Monday, August 27, 2007

the Lord's Prayer

The pastor at Bethany has a habit of referring to common Christian practices as more or less universal, except that we don't practice them--not with as much regularity, at least. Perhaps the most frequent example is communion. Hardly an observance goes by without his mentioning that people are doing the same thing all around the world. Aside from the obvious problem that most of those people around the world have a different view of what communion really is, the reason he can assume that so many others are taking communion is that they do it every week (at least). Bethany, like many Baptist churches, observes communion about once a month (some do it less). I guess when it's only a remembrance, it doesn't make that much difference how often you remember.

Yesterday, his message was from Matthew 6, about the Lord's Prayer. Before he started, we did a completely uncharacteristic thing--we recited the prayer together. He then began:
All around the world today, people have prayed [the Lord's] Prayer. . . . in a cathedral in Europe . . . . in a little village in Tanzania . . . all over America in little white churches that say "First" something-or-other . . .
And for some reason, which I suppose he'll get to, today we decided to join in this otherwise universal practice. He went on:
When we pray this prayer, it's a beautiful moment; it's comfortable, it's familiar, it kind of knits our heart with God, but frankly, we often don't think about the words, and more pointedly, some of them we don't mean when we say them.
It's an important observation, no doubt. We should, ideally, always pray with our heart, mind, and will. Whether praying in our own words or in Christ's, we should know, believe, and mean what we're saying. Presumably, this is why reciting the prayer regularly in services has no place in so many Evangelical churches. If it were said too often, it might lose its meaning. As he went on, he elaborated the point--living out our salvation should be about a personal relationship with God, not about keeping rules. Prayer should be an intimate conversation with God. We shouldn't repeat the same prayers over and over again. No special tone is necessary.

It's a fairly standard treatment of the prayer in Evangelical circles. Jesus gave it as a model--not as something to be repeated verbatim, but as a pattern to inspire our own, original prayers. When we pray, we should talk to God from the heart, using normal language, and including the aspects that we see in the Lord's Prayer or in some other aid. (A common one is ACTS--adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.) Surely, this is a better way to communicate with God from the heart than by reciting someone else's prayers.

It made sense to me for quite a bit of my life, but as I got interested in language, I began to question the whole line of thinking. Are supposedly extemporaneous prayers really all that original? Are they really more heartfelt? In my experience, Evangelicals tend to pray with some pretty stock language (which they mostly learn from each other). They struggle to vary their prayers before meals, so that they don't become rote recitation, but when you're praying for exactly the same thing three times a day, 365 days a year, how different can the words really get? Their intercessory prayers for friends, relatives, and fellow church members can also become repetitive. If someone's sick, and you're praying for their healing (or for God's will to be done), how many different ways can you say it? They need to be reminded as much as anyone else to focus on God, to worship him with their prayers instead of just asking for stuff. They can just as easily zone out during congregational prayer or pray "in their own words" without thinking about the content.

In the process, by rejecting pre-written prayers, Evangelicals often miss out on the "greatest hits" of Christian spirituality. Although their faith is nominally that of a 2000-year-old community, you'd never know it from their liturgical life. The constant drive to re-invent, to avoid the stigma of tradition, actually impoverishes their language, as they are only free to work with what has been in use for a single generation.

Certainly, it is possible for Orthodox Christians and others with long liturgical traditions to become complacent--to go through the motions of reciting their standard prayers without thinking about them. But there's no reason they have to. And in fact, there are distinct advantages to having learned prayers. When you don't feel like praying, forcing yourself through morning or evening prayers can be therapeutic. Sure, you can just rattle through them without thinking about what you're saying. But it's also a great tool to cultivate an attitude that you don't already have. Trying to jump-start a prayerful heart with whatever words you find inside you seems counter-productive. Granted, you might achieve similar effects by writing out your own prayers when things are going well and reading them back when they're not. But even then, you're still limping along with only your personal best. What's the point of being saved within the body of Christ, if that's as good as it gets?

