Monday, February 23, 2009

Lord, Teach Us to Prayer…

***What is prayer? How do we pray? In the Gospel of St. Matthew (chapter 6) Jesus addresses these questions and expresses to his disciples some very new and different ways of understanding prayer. First, Jesus uses negative examples (verses 5-8): "Do not pray as the hypocrites do…" he tells them. Don't make a public spectacle of your prayer and piety. In fact don't even use very many words, the essence of prayer is not the words we speak to God. What then is it? "When you pray, pray in this way, Our Father…"
***What follows is perhaps one of the most important, beautiful and misunderstood prayers in the history of Christianity: "The Lord's Prayer." For what is most striking and important is that this prayer is rooted in Jesus' understanding of the Kingdom come. The Lord's Prayer is a Kingdom Prayer, and its placement at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer and before the distribution lifts that up before the faithful in a profound way. For, as we pray this prayer in our weekly Eucharistic celebrations we are again reminded that the Kingdom of Heaven is not off in the distance, in Jesus it has come into our midst! Our receiving of the bread and wine of the Eucharist is the first and primary experience of the Kingdom come. And from this Eucharistic foundation then all that we Christians do and say reflect the Kingdom come. Our prayers are not just a bunch of florid words addressed to God. Our prayers are not bargaining or inducing God to do us a favor. Our prayers are not isolated from the other dimensions of our lives, nor are our prayers isolated from other people. All of human life is an integrated whole. Prayer permeates our lives. As we feed the hungry we are in prayer; as we comfort the suffering we are in prayer; as we oppose violence and injustice in any form we are in prayer; as we fight against racism we are in prayer; as we heal the sick we are in prayer. In short, whenever our lives reflect the Kingdom which is come in our Saviour, we are in prayer. And this action prompts the words we use in prayer (not the other way around).
***It seems to me that this understanding of prayer which Jesus expresses in the Lord's Prayer is something that we Christians need to take to heart. Too often prayer is used as an escape from the harsh realities of the human life (the dimension of the Kingdom which has not yet come), as an anaesthetic to dull the pain of the world, as a magic formulae to induce God to perform tricks and do favors for "me." Often times prayer becomes substitute action. "When the captain of a ship in distress says that the only thing to do is pray, the cry goes up for the chaplain: 'Are things that bad?' Thus, God is brought in when intelligence cannot do anything, or can no longer do anything. In place of the independent secular action at our disposal, prayer has a role in certain emergency situations, but only as an illusion, a flight, a substitute action when we are not capable of real action or not willing to engage in it.”
***"An incident in B. Brecht's Mother Courage illustrates how little credibility prayer has when it is viewed this way. When the peasants were helpless against advancing soldiers, the dumb Kattrin was urged to pray. Nothing could be done to prevent the shedding of blood. The peasants were weak and had no weapons; they had nothing upon which to rely. They were in God's hands, only he could help. But the dumb Kattrin, instead of praying, began to beat the drum in order to awaken the inhabitants. She was shot down, but the city was ready to resist… The drumming of Kattrin shows that devout and subjectively genuine prayer can be an excuse for those who will not become involved. If we ask many Christians what they did for the Jews during the holocaust, the most mendacious answer is: 'We prayed for them."
***The Lord's Prayer of Jesus makes it clear that this is not enough. Words do not substitute for action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, "Only the one who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants." Prayer in action precedes prayer in words. Only those who respond to Jesus' call to pick up their cross and follow may address God with words. This is a gift of the Kingdom, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come into our midst. Jesus is "Emmanuel" - God with us.
***The "Lord's Prayer" reflects this profound promise, hope and challenge of the Gospel. This is why the corporate praying together of the "Lord's Prayer" has always been a part of the celebration of Holy Communion. For receiving the Sacrament is the "first act" of prayer - the first experience of God's presence, from which flow all other actions. Furthermore, it is to be cherished. In the early church, "The Lord's Prayer" was given as a gift to the newly baptized. Up to that point of Baptism, the prayer was withheld and kept in secret. Why? "It was one of the spiritual treasures which were reserved for Christians as a precious part of their spiritual heritage and was not to be profaned," but rather held in reverence. And not only that, but its understanding of Christian life is so radical that it can only be understood by those who have been made a part of the body of Christ. Only those who have tasted of the Kingdom can see the full promise of the Kingdom as set forth in this prayer.
***And so, as we ponder the prayer our Lord taught us and with our brothers and sisters of all ages we pray: Make us worthy, O Lord, that we may joyfully and boldly venture to call upon thee, Heavenly Father, as Father, and say: Our Father… Amen.

Quotations from "The Lord's Prayer", by Jan Milic Lochman. Published by Eerdmans, 1990.
The closing prayer is from the Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic liturgy of St. Chrysostom.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Word Became Flesh....

