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.

what kind of "friend of God?"

After church at Bethany yesterday, I was thinking about one of the choruses we'd sung and how much it bothered me. I was debating in my head bringing it up to Julie, when she said, "I don't think I like that song, 'Friend of God.'" Whew! Now perhaps I can give my opinion without seeming like some bitter, formerly-Evangelical-convert-to-something-else, outside observer. If you're not familiar with the song, here are the lyrics:
Who am I that You are mindful of me?
That you hear me
When I call?
Is it true that You are thinking of me?
How you love me--
It's amazing!

I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
He calls me friend.

God Almighty,
Lord of Glory,
You have called me friend.
It looks deceptively short, because there's a lot of repetition. Part-way through it, I got bored and stopped singing, so I had time to think a while about the message. To my knowledge, there's only one passage in Scripture that uses the term "friend of God":
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:20-24).
In one of the strongest arguments for faith fulfilled by works, James calls Abraham the Friend of God, not because God loved him, but because of Abraham's tangible response, as he worked out his faith by willingly sacrificing his own son. But this chorus says nothing about obedience or sacrifice or works of faith. It speaks only of God's love for us. Perhaps if the background is a strong Calvinist view of limited atonement, we could say that it applies only to the elect--those for whom Jesus died, because they alone would be saved--but it doesn't strike me as the sort of song you'd get from that camp. Instead, we have something that verges on universalism--that to be a friend of God requires only that God love me. But if God loves all mankind, that means every person who has ever lived is a friend of God. Are we supposed to bask in this realization while acknowledging that perhaps the majority of God's friends will end up in hell, or is it more logical to conclude that all these "friends" will be saved? In a song that doesn't even seem to require faith as a human response, universal salvation seems the only likely outcome.

To be fair, the song hardly has enough content to draw hard and fast conclusions about the underlying theology. Perhaps we should give the benefit of the doubt that it was never meant to say much of anything except that it feels good to know God loves us. And presumably it's enough to know that a person who didn't love God back would probably not sing it. Still, the choice between heresy and contentless emotion doesn't seem very appealing.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


As long as I'm getting back on the horse, I may as well dig in a bit with two posts in one day. Besides, with the random collection of thoughts that I posted a little while ago, I just couldn't resist continuing the trend :-)

We're in the Dormition Fast, of course. I'm feeling a bit intimidated by the three-month gap between now and the Nativity Fast. I've really been struggling to control how much I eat when I'm not fasting. Maybe now that I've read John Cassian twice on gluttony, I'll be a little better armed this time. Anyway, I'm preparing my own food as usual during a fast, and I've tried a few new things.

While I was home, Julie got this cooking show from the library--it's called Oliver's Twist, although I can't remember the guy's full name. He's a young Brit, who does manly things like "bashing" all his spices with a mortar and pestle and using chili peppers in pretty much everything. It's more entertaining than most cooking shows I've been subjected to, and I picked up a few ideas. Mostly it's just made me more adventurous about experimenting with spices.

I've been a big fan of hummus since I started fasting, but never tried making it myself until now. My first attempt wasn't great, but good enough that I don't plan to waste money on store-bought stuff anymore. I figured I'd start simple, with chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, and garlic. It came out kind of thick--next time I might try adding back in some of the water from the chickpea can. The flavor didn't seem quite right either. The tahini taste was stronger than most hummus I've had, and the garlic weaker. I'll have to play with the proportions a bit. I also want to try some other spices to give it more kick.

Speaking of kick, we've had this Anchor Bar Buffalo wing sauce hanging around for a few years. A while back, someone was moving and giving away a Fry Daddy. I decided to take it so I could make my own chicken wings. It worked well enough, but I couldn't bring myself to throw out the oil every time, so it got pretty rancid. Julie didn't like it stinking up the house, so I eventually gave up. For as often as I eat wings, I can just buy them pre-made. But Julie had got me this sauce, and it's just been hanging around. I tried it on fish last weekend and liked the result. I'll probably do that kind of thing more often. I might even try putting it in a future batch of hummus :-)

The other day, I was browsing through some old posts on my Godmother's blog. (She expresses reservations about calling her sponsor, who's only five years older, her Godmother; but I have no such qualms, as long as she can turn a pumpkin into a car when I need it.) She mentioned some bean enchiladas that looked interesting but too much like work. More useful for my taste was the Frito pie tip--heat up some beans, diced tomatoes, and salsa, pour over Fritos. A dish worthy of my cooking skills! We're still getting meals trickling in from the whole giving birth thing, and someone brought over tacos the other day. I figured it was a good opportunity to try concocting something, so I looked through what we had in the cupboard--a can of black beans, a can of diced tomatoes with green chili peppers, and some plain corn tortilla chips. I threw in some taco seasoning and made a pretty tasty dip, if a bit watery. (Julie told me I should have drained the tomatoes first. Oh, well--maybe I'll have the rest as soup tonight.)

