and end-point of all our prayer.
  3. All prayer is communal – prayer of the total family, of the entire Church invisible as well as visible. Prayer is our entry to the communion of saints. [The Lord’s prayer and all the ancient prayers use “our” and “we”, never “mine” and “me”.] … The Christian is the one who says not “I” but “we”. Prayer is “heaven on earth”. . . . This does not diminish the love that we feel for Christ our Saviour, “the one mediator between God and humans” (1 Timothy 2:5), but renders him all the closer to us.
  4. In prayer we do not think only in vertical terms about the Church in glory and the communion of saints, but we also think horizontally about our involvement with the rest of humankind. . . . [Portions of these ancient prayers] form an all-important reminder that the Church is by its very nature missionary, outward-looking, existing not for itself but for the sake of the world.

    This last comment speaks to the purpose and goal of prayer. Read the last sentence at least 3 times—and let it really sink in.

    “Pray without ceasing”, says St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17); and the Russian Orthodox Fr. Georges Florovsky writes: “A Christian has to feel himself personally in the presence of God. The goal of prayer is precisely to be with God always.” I hope that the prayers in this book, designed for the different hours of the day, will help us in small but significant ways to do exactly that: to be with God always, to make our prayer, not just an intermittent activity, but a dimension present continually in all that we undertake– not simply something that we do from time to time, but something that we are the whole time. For this is what the world around us needs: not that we should say prayers occasionally, but that we should be at each moment a living flame of payer.

      (From Kallistos Ware’s forward in Praying with the Orthodox Tradition)





Saturated and Soaked with Christ

4 05 2011


Frederica Mathewes-Green offers a helpful critique of the standard Evangelical understanding of salvation. For me, she also highlights why holiness denominations need to wake up, recover, and refine their message and lived-out experience of sanctification. Way too many Christians just don’t get the real goal of Christ’s saving acts. This is the season of the Resurrection! Time to rise up and come awake and proclaim and live out the fullness of the Gospel!

(From the book, The Illumined Heart, Chp. 4, “Where We’re Going.”)

A modern Christian might say that the point of this earthly life is to be like Jesus. We want to cultivate the virtues that Christ had, we want to have a loving heart like the Father’s, we ask what Jesus would do. We have decided to follow Jesus–and that’s where we remain, a few steps behind him, all our lives. We never imagine that there could be more.

…being in “Christ”. . . . [a phrase often used by St. Paul] is a profoundly transforming condition; it means the very life of Jesus is within you, illumining you. . . . This is the calling of every Christian. This process is called [in Greek] theosis, which means that one’s essential being is permeated and filled with the presence of God. It is something more than merely resembling Jesus, more than merely “following.” It is transformation.

…That sort of thing, we think, is a rare calling for a handful of people. An occasional saint might be led to this path, and some self-appointed oddballs might think they have been. A person who intends to pursue divine union [theosis], we expect, is likely to be somewhat otherworldly. We don’t mean that as a compliment. People like that run the danger of getting unbalanced; too much heart and not enough head, we think. We contrast them with dry and solemn theologians who can tip too far the other way. We take this division between head and heart for granted: On Sunday morning we hope to have a worship experience that will move our hearts, then retire to a classroom and talk about biblical concepts.

Yet humans do not have any such division. The split between reason and emotion is unknown to [the early Christians]. We are created a unity, and when we encounter God he in turn encounters every bit of us. [For early Christians], worship is full of theologically complex hymns, packed with teaching. Yet they address God with such humble awe and adoration that they move [the worshipper] profoundly. The insight that moves the mind will move the heart as well; God’s truth is beautiful, and this beauty casts us to our knees.

We think of theology as an intellectual undertaking, an attempt to construct a systematic, comprehensive explanation using tools of ordinary reason. But for earlier Christians all theology, all teaching and preaching, had the practical aim of assisting the believer toward theosis. That wasn’t taken as an excuse for sloppiness or imprecision, since our God is a God of truth, and some theological conflicts required strenuous efforts to resolve. Yet even those debates were directed toward increasing the health of the Christian soul, rather than conquering some theological Mt. Everest simply because it was there. Like the psalmist, early Christians could be content as a weaned child, not occupied with things too great for them to understand. They could in tranquility let some mysteries of faith rest unexplored and unexplained.

So for [the early Christian] the split we modern Christians presume, between intellectual and emotional responses to God, does not exist. The primary thing for [the early Christian] is that initial confrontation with God. [His or her] response to that encounter might include both emotion and reasoning, but even if [he or she] doesn’t feel particularly moved or enlightened, God is still there and still faithful. [The] goal is to be faithful as well, and persevere, rather than to gather emotional or intellectual experiences. In marriage, another lifelong process of union, intellectual understanding and emotional response are intermingled, inseparable, interdependent, and sometimes quite transporting. Yet the day-to-day experience of a healthy marriage is more ordinary than that, and the main requirement is simple perseverance.

In [the early Christian’s] world, theosis is expected to be a practical process, largely a matter of self-discipline. Strong emotions are not routinely expected, and routine over-emotionalism is seen as self-indulgence. Nor is this path often marked by vivid supernatural experiences. Any that occur must be treated with skepticism, as a possible demonic trick. Theosis is not for “mystics,” it’s for everybody, and is largely down-to-earth.

The analogy St. Paul uses most frequently is not that of a swooning visionary, but an athlete. We press on toward the prize, subduing our bodies, striving to pray constantly, so that we may no longer live, but Christ may live in us. This spiritual training is hard work, or in Greek, ascesis, a term that means training for a craft, profession, or contest of strength.

Words like “striving,” “work,” and, worst of all, “asceticism,” can set off more alarms for [Evangelical] Christians. In our history, one of the most contentious questions has been whether good works help pay for our sins or enable salvation. To our way of thinking, each person runs up a long list of bad deeds, and salvation amounts to getting the bill squared away. Salvation is a “Debt Paid” concern about the bottom line, rather than the view we’ve been learning about above: a lifelong process of restoration and healing. The controversy in our corner of the world has been over whether good works have any impact on this debt, or pay for past sins.

But [the early Christian] is looking forward, not backward. She knows that her sins have been forgiven, and reflects on them mostly as a sobering antidote to pride. It is future sins that these spiritual disciplines are aimed at. An athlete doesn’t exercise to pay for past failure, but to gain strength for the contest ahead. [The early Christian] practices these disciplines in order to ‘lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely,” as it says in Hebrews. Through self-knowledge and self-control, [the early Christian] hopes to stumble less often, and continue on the journey toward theosis.

This path is open to every Christian. It is a reasonable journey, a feasible journey, and the life each of us was made for. It is a journey we can begin today.