***I am reading a book by Eugene Peterson entitled “The Contemplative Pastor” and on page 68 (In the Chapter entitled “Praying With Eyes Open”) he writes this:
“Matter is real. Flesh is good. Without a firm rooting in creation, religion is always drifting off into some kind of pious sentimentalism or sophisticated intellectualism. The task of salvation is not to refine us into pure spirits so that we will not be cumbered with this too solid flesh… The Word did not become a good idea, or a numinous feeling, or a moral aspiration; the Word became flesh… The physical is holy. It is extremely significant that in the opening sentences of the bible, God speaks a world of energy and matter into being: light, moon, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman (not love and virtue, faith and salvation, hope and judgment…)”
***The history of the church is filled with believers trying desperately to escape their flesh. But Pr. Peterson reminds us of a central understanding of our faith – God became flesh in Jesus. Jesus is born fully human. Through Jesus God enters into the human experience and we are saved in our flesh – not outside of it. The church fathers were always quick to condemn the heresies which denied the humanity of Jesus – Arianism, Gnosticism and so forth – but one wonders if they completely accepted the implications of a God who is fully human.
***I am not sure we completely understand or accept these implications for ourselves today. Popular Christianity is awash in legalisms and condemnations which seem to me to be an attempt to push their followers toward a pharisaic purity that would lift them out of the flesh. We don’t want to be saved in our humanity – we want to be lifted out of it. And so we condemn those who are not as pure, or as spiritual as we think we are and we reject those who lives seem to be deeply mired in the flesh.
***God comes to us in the flesh. In the Gospel for last Sunday (Epiphany 5 – St. Mark 1:29-39) Jesus begins his ministry with healings. He reaches out to and enters into the experience of those whose flesh is destroying them and he frees them. This is how the God who becomes flesh operates – he comes to us in our flesh.; in our misery, in our infirmity, in our struggles and stresses. God is present with us there in the midst and heals us and frees us. Am I saying (as the theology of glory might suggest) that God will make the poor materially rich, (to use one example)? No, God reaches to us and heals us where we are, is present with us and leads us forward. Sometimes this means accepting who and where we are – accepting the limits of the flesh, but also accepting that our humanness is a wonderful gift of God’s. God became flesh – we are flesh and God comes to us in our humanity.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Story of Faith....

Some Pastoral Reflections from Pastor Duncan:
*****Last night I caught an episode of “How Weather Changed History.” This is an interesting show on the weather channel that presents how various weather conditions have impacted important historical events. Last night’s episode was about the Revolutionary War and it was really quite fascinating to hear the story told from that perspective. Watching this comes on the heels of seeing another show where a comedian went out to the highways and byways and questioned random people about various topics – mostly history and geography. It was, I suppose, funny at the silly answers that some folks came up with to questions like – Who was the first president of the United States? But on the other hand it is also very sad and distressing. If we are to be complete citizens of this great nation we need to know our nation’s stories; we need to know the people and events from the past that have shaped our present; we need to know and understand the story of which we are a part. George Washington, the crossing of the Delaware, the battle of Trenton, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, all of these are a part of our own story.
*****In the same way we as Christians are a part of the long story of God’s involvement with God’s creation and of salvation history. This story goes back to the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis: Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Rebecca, Jacob, Esau, Leah, Rachel, Joseph – these are our ancestors of faith. The kings and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are our ancestors of faith. The disciples – Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Thomas, Paul – these are our ancestors of faith. We need to know the stories, because they are our stories; their struggles are our struggles. If we loose a sense of these stories we loose a part of our identity as Christians.
*****There are a variety of ways we can continue to immerse ourselves in the stories of faith. The two most important ways are through worship and through Christian Education. In worship we hear the stories recounted in the readings and the sermon, but we also enter into the story of God’s saving action through the crucifixion of Christ through our regular participation in the Holy Eucharist. As we receive the bread and wine we are there in that upper room, at the foot of the cross, at the empty tomb. The liturgy itself is filled with references to the stories of faith: The Agnus dei (Lamb of God) comes from John the Baptist; the Sanctus (Holy, Holy Holy) comes from Isaiah (and the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – that is the Benedictus – Blessed is He….); the Magnificat (My Soul Magnifies the Lord) comes from Mary; the Nunc Dimittis (Lord now you let your servant go in peace) comes from Simeon; the Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest) from the song of the Angels….. and so on. These canticles, these liturgical experiences bring us inside the stories of faith, the stories of God’s salvation action through Christ.
*****Marva Dawn in her book “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” has written specifically about this issue in the chapter entitled “Discovering Our Place in the Story:” What a rich web of witnesses we call to mind when we enact the liturgy!... “The liturgy becomes no longer words, but a testament for real people of faith lived out by real people. We strengthen our ties not only with the faithful of the past, but with all others alive now, and those yet to come.”
*****This is why regular experience of worship is so vital to our Christian journey; this is why Sunday School and Christian Ed experiences are also so important. This is how we pass on the stories to a younger generation and how we ourselves are reminded of the stories. As we prepare to enter into Lent let us all remember that we are a part of God’s salvation history, and this remembrance brings with it both responsibility and renewal.