Oh, and I almost forgot--we had some bananas that were getting old. Normally, I'd make banana bread, I don't know of a vegan recipe. So instead I made a dessert dip. I mashed them up, mixed in honey and peanut butter, and dipped graham crackers in the result. It looked pretty ugly, but tasted great. I might have to make some for a fasting potluck one of these days. (Credit goes to Julie for thinking of graham crackers--I was just going to use tortilla chips.)

out of whack

I haven't written much lately, have I? I was home for three weeks after Jenna's birth, and although I only worked a few hours each day, I was busy with family stuff most of the time. I also came up with some projects to putter at, while I had the extra time at home. I re-arranged my library and weeded out some more books. I'm finally down to the stuff that I really can't bear just to give away. I'm not reading it, so I don't mind getting rid of it, but I know these books are worth something, and it would be nice to get something back on them. Selling used books isn't as easy as I would have thought, though. Even when you're not trying to make a lot of money off of them, just the work of listing them and shipping them out is something of a deterrent. And who knows how long something has to sit out there before someone comes along with enough interest to spend money on it? I'm too impatient just to get them out of the house. I got a thing from eBay that let me put up three items for bid without paying the usual charge to list them. Tried that--nothing came of it. Now I've got the whole collection on Craig's List, to see if anyone bites. I'm hoping that someone will come by and pick up a big chunk of them, so I don't have to mess with doing this piece-meal. But so far, no response whatsoever.

I'd been wanting to re-arrange my library for a while. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it, but I knew something had to change. The system I'd been using pre-dated my interest in Orthodoxy, and I wasn't happy with the way most of my more recent acquisitions were arranged. Not only did I come up with a more satisfying categorization, but it worked out better than before in terms of where books fell on the shelves.

Since coming back to work, I've spent some time catching up on podcasts, and now I'm trying to whittle away at the reading pile. It's really not too bad right now, but it seems like every time I get a little bit ahead, something else fills in behind. I'm reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Everyone learns about it in school as an example of muckraking; I guess a lot of people had to read it, but I didn't. I'm a bit surprised, actually, that it was assigned so much. It's pretty blatantly socialist, especially in the last few chapters. Anyway, I kept seeing references to it in other stuff--particularly, when reading Fast Food Nation and Voices of a People's History. I figured I ought to see what the fuss was about. It's pretty interesting, but terribly depressing. I'm also reading John Cassian's Institutes and Conferences from the NPNF volume. It's too bulky to carry back and forth to work, so I only read that when I get some spare time at home.

Not much newsworthy in my life. I've made it to some services here and there--taken Ian to a couple of Parakleses and plan to catch some Great Vespers later this month. I was hoping to make some DLs, with the Transfiguration and Dormition during the week, but Fr. Gregory is on vacation for both. They had a morning DL for the Transfiguration, which was the day I went back to work, so I didn't feel right about taking off any more time. No DL for the Dormition, and the alternatives are too far away or in the morning. One thing I've discovered recently--if Ian is getting too distracted during the service, I can bring him back a bit by kneeling beside him with the service book and showing him where we are with my finger. Now, if I could just get him to pay attention when we do evening prayers. He's been pretty unruly lately, in general and especially getting ready for bed. I hate to associate punishment with prayer time, but I'm not sure there's much else to be done.

My parents came up for a short visit two weekends ago--no conversations about Orthodoxy. Julie's parents are coming this weekend--I would expect more of the same. As for Julie and me, we haven't done a whole lot lately. With Jenna's arrival, it's hard to find much spare time. We're still doing devotions together, but she's usually pretty wiped out in the evening. Right now, getting to church at all is enough of a burden, without worrying about visiting any more churches for right now.

I have in mind to work on something about comparisons between Orthodox Christian and Jewish prayer. I can't remember now where the idea came from, but I'd be interested to go back and look through the Jewish prayerbook again, now that I have a few years of Orthodoxy under my belt. We'll see if I ever get to it . . .