By all means, it is good to stop every now and then and really think about something like the Lord's Prayer. It is certainly better to pray with fuller understanding. It is good to slow down and pay attention to the words and what they mean. The same sort of advice can be found all throughout Orthodox literature, about some of the most frequently repeated prayers. But that does not diminish the importance of repeating them.

Here's a challenge for Evangelicals and anyone else who thinks prayer must always be extemporaneous. Find the balance between genuine, personal prayer from the heart, fully internalized, fully intentional, pouring out one's soul directly to God, and prayer that is unceasing. Scripture tells us to do both, but it seems to me that the usual means of addressing the first one inevitably prevents the second. To pray naturally, spontaneously, in one's own words, and without repetition, and to pray constantly, can only reduce prayer to the whole stream of consciousness that we experience as we go through life. Every random thought in my head, every word I speak, must somehow qualify as a prayer. Perhaps it is possible to do so, but how does one get there without becoming lost in a sea of meaninglessness? How does one draw the line between "everything is prayer" and "nothing is prayer?" The answer of Orthodox asceticism is to train the heart through long discipline of repetitive, incessant prayer, until it can only act in communion with Christ. If Evangelicalism has a viable alternative, I've never heard of it.

As regards a better understanding of the Lord's Prayer itself, it's interesting that the preparation for next week's message has led me (back) to some insights from an Orthodox perspective. For this series, we were given a list of recommended Scripture readings to prepare each week, and the reading for next week is from the final chapters of the Apocalypse. There's not much patristic commentary on that particular book, so I went to the one Orthodox resource that I happen to have--a copy of Fr. Thomas Hopko's lectures. I mentioned them a while back, when I used the last lecture as an example of how Orthodox approach questions related to salvation, first with Julie, then with the elders at Bethany. It's been a while since I listened to them, so I figured now would be a good opportunity. In the first lecture, he talks about the Lord's Prayer in light of its relationship to kingdom issues. The obvious part is "thy kingdom come," but in Orthodoxy this coming happens every time the Eucharist is served, which ties in with "give us this day our daily bread." "Lead us not into temptation (tribulation), but deliver us from the evil one" he refers to the tribulation of this age and the domain of the Antichrist.

Finally, I would recommend Fr. Stephen's blog entry today on "fellowship with God," which touches on this issue of a "personal relationship"--a vague concept that tones down the usual biblical language of communion.


Trevor said...

To be fair, the notion of "communion" with God is not altogether missing from Bethany's lexicon. Recently, they had an evening meeting to preview the small group ministry they're starting. Three purposes of the groups were identified: communion with God, community with believers, and compassionate engagement with the world. My initial suspicion is that they settled on the word "communion" more because it starts with "c" than because they felt it was somehow more meaningful and more appropriate than a word like "fellowship" or "relationship." The fact that "communion" is referred to God and "community" to other believers seems to confirm this suspicion, since in biblical language it should be the same terminology with both.

Even so, I think it bears mentioning how they expand the idea of "communion with God":

"intimacy, honesty, and depth of relationship with God . . . knowing his grace and truth in increasing measure each day . . . growing as faithful disciples in a lifelong commitment to learn his commands and live them out daily . . . loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and body; and loving our neighbor as ourselves."

It falls short of the Orthodox definition, and in particular, it seems to me fairly one-sided (all about what we do and experience), but it's an attempt at least to attach some concrete meaning to the concept.

Anonymous said...

Mother Gavrilia says, "A prayer on the lips is better than none at all." That may not be the exact quote because I loaned the book to a friend. It's comforting, at least to me, when I'm tired and don't have the energy to be "extemporaneous" that well thought out prayers are available.

Laura N.

Roland said...

My friend Michael, formerly Evangelical, now Catholic, likes to point out that Evangelicals can always find a card from Hallmark that expresses just the right sentiment in just the right words for any occasion. Yet they won't read prayers from any book, including the Bible